Lessons of the Hall/Owens Defense Committee

For Labor/Black Action to Fight Cop Terror!

May 1993

From New York City to Los Angeles, from Miami to Seattle, the growth of police brutality is part of daily life. A national survey of 100 brutality cases, involving 185 cops, by Gannett News Service last year revealed that cops accused of brutality are more likely to be promoted than punished. Only eight of the accused cops were even disciplined (Emerge, May 1993). Police violence is disproportionately aimed at minorities, in particular blacks, who are forcibly segregated at the bottom of the American working class.

Malcolm X is reputed to have once observed that you cannot have capitalism without racism. The acquittal of two of the cops in the second round of the Rodney King case in April came as no surprise to anyone even slightly familiar with the operation of the racist U.S. "justice" system. Labor/minority action, based on the trade unions and involving the organizations of the oppressed, is the only effective way to answer police violence. If the next time the cops blew away some unarmed kid for the crime of not having white skin workers responded with political strikes that shut down the transit system, the docks, the railways, etc., the capitalist rulers would soon sit up and take notice. Such actions would also cut across racial and national antagonisms in the working class, and teach all victims of social oppression that their interests are bound up with those of the labor movement.

But the current trade union leadership, a self-serving stratum of parasites tied to the Democratic Party of racism and imperialist war, lacks both the inclination to initiate militant struggles and the capacity to lead them to victory. A perspective of class struggle based on the organized workers’ movement is counterposed both to timid liberal legalism and mindless Maoist/ anarchoid celebration of leaderless and ultimately futile "rebellions" of the sort that erupted after the first acquittal of Rodney King’s assailants in April 1992.

The ghetto rebellions of the mid-1960s achieved little for the millions of desperately poor blacks because they were not connected to any real levers of social power. Despite the Democratic Party’s promises of a "war on poverty" in the 1960s, conditions for most black people in America today are probably worse now than they were 25 years ago. The biggest difference is that now there are a few "black faces in high places" who help manage the operation of the system. From U.S. Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown to LA mayor Tom Bradley, these black pols, along with hundreds of preachers and assorted other "community leaders," lauded the April verdicts convicting two of King’s assailants as a partial victory and a measure of justice. In case these appeals weren’t enough, Willie L. Williams, LA’s new black chief of police, oversaw what was probably the largest mobilization of cops and troops in the city’s history. The highly publicized military preparations preceding the announcement of the verdict were a reminder that unarmed and unorganized protestors are no match for the tanks, troops and paramilitary police the state can muster.

The Inner Cities and the Decay of U.S. Capitalism

The Democratic Party hucksters can offer no solutions to racism and poverty because there are no solutions within the framework of capitalism. The best they can do is to plead for a repetition of the failed poverty programs of the 1960s. Neither Clinton’s "empowerment zones" nor the Republicans’ enterprise zones offer solutions for the social and economic ills of the capitalist system. Peter Ueberroth’s "Rebuild LA" committee (with black co-chair Bernard W Kinsey) is a cruel joke. There is no plan to rebuild South Central LA, and it is not going to happen spontaneously through the operation of the dog-eat-dog "free market."

In the 1960s some percentage of black youth coming out of high school got unionized jobs in auto, steel, rubber and other industries. But the contraction of U.S. manufacturing and the effects of global corporate restructuring have meant layoffs, plant closures, union busting and de-industrialization. Today there are no decent jobs for minority youth entering the job market. Those who get a part-time job at minimum wage are supposed to consider themselves lucky.

Naturally the capitalist media tends to blame the victims of the social decay of capitalist America. This is the message of the lurid stories about prostitution, crackheads, drive-by shootings, drug dealing and gang wars in the ghettos. The message is that black and other minority youth are all potentially violent criminals who can only be held in check through massive police pressure. In the era of the bipartisan "war on drugs" a black youth is more likely to go to jail than to college (Sentry, Spring 1993).

The rise in criminality produced by economic decline has led backward sections of white middle America to call for more police with more firepower. But more cops and bigger police budgets will not translate into a higher level of public safety. The cops exist to defend the growing disparities of wealth and power in this society. The judicial and government agencies which are supposed to guarantee "justice for all" routinely ignore or cover up crimes committed by the police against the dispossessed. The murder of 100,000 Iraqi civilians by the American military two years ago was the greatest "achievement" of George Bush’s presidency. The grisly massacre of the Branch Davidians in their Waco compound, for which Bill Clinton and his attorney general Janet Reno took full responsibility, shows that, Democrat or Republican, America’s rulers are always ready to resort to massive, murderous violence against anyone who steps out of line.

Marxists support the right of individuals to bear arms for self-defense. We know that the rulers of this country are armed to the teeth and will not stand by passively and watch a future workers’ government expropriate their ill-gotten gains. Any serious attempt at achieving social justice (i.e., any revolutionary social change) will be met with vicious attacks by the capitalists’ hired guns. To deal with such reactionary violence successfully, the workers’ movement must assure that it has its own means of self-defense.

Jerrold Hall: Murdered by Killer Cop

In recent months a particularly flagrant murder in the Bay Area has gained national attention (including an op ed piece in the 24 April New York Times). On the evening of 15 November 1992, 19-year-old Jerrold Hall, a black youth from Union City, was gunned down by Fred Crabtree, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop. A BART passenger had earlier reported that two men had taken a personal stereo from him. When Hall and his friend, John Henry Owens, got off the train at the Hayward station they were confronted by Crabtree, armed with a 12 gauge shotgun and an attack dog. Crabtree claimed that Hall and Owens fit the description of the youths radioed to him.

Crabtree testified that after a verbal exchange, the slightly built youths turned to leave the scene. When they were approximately 30 or 40 feet away he fired twice, mortally wounding Hall in the back of the head. Following this, Owens was apprehended and charged with murder, although it was his friend who had been killed! He was thrown in jail and a prohibitively high bail was set. The charge was later changed to felony robbery and, finally, on 25 January, after widespread popular protest, bail was reduced enough to allow his friends and supporters to raise the money to get him released. Bolshevik Tendency supporters were present for the bail hearing and contributed to the bail fund. Owens is now set to stand trial on 14 June.

In their initial explanations of what took place, BART officials brazenly claimed that Hall had been shot in the chest. An in-house "inquiry" by BART promptly exonerated Crabtree. Alameda County District Attorney Meehan supported this whitewash by ruling the shooting "justified" and refusing to bring charges against Crabtree. The DA cited Hall’s prior troubles with the law (unknown to Crabtree at the time and completely irrelevant in any case) as well as Crabtree’s claim that he was acting out of fear, because he thought that Hall might circle around and ambush him in the dark!

The official acceptance of Crabtree’s absurd rationalization for executing the unarmed teenager demonstrates the futility of expecting any kind of justice from the cynical racist capitalist courts. Crabtree’s claims to have acted in self-defense in gunning down the defenseless youth from behind parallels the claim by the Los Angeles cops who pulverized Rodney King that they too feared for their lives. This is the mentality of the white supremacist guardians of "law and order" in, America—they consider themselves to be the law, and therefore anything they choose to do, particularly against blacks, is "legal."

Committee to Expose Police Murder Formed

The Bolshevik Tendency (BT) supports the effort to establish an independent investigation of the police murder of Jerrold Hall. When the Berkeley-based Copwatch initiated the "Committee for Justice for Jerrold Hall and John Henry Owens," we participated, along with Roots Against War (RAW), the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL), the Revolutionary Trotskyist League (RTL), Mr. and Mrs. Hall (parents of the murdered youth) and various individuals.

The basis of unity included three demands: 1) drop the charges and release John Henry Owens; 2) jail the killer cop Crabtree, and 3) for an independent investigation of the murder. The second demand was changed at the 18 January meeting to ‘Put Crabtree on trial for murder." While we have no confidence in the capitalist legal system to hold Crabtree accountable for his crime (an assumption that the behavior of the DA confirms), a public trial could provide a platform to expose this brutal police assassination. The third slogan was also amended to read "For a truly independent (not a government agency) investigation." This was intended to make it clear that the committee had no confidence in the FBI, police review boards or any other government agency.

Within the committee the RWL and RTL spent much of their time trying to get the third slogan changed to a call for a "workers’ tribunal" to try Crabtree for murder. The RTL’s 21 January leaflet called for:

"mass democratic meetings that can become tribunals to expose and prosecute the cops and their criminal puppeteers. It is up to us—African Americans, the labor movement, and the unemployed—to put officer Crabtree on trial and judge him."

This would be all very well, but in the present social and political circumstances to counterpose a demand for trying the cop by a "mass democratic meeting" to the call for an independent investigation of the murder was unserious. After weeks of unproductive wrangling in defense committee meetings, the two groups (which tended to operate in a bloc) finally dropped their demand. At the 8 February meeting the RWL offered the following motion instead:

"For an Independent Labor/ Black investigation. We demand an independent inquiry into the killing of Jerrold Hall and the arrest of John Owens. Such independent inquiry has to be truly independent of the state. It should be conducted by the unions (the labor movement) and the working class communities, which are the only bodies that can mobilize a mass movement to secure justice for Jerrold Hall and John Owens."

The BT and RTL supported this motion, but it failed because some committee members with liberal and/or anarchist political sympathies were opposed to making such a call on the unions. A motion which our comrades proposed (which passed) called for "No confidence in the FBI investigating action" which had recently been initiated, largely as a result of the committee’s work.

In the defense committee BTers consistently advocated approaching local trade unions to gain their support for a call for an independent investigation of the Hall/ Owens case. BT supporters, as well as comrades of the RWL and Labor Militant succeeded in obtaining endorsements for the campaign from several local unions.

Defense Committee Splits

The repeated attempts by the RWL/RTL to include their "workers’ tribunal" demand strained relations within the committee, particularly with elements in RAW and Copwatch. The RWL/RTL saw the small united-front committee as a "mass movement" and acted as if they thought that in pushing a more "leftist" demand in the committee meetings they were striking a mighty blow for socialism. A lot of the problems with the RTL/RWL’s activity in the Hall committee can be traced to their mistaken conception of the united front as a bloc for propaganda rather than action. This is paralleled by their confusion in distinguishing "agitational" demands from "propagandistic" ones. In backing away from their "workers’ tribunal" demand, a leading RTLer tried to assert that it had only been raised as a propagandistic intervention within the committee.

The RTL/RWL’s behavior appeared to many as obstructive and this fanned the anti-communist sentiments of some of the anarchist elements. On 13 February a leading Copwatch member moved to exclude the RWL from future meetings. She accused the RWL of being "unreliable" when it came to doing assignments, and falsely alleged that the RWL had improperly used the name of the committee for one of its own public actions. BT members strongly opposed this motion, while conceding that the RWL’s functioning had at times been inept. The motion failed and the RWL stayed.

In an attempt to move things forward, a BT comrade proposed a motion outlining a mode of operation for a united front. The BT proposal was modelled on the successful collaboration between the RWL, BT and other groups in the Bay Area Moses Mayekiso defense committee in the late 1980s. The motion called for the committee to be open to all groups and individuals who agreed with the basis of unity and were willing to do some work. All groups retained their right to speak in their own names (including the right to criticize other participants) at events sponsored by the committee, while literature and public statements in the name of the committee had to be approved by the body as a whole. This motion passed overwhelmingly, largely because the committee was already operating along these lines.

One of the problems of the Hall committee, which our comrades unsuccessfully tried to correct, was the method of making decisions at general meetings. The committee operated on the basis of allowing every individual who turned up at a meeting to vote, rather than giving each participating organization a single vote. As soon as differences began to surface, there began to be complaints about people "packing" the meetings to pass motions. At the 13 February meeting, a Copwatch member moved: "That at no time may a single organization have a majority of the votes in the steering committee or in the general meeting." The BTers present supported this motion because it did not contradict our conception of how united fronts (practical agreements between different groups for limited common action) should work. When the motion failed, most of the Copwatch supporters simply walked out, leaving the RTL/RWL with the official committee name but in effect splitting the participants into two non-viable groupings.

The RTL has since complained that our comrades showed bureaucratic tendencies in voting that no single organization should have a majority of votes in the united front (see the somewhat garbled account in International Trotskyist/D No. 7). One RTL leader went so far as to make a foolish comparison with the fight by black South Africans for universal suffrage!

The behavior of the RWL/RTL exemplified the unserious muddleheadedness typical of the centrist approach to politics. Having argued for months in favor of their "workers’ tribunal" demand, it was remarkable that the RWL/RTL did not bother including it in any of the literature produced by their rump committee. Eventually the RTL simply walked away from their committee, citing the absence of mass protests in the wake of the LA verdicts as the reason.

United Front: Freedom of Criticism & Unity in Action!

A few weeks after the split in the committee, in early March, Copwatch and RAW organized a public memorial meeting at the Hayward BART station where Jerrold Hall was gunned down. In spite of assurances that the RWL/RTL Committee for Justice could address the memorial demonstration, RAW did not let them speak until two hours later, when the majority of the crowd had dispersed. The BT was not permitted to speak either.

Many (but not all) RAW and Copwatch supporters express open contempt for groups with "programs." Some RAW members supplement this anti-communism by race baiting white activists. This practice, frequently ignored if not encouraged by some of the radical/liberal Copwatchers, has to be opposed on principle as a divisive, stupid obstruction to organizing against police brutality.

The liberalism that leads to adaptation to such backwardness sometimes conflicts with the interests of other constituencies. On 4 April RAW and Copwatch co-sponsored a rally which featured a self-described hip-hop rap group singing about "pimps, whores and pussy." We understand that a subsequent Copwatch meeting discussed the question of how closely it wished to be identified with some of the misogynist sentiments expressed, and how such an embarrassing situation could be avoided in the future.

We regret the failure of the Hall/Owens committee. It might have developed into a broad-based united front and mobilized significant support among Bay Area trade unionists to expose the crude cover-up of this particularly blatant racist cop murder. Regrettably this larger objective was lost sight of through a combination of pseudo-leftist maneuvering by the ostensibly Trotskyists of the RWL/RTL, on the one hand, and the anti-communist liberalism of many in the Copwatch/RAW camp on the other.

What anarcho-liberals don’t understand is that the working class is the only social force with the power to change this society into one fit for human beings. But unleashing the potential power of the workers’ movement is a question of a struggle for leadership within it. The labor movement must make a complete break with the Democrats and Republicans, the twin parties of U.S. imperialism, and struggle for its own party committed to the fight for a workers’ government. A successful, proletarian revolution in America is the only way to reorder the priorities of this society and to make human need, not profit, the determinant of what gets done. The murder of Jerrold Hall and the suffering of millions of other victims of this racist capitalist system can ultimately only be avenged through the revolutionary overturn of this entire social order.

Posted: 23 November 2004