Oscars & mass incarceration show why BLACK LIVES MATTER

Delphine Matthews, Monica Moorehead, Rain Robbins Africa, Berta Joubert-Ceci and Ikea Coney speak at Philadelphia Black History Month Forum on Feb. 24.WW photo: Joseph Piette

Delphine Matthews, Monica Moorehead, Rain Robbins Africa, Berta Joubert-Ceci
and Ikea Coney speak at Philadelphia Black History Month Forum on Feb. 24.
WW photo: Joseph Piette

On Feb. 24, two days shy of the third anniversary of the vigilante murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an African American, in Sanford, Fla., the U.S. Justice Department refused to indict Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, for carrying out a hate crime against him. Eric Holder, the outgoing U.S. attorney general, commented that “the standard for a federal hate crime prosecution cannot be met under the circumstances here.” (New York Times, Feb. 24)

Since the acquittal of Zimmerman on second-degree murder charges by a Florida state court in 2013, he has made more news for attacking two women and also for a road rage incident, once again showing his propensity towards violence. It took national and international protests for more than a month to force the Florida district attorney’s office to charge Zimmerman for Martin’s killing.

Attorney Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s parents, commented on their behalf: “This is very painful for them; they are heartbroken. But they have renewed energy to say that we are going to fight harder to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anybody else’s child.” (New York Times, Feb. 24)

This outrageous federal ruling, coupled with the nonindictments in the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless other African Americans by state grand juries, is not just an individual travesty of justice but should be viewed within the broader political context of a racist war against people of color, especially youth of color.

A disproportionate number of people of color killed by the police are also homeless and/or coping with mental illness.

John Legend’s political message

This war was touched upon by multiple-Grammy-winner John Legend in his 30-second acceptance speech on Feb. 22 upon winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song in the movie “Selma.” As an audience of at least one billion people watched the Oscars telecast, Legend first gave credit to the late, great artist Nina Simone for saying “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”

Legend went on to say that the U.S. is the most incarcerated country in the world and that there are more young Black men “under correctional control” than were in slavery in 1850 — a startling revelation documented in the 2010 groundbreaking book, “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander. Legend also mentioned how the 1965 Voting Rights Act is being compromised today, despite the Selma to Montgomery massive march that forced President Lyndon Baines Johnson to sign the bill.

Legend’s speech ignited a firestorm of positive responses on Twitter and Facebook. Many connected Legend’s remarks to the blatant snub by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voting members of the critically acclaimed “Selma,” which was nominated only for best song and best picture. Most notably, neither David Oyelowo or Ava Duvernay was nominated for best actor or best director, respectively.

Others on Twitter referred to an important article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2012 which exposed structural racism and sexism within the Academy. To this day, it is still at least 94 percent white and 76 percent male, even though the president of the Academy is an African-American woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

To add insult to injury, actor Sean Penn made a racist remark when he announced the winner for best picture, “Birdman.” Penn asked, “Who allowed this son of a bitch a green card?” referring to the director of the film, Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is Mexican. This offensive outburst should shatter any preconceived notion about Penn being progressive. Hardly any criticism was raised in the bourgeois press about Penn’s anti-immigrant slander, which helps give the green light to racist brutality, like the recent police slaughter of a Mexican farmworker, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, in Washington state.

‘The New Jim Crow’

The “correctional control” — being incarcerated, on parole or on probation — that Legend referred to is fueled by the prison-industrial complex: the growth and expansion of the prisons that began in the 1980s, when unionized, industrial jobs were being replaced by low-wage service jobs, due to the technological revolution and the introduction of robotics. Prisons remain an enticing source of profits for Wall Street investors.

The U.S. is 5 percent of the world’s population but is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population, estimated at 2.2 million people. African Americans make up an estimated 13.6 percent of the U.S. population, but in 2010, Black men alone constituted 40.2 percent of prisoners, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Here is a breakdown of these 2010 percentages: Black men were incarcerated at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000 residents; Latinos at 1,258 per 100,000; and white men at 459 per 100,000. (Population Reference Bureau, Aug. 2012)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics states that one out of three young Black men will go to prison in their lifetime.

While there has been an 800 percent increase in women prisoners over the past 30 years, African-American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Latinas are 69 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated. (Center for American Progress, March 13, 2012)

These staggering figures, among others, shine a bright light on the reality that capitalism offers no positive future for youth, especially youth of color, and since the 2008 recession this includes more privileged white youth. The “Occupy” movement was an expression of anger and disillusionment among a growing layer of these youth, many of whom have become allies of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Build solidarity with the most oppressed

The Black Lives Matter struggle needs the solidarity of the entire movement, including organized labor, more now than ever. While it’s important to be in solidarity with the families seeking justice for their loved ones — like Kyam Livingston, Shantel Davis, Brandon Tate-Brown, Frank McQueen, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Jessie Hernandez, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Kevin Davis, Trayvon Martin and countless others murdered by the police or vigilantes — these are more than cold statistics. These stolen lives are part and parcel of an unprecedented genocidal racist war fueled by an intractable capitalist crisis resulting in a systematic disregard for the lives of the workers and oppressed.

Organized labor has a duty and obligation to reach out and bring young people, especially Black, Brown, Indigenous and disadvantaged white, into the unions, and provide them with vocational and educational training. A national strategy like this will both strengthen the U.S. labor movement and classwide unity. Black youth understand more than anybody that if there are no jobs and education for them, their destiny as well as their children’s futures will be doomed by either mass incarceration or becoming another victim of police terror, like Michael Brown or 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

These youth see the capitalist system as the problem. This is why they have put their lives on the line from Oakland, Calif., to Ferguson, Mo., to New York City by facing down state repression — because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

As Malcolm X stated just one week before he was assassinated, 50 years ago on Feb. 21, 1965: “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against White, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.”

This quote, from the text of Malcolm’s “Road to Revolution” speech, applies today to the current Black Lives Matter upsurge, which reflects the ongoing rebellion led by oppressed youth against a repressive force that represents the interests of Wall Street. The entire working class, regardless of nationality, gender, sexual orientation or other factors, must join its ranks to achieve real justice with revolution. n