U.S. capitalism can’t function without racism. The not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has shone a gigantic spotlight on that fact.
As other injustices surface in the wake of the verdict, one more deserves attention in the Trayvon-inspired movement against racism: the continued attacks on Tawana Brawley.
Led by the notoriously racist New York Post – and 26 years after a grand jury falsely accused her of perpetrating a hoax – the media last week came out with reports that the state of Virginia was garnisheeing her wages in order to pay Steven Pagones, who she says attacked her.
If that isn’t outrageous enough, on Aug. 10 the Post reported that Brawley had lost her job and her bed had been repossessed.
Here is the lead sentence in that article, picked up on other websites:
“Maybe now she’ll really have to sleep in a trash bag.”
The racism here is stunning. It shows the true character of the campaign against her.
As in 1988, when a special grand jury accused her and her supporters of perpetrating a “hoax,” the latest campaign is directed not just at Brawley but also against the people who supported her, mostly Rev. Al Sharpton, but also Alton Maddox Jr., Brawley’s lawyer at the time.
The “hoax” conclusion of the grand jury — 21 out of the 23 jurors were white — has ruled the day for 26 years, its conclusions treated as irrefutable fact. The Trayvon Martin case, fresh in everyone’s mind, might be a good lens through which to reapproach the Brawley case.
As head of the Neighborhood Watch program, George Zimmerman was seen by cops as one of them. Neighborhood Watch has a reputation of being grassroots, but it is actually funded by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Department of Justice. Its agents are in effect “deputized” to act as wannabe police.
After killing Martin, George Zimmerman strolled into a police station and told his version of what happened. While questioning Zimmerman, Detective Serino told him he was “here for” him, that Zimmerman should “get some sleep.”
Then Zimmerman strolled out. It took a month of demonstrations before he was even charged with a crime. Without the protests, what happened to Martin would have been ignored as just one more dead Black youth.
Pagones was also seen as essentially one of the police, though at a higher level. He was an assistant district attorney for Dutchess County. His father was a city court judge. His uncle was also a judge.
Criminal justice system ‘steeped in racism’
The so-called criminal justice system in the area was steeped in racism. Three days before Brawley was attacked, the jail in nearby Goshen was the site of a rebellion by African-American and Latino prisoners, who were suppressed violently by guards wearing Klan-style sheets over their heads.
The parallel is clear. The racism that is such a staple of day-to-day police activity is also the glue that, 99 percent of the time, prevents any cops from being charged for any crime against nationally oppressed people.
And in 1988, the so-called criminal justice system — the same one that now stops and frisks youth of color, exonerates Ramarley Graham’s killer and regularly assassinates young African-American men — decided that a white assistant district attorney in Dutchess County could not have raped an African-American teen.
The reason the grand jury report was necessary in the first place was that Dutchess County prosecutors kept resigning from the investigation. District Attorney William Grady resigned, citing conflict of interest. Then his replacement resigned within 24 hours.
County Court Judge Judith Hillery was forced to request that then-Governor Mario Cuomo appoint a special prosecutor. In the request she named Pagones as a suspect, weeks before he would even be mentioned by Brawley’s legal team.
Yet when the grand jury was impaneled, New York State District Attorney Robert Abrams, who convened it, announced he had no suspects. The cover-up had begun.
That’s because in addition to covering up for Dutchess County prosecutors, the resources of New York state were now dedicated not to prosecuting Tawana Brawley’s attackers, but to discrediting her supporters: Rev. Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason.
Sharpton, Maddox and Mason became involved as they began leading a growing New York movement against racism, highlighted by their campaign for justice in the killing of Michael Griffith in all-white Howard Beach, Queens.
On Dec. 21, 1987, Sharpton led a Day of Outrage Against Racism that shut down New York’s transportation. The next day’s New York Times reported: “Defying a court order and mounting one of the most disruptive actions in years, the demonstrators blocked eastbound traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and halted service on eight heavily traveled subway lines by pulling emergency cords, holding train doors open, dangling legs from platforms and leaping onto subway tracks at key stations.”
Other demonstrations erupted in Dutchess County. Fueled by outrage over Brawley’s charges and other racist attacks, the case threatened to explosively expand this movement, something the 1% of that time wanted desperately to stamp out.
The continued violation of Brawley today comes as the economic crisis continues with no end in sight. The ruling class today is all about stoking racism in order to divide and conquer the entire working class.
And if the goal in 1988 was to discredit African-American leadership, today’s focus on Brawley is motivated by the same goal. Sharpton is leading the Aug. 24 commemoration of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. And Pagones is not operating by himself. With the assistance of the top cop-defending newspaper in the United States, the New York Post, he himself has risen to become New York State Assistant Attorney General.
On Aug. 28, the People’s Power Assembly Movement is calling for Justice for Trayvon Martin Assemblies to be held all over the country, with marches in Los Angeles, Oakland and Philadelphia. The momentum of the Aug. 24 March on Washington will then be focused on local struggles. Tawana Brawley should be one of them. For more information, go to peoplespowerassemblies.org. n