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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
“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.
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