When outrage can lead to rebellion
Published Apr 11, 2012 9:27 PM
Based on a presentation at a Workers World Party forum in New York
on April 6.
WW photo: John Catalinotto
Why do some atrocities get a bigger mass response than others?
Hurricane Katrina got some reaction, but not what might be expected from such a devastating event. James Byrd was dragged to his death in Texas. Oscar Grant was killed in the BART transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sean Bell was gunned down in his car in Queens, N.Y. These outrages drew mostly local reactions.
Compare these to the tremendous response that Trayvon Martin’s killing has aroused. Not only in Sanford, Fla., but in New York City, Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles where thousands came out in protest and in Baltimore where thousands took City Hall. Thousands mobilized wearing hoodies.
Young people see this murder as something they want to identify with. Even professional sports teams were doing it. Former Black Panther Bobby Rush, now in Congress, spoke wearing a hoodie and had to be dragged out of Congress by racists. What accounts for the strong reaction?
Maybe it was because there was no arrest. Even the ruling-class media have brought that up.
Maybe it’s because it was so familiar to millions of Black and Brown people, especially to young people. No person of color has grown up in this country and has not been profiled at one time or another. They feel lucky if it’s one of the less lethal, but still humiliating forms of profiling.
Someone asking, “Are you lost?” when you’re walking in the “wrong” neighborhood. Or “How can I help you?” repeatedly, as you’re just looking in a store.
But is there something deeper that’s provoking the reaction? It was a young African-American journalist, chief editor of Politic365 website, Krystal High, who is often invited on CNN and MSNBC panels, who said of Martin, “People say, hey, he is our Arab Spring,” meaning that the case — the outrage — is a “call to action” for the African-American community.
A lot is at issue now as we approach April 10. This will be a massive national day demanding justice. In New York there are two days of demonstrations in Union Square on Monday, April 9, and Tuesday, April 10. Martin’s family will be there Monday. We have lots of responsibility on Tuesday.
Will the grand jury be convened? If not, will the special prosecutor do something? If there is no arrest, what will be the mass reaction? Might it be a rebellion?
I think we have to be ready for that. It should be uppermost in our minds to be ready to explain, defend and help such a rebellion, should it occur.
In Tunisia a young worker, a street merchant, set himself on fire. That was the catalyst that evoked something deeper, that provoked millions to rise up and then the movement to spread throughout the region. That’s what the Arab Spring means to me.
It happened in Britain last August. A London cop killed a person of color, with roots in the West Indies. A rebellion started in London and spread. Outrage started it, but austerity drove the rebellion.
Unemployment is the big issue
What are the issues for working class youth like Trayvon Martin? They are 45-50 million strong. Many young workers, from their teens to their 30s, are unemployed.
There is a war against Black and Brown youth. What is that war? In many cities, more youth are in jail than holding a job. The drug laws, like the Rockefeller law in New York state, have created an assembly line sending people of color to jail.
They face austerity and are deprived of education. The problem is systematic. The big issue is devastating hyper, depression-level unemployment. Officially it’s maybe 30 percent, but it’s more like 40-70 percent really. Few jobs exist, and most that do are low-paying — jobs with no future.
Unemployment has been around a long time, but no one has been able to make it the big issue. Those benefiting from the capitalist system don’t want it to be an issue because unemployment can’t be solved under capitalism. Capitalism can’t solve it.
The rulers have written off this section of the working class. They are closing schools and eliminating housing. Capitalism can’t create a basis for exploiting large sections of the working class, so it has condemned them to social and political death.
What’s the question now? How does a section of our class, condemned to social death, fight back? Do they rise up and say “I demand”?
History of struggle
Black people in the United States have a history of hundreds of years of struggle. Ever since the first enslaved people were brought here, they fought back. The struggle against national oppression is constant, deep, but the rulers try to ignore the day-by-day resistance. It needs a rebellion to be noticed.
The Civil Rights Movement had an impact because the ruling class was forced to try to buy time by making concessions. Some 45 years ago, it took the 1964 rebellions in Harlem, the 1965 rebellion in Watts in Los Angeles, the big ones in 1967 in Newark and Detroit, and in more than 100 cities in 1968 after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered to shake up the capitalist ruling class to do something.
Even though underlying the rebellions were bad housing, unemployment and systemic racism, police violence was the catalyst. Repression opened it up, but other things were at the roots of the struggle.
In 2006, the immigrants had their spring. They rose up and held the biggest general strike in 100 years on May Day.
Black and Brown youth are facing not exactly the same conditions, but there are similarities in how extreme the crisis is. Though a generalized rebellion is not guaranteed, we should at least plan a contingency for a big struggle, so we are not taken by surprise.
A cry for revolutionary optimism
If it is an Arab spring — that is, a generalized rebellion of the oppressed — it would be great for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Those activists are in motion, and the Black struggle would push OWS in the direction of solidarity with the oppressed.
Don’t think it was a coincidence that Trayvon Martin’s family went to Union Square, where OWS had relocated, and why they’re going back there on April 9, where many forces are involved.
I differ with those who say OWS is going away. There’s a difference now from the conditions during the Vietnam War when many white activists were propelled into struggle. Then, when the war ended, most went back to their normal lives and back into the system.
Now that option is no longer promised, even for white youth. It doesn’t matter how savvy they are, the jobs aren’t there. A little while ago they thought they had a future; now they are shocked that it has vanished. The knowledge they have, their education, their savvy — they can only use them for resistance and rebellion.
We know the Arab Spring is filled with contradictions. The imperialists took advantage of the opening to overthrow the government of Libya and are now intervening against Syria. When we talk of the good part of the Arab Spring, of OWS, of the outraged activists in Spain, we mean how they connected Tahrir Square in Cairo to Plaza del Sol in Madrid and to Union Square and Zuccotti Park in New York.
The deepening of the capitalist crisis on a world scale has opened up the possibility of struggle on a world scale. Of course, as revolutionaries, we have to be optimistic. The global capitalist crisis has created conditions for all the forces in the working class to be pushed together in solidarity.
We need to understand that and imagine a synthesis of forces that can come together. Otherwise we base ourselves on experiences where this didn’t happen.
We look at the objective process moving the forces. With all the pitfalls of organizing, the ups and downs, the conditions won’t go away. We hope they will push forward solidarity and unity in ideology against imperialism.
There is too much at stake to be stuck in old habits. The crisis is pushing us together. This is not clear to all, but it has to be clear to us.
Even if it’s a false start, even if there is an outside chance it will develop into a sustained rebellion, we have to respond as revolutionaries to help it go as far as it can.
Holmes is First Secretary of Workers World Party.
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