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The role of poverty and racism in

The death of Derrion Albert

Published Oct 14, 2009 2:55 PM

On Sept. 24 in Chicago, 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert, apparently heading to a school bus to go home, was caught in the middle of a fight between other students.

Albert was killed in a scuffle witnesses say he was trying to avoid. The videoed altercation has been seen around the country and the world, with shock reverberating from the Roseland community on the far South Side of Chicago to inner cities across the U.S.

The news highlights a reported fight between students from different neighborhoods, the Altgeld Projects and another area known as “The Ville,” because of a shooting that occurred earlier on Sept. 24.

One of the videos shows many youth fighting in the streets, some with railroad ties and some still wearing their school uniforms. Albert is shown standing near a curb not too far from Fenger Academy High School, which he attended.

Four Black youth, Silvonus Shannon, 19; Eugene Riley, 18; Eugene Bailey, 18; and Eric Carson, 16, have been arrested for Albert’s death.

There is much that can be said, both specifically and in general, regarding this horrible incident, where a young person lost his life and the lives of four other young people hang in the balance.

Chicago, like many cities in the U.S., has a long history of oppression and poverty concentrated in communities of color. Incidents such as the one that occurred on Sept. 24 are not simply confined within the minds of troubled young people.

The Chicago Public School (CPS) system is one of the largest with over 400,000 students dispersed throughout 666 public schools and 67 for-profit schools. (www.cps.edu)

Of the 60 school closures, most of them predating the current economic crisis, 16 took effect this fall and the great majority of them were in oppressed communities. The closings of the public schools and the opening of for-profit charter schools are partly because of budget constraints.

In some cases these closings are the result of ongoing gentrification efforts, which push poor working and oppressed people out of Chicago and also weaken the teachers’ union, as many teachers in charter schools work without a collective bargaining unit.

Chicago Public Radio detailed the $61 million cut from the CPS budget by chief executive officer Ron Huberman. The school cuts have led to the laying off of janitors, other personnel and the cutting of services.

Already, many students in the CPS began the school year in severely overcrowded classrooms and with a lack of teachers.

According to a Chicago Reporter article, more than 80 percent of the students in Chicago public schools live in poverty. (chicagoreporter.com) This number has only increased with the existing economic crisis.

This is the social backdrop of the incident where Derrion Albert was killed.

According to a Heartland Alliance report dated April 30, 2009, poverty throughout Illinois and specifically in Chicago has increased greatly. The report indicates that for the year 2007, 11 percent of Chicago area residents—an estimated 930,000 people—lived below 50 percent of the federal poverty threshold or between 50 percent and 100 percent of the federal poverty threshold. The federal poverty threshold for a family of four is below $22,000, half that is $11,000.

The report also projects that due to the current economic crisis—based on 9 percent unemployment—over 250,000 more Chicago area residents will be forced into poverty, including 87,000 children. (http://tiny.cc.VMIzS) Mayor Richard M. Daley’s response to the crisis has been to cut $9 million from the city’s budget in 2009 alone.

Chicago’s history of police repression

The killing of Derrion is a horrific tragedy. But it did not happen in a vacuum. The mainstream media and right-wing pundits and organizations are using the Albert incident to call for a heavy response by law enforcement against “gangs.”

On Oct. 7, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took part in a Chicago press conference with Mayor Daley to address the violence in the schools.

Daley spoke about the responsibilities of local, state and federal agencies to stop violence, while scantly mentioning the need for after-school programs. He highlighted particularly law enforcement and the importance of breaking up gangs and “the terror [they] may bring” to the city and the country. His focus on “law enforcement” should come as no surprise. He after all is the son of the late notorious Richard J. Daley, the other mayor for life in Chicago, who oversaw one of the most brutal police departments in the country; a department that waged a war against the liberation movements of oppressed people. This war included the Dec. 4, 1969, assassination of Fred Hampton, the chairperson of the Illinois state chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Mark Clark, another Panther member. The Chicago police also brutally attacked demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

A Chicago police officer, John Burge, tortured hundreds of mainly young Black men into making false confessions from 1972 until 1991. Burge still remains free, but a trial for obstruction is scheduled for Oct. 29.

Over the years the Chicago police have gunned down many young men, particularly Black youth, such as Aaron Harrison, who was killed on the Westside. His so-called crime was dancing outside of a store and running in fear of his life when the cops stopped the group he was with.

Cops also caused the death of Gefrey Johnson, who died after being tasered and drenched with pepper spray. Both Johnson, 42, and Harrison, 18, were killed in 2007. In 2008, a 34-year-old father of five, Larnester Hull, another unarmed Black man, was shot in the back of the head and killed by Chicago police. These are just several of hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases of abuse by the Chicago Police Department.

If the owners of the Chicago-based Republic Windows and Doors factory had gone ahead with their plans to forcefully evict the workers who took over the factory last December to protest its closing in violation of the WARN Act, they would have used the police. At least one of the charges would most likely have been trespassing, since the factory is “private property.”

The bigger question is, has law enforcement or the capitalist state ever acted in the best interests of oppressed and working people?

Conditions of poverty, especially in a time of severe economic downturn, national oppression, racism, despair and the anger engendered by these maladies is where the Derrion Albert tragedy arose from.

Administrators, be they local, county, state or federal, are not merely overseers standing by wringing their hands trying to determine solutions.

It is their policies as administrators over governments under capitalism that exacerbate the problems of working and oppressed people that spring from the capitalist mode of production.

The capitalists thrive from profit. Their primary end is profit at the expense of the workers and oppressed who create wealth through their labor. The misery of being exploited is visited upon both the worker and her or his family.

And governments these days are beholden to finance capitalists, as many public projects and services are paid for by borrowing from the banks. And at a time of economic crisis, credit has been increasingly difficult to come by because of the credit freeze and declining tax revenues.

The role of the state—the cops, courts, jails, prisons and military, and the apparatus that collects the monies to pay for the other institutions of the state—is to appear impartial. But in reality, this repressive apparatus rules over the masses in order to protect the interests of the rich and super-rich who own the factories, stores and the machinery.

Who the real enemy is

So, what is to be expected of the state then in the wake of this horrific incident and what should happen to Silvonus Shannon, Eugene Riley, Eugene Bailey and Eric Carson? The mother of Derrion, Anjanette Albert, is within her right to call for justice, as the loss of her son is a horror that no parent should have to experience.

The community, however, should have the ultimate say in what happens to the young people responsible because it is the community that best understands that the young men responsible for Albert’s death are not monsters. The four of them were responding to conditions not of their choosing but forced upon them.

U.S. capitalist society after all is one built on violence, theft, subjugation and slavery. The U.S. continues to wage violent assaults against oppressed and working people at home and abroad, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in communities across the country.

The same day Albert was killed, Sept. 24, the Pittsburgh police department and various other agencies were brutally attacking peaceful protestors protesting the G-20 summit of finance ministers from the world’s largest economies.

The corporate media are rife with violence and racism and an entire video game industry is built off ultraviolence. The U.S. Army even has a new state of the art video game center at a shopping mall in Philadelphia that panders to youth from 12 years old and up, using 14,500 square feet filled with high-tech video games and real life Humvees and “Apache” helicopters.

This kind of violence promotion is not abhorred, nor the direct violence of imperialist wars, where entire families sitting down to dinner are incinerated by bombs. U.S. imperialism is not portrayed as a monster.

But young Black men caught up in a fight, oppressed by harsh conditions, and in an environment of extreme youth unemployment, are portrayed in this society as monsters and should be locked up for life in a prison system here that is the largest in the entire world. Over 2.3 million people are locked away in prison, with almost eight million in jails, prison or on parole, the largest percentage of whom are Black and Latino/a.

An Oct. 11 Business Week article just reported that 46 percent of youth 16-24 are employed, the worse since reporting began in the late 1940s. (http://tiny.cc/ErptP)

A Northeastern University report details much more dire circumstances for youth who didn’t finish high school. According to the Northeastern report, 54 percent of all high school dropouts are unemployed, including 69 percent of Blacks, 54 percent of whites and 47 percent of Latinos/as. The rates of incarceration are even more staggering. For example, one in four young Black men without a high school equivalent education is in jail, prison or juvenile detention. (www.nytimes.com, Oct. 9)

What the lives of Derrion Albert or the young men who now are facing first degree murder charges could have been under another system is hard to determine. Albert liked many things and under a system that valued human life and labor and promoted a sense of worth, the sky for him could have been the limit. The same goes for the young men who attacked him.

It is capitalist society that robs the vast majority of young people and all people from a true sense of worth because worth is measured in competition with other people, neighbors, coworkers, friends, and other oppressed and working people. This kind of competition breeds not solidarity between people but animosity.

The hip-hop performer Nas eloquently stated best in response to Derrion’s killing, “Dear Young Warriors fighting the wrong wars! ... Killing each other is definitely played out. Being hurt from the loss of a love one was never cool. ... I know that feeling, that frustration with life and needing to take it out on someone, anyone. ... What are we really proving?? And proving what to who??

“Everybody knows Chicago breeds the strongest of the strong, but I just feel, me, being ya brother from another state, feel your pain as if I grew up with you in ya very own household. ... Look who’s watching us, young warriors. Look who’s throwing us in jail constantly; look at the ignorance in the world. Look at the racist dogs who love to see us down. Loving to bury us in the ground or in jail where we continue this worthless war on one another.

“We are wasting more and more time. ... We gotta get on our jobs and take over the world. ... When we see each other, why do we see hatred? Why were we born in a storm, born soldiers, warriors ... and instead of building each other up, we are at war with each other. ... May the soul of this young person find peace with the almighty. I’m with you young warriors. You’re me and I’m you. But trust me! You are fighting the wrong war.”

Hales is a national organizer of the Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) youth group.