On Dec. 8, protests in cities across the country against police killings of Black people entered the sixth consecutive day. Whether it was Tampa, Miami and Atlanta or Berkeley, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Seattle; Austin, Houston and Tucson or Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and dozens of other cities — the U.S. rulers have witnessed the most widespread and sustained demonstrations in decades.
Innumerable local demonstrations against particular police killings have happened in this country in the past. The shootings of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin — by a wannabe cop — and the lethal chokehold on Eric Garner have led to many protests, but the list goes all the way back to Michael Stewart in 1983, Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984 and many more.
Not since the Black Panther Party targeted police as a national menace in 1966 and called for the right of self-defense has such an across-the-board mass condemnation of the police as a racist institution been seen, adding up to perhaps as many as 100,000 or more participating in the many protests.
The Panther Party at that time sent a powerful jolt of political energy and militant resistance to racist rule with their historic 10-point program, which was backed up in action by both armed street patrols and services like the children’s breakfast program. However, their heroic struggle did not get the kind of united response we have seen since the Ferguson, Mo., rebellion this August.
Fighting slogans, militant tactics
Today Black people, especially youth, have come out in the tens of thousands in the streets in a determined effort to end police brutality and the killing of Black people under the slogan “Black lives matter.” Following their lead, people of all nationalities, including tens of thousands of whites, mainly youth, along with Latinos/as and immigrants have poured into the streets in a show of unity against racist police killings. And they are taking their cue from Black leadership.
This new movement has stepped up the political attack on the entire state system of cops, grand juries, courts and the political authorities who support them. There have been many fighting chants. But the popular slogan “Eric Garner, Michael Brown, shut the whole system down!” is a menacing slogan to the ears of the ruling class, especially when it is shouted in unison from one end of the country to the other.
What the bosses and the authorities fear is that the slogan could evolve into demanding that the capitalist system itself be torn down.
It is not just the slogans but the spirit and the tactics that worry the authorities. Bridges, highways and tunnels have been blocked. Local trains have been held up. There have been disruptive demonstrations at shopping malls and in downtown areas. Traffic on busy streets and thoroughfares has been halted. Hallowed holiday ceremonies have been disrupted. And this has been done in city after city, day after day.
Solidarity and unity are in the air
The strategists of the ruling class have surely noted the difference between today and the 1960s, when the Black Panther Party and other militant African-American organizations and other organizations of the oppressed, such as the Young Lords, the Brown Berets and others, were fighting police repression.
During that period the anti-war movement was massive, numbering at least a million activists. However, the broad masses of the political and largely white anti-war movement stood back while police repression raged.
The Panther headquarters in Oakland, Calif., was raided. Huey Newton, the founder of the party, was persecuted and sought asylum in Cuba. The treasurer of the party, Bobby Hutton, was shot dead with 12 bullets while surrendering to the police. The chairman of the party, Bobby Seale, and Panther leader Ericka Huggins were framed up on murder charges in New Haven, Conn. Leader Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were executed while asleep in Chicago. The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, through COINTELPRO — a secret sabotage, frame-up and murder operation — engineered the murder of Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. In New York, 21 members of the East Coast Panthers were jailed for nine months and tried on frame-up charges. George Jackson was murdered in prison.
At the same time, the Nation of Islam was hounded; mosques were invaded, and Malcolm X was murdered in 1965.
Black workers who organized into the Revolutionary Union Movement in the auto plants were hounded. Many other African-American resistance organizations, such as the Republic of New Afrika, were attacked.
In contrast to today, white support for these struggling Black organizations during that period was limited to a section of the militant left that was ideologically committed to solidarity.
But now, many, many tens of thousands of white youth and adults have joined the Black struggle against racism in the streets. The African-American people, at least for now, no longer have to endure the police killings and beatings in isolation. The youth, both Black and white, have erupted into the streets out of outrage at the racist police atrocities. This is far beyond the traditional political movement, Black or white. It forms the basis of a future united resistance movement whose character is yet to be determined.
Militarization of police: network of repression
The militarization of the U.S. police forces in the last two decades must be viewed in light of present and future rebellions. As far back as the so-called “war on drugs” beginning in the 1970s, the police began their program of militarization, linking up with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Washington made available SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams and high-powered assault weapons to the cops.
After Sept. 11, 2001, under cover of the so-called “war on terrorism,” the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security vastly escalated the military power of the police with billions of dollars worth of high-powered assault weapons and training in military tactics — both crowd control and special operations assaults.
Since Barack Obama first took office, his administration through the Pentagon had, as of this June, given the police “tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousand of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs.” Recruiting videos “feature clips of officers storming homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons.” (New York Times, June 8)
Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, doles out far more money to police departments than the Pentagon — more than $34 billion since Sept. 11. It goes through two agencies, one which equips states (the State Homeland Security Program) and one which equips cities (the Urban Areas Security Initiative). For example, the state of Missouri received $3.98 million from DHS, while St. Louis got $3 million. (The Guardian, Aug. 20)
This has both military and political significance. The DHS trains state and local police in operations, tactics, strategy, technology and use of weapons. The Pentagon trains them in the use of other equipment.
This means that the cops are hooked into both the DHS and the Pentagon. Police departments and their leadership are absorbed into the networks of the military. They are part of a national apparatus of repression and spying. As such, the police have been elevated far above their old status of being a purely local band of oppressors and now coordinate with Washington, through DHS especially.
Ferguson rebellion put fear into authorities
Despite all the handwringing in the capitalist establishment and on Capitol Hill over the militarization of the police, this will not fundamentally change. If the measures of open military terror first seen on the streets of Ferguson have been pulled back for now, they are being held in reserve in anticipation of a future need for intimidation and repression.
What the authorities fear is that the masses in the communities will be swept into the movement against the cops, against poverty, hunger and unemployment, against abandoned education systems, lack of housing and health care, and general oppression. This is a recipe for much more powerful and deeper rebellion.
Another nightmare for the bosses is that the working class as such — which has been beaten down by layoffs, foreclosures, low wages and general austerity — should take its cue from the youth and swing into action.
The labor movement at all levels should get into the struggle against racism. It is in the profound interests of labor and the working class as a whole to show solidarity against the racist state — because this state is also the enemy of the workers in every labor dispute, in every organizing drive and in every working-class community.
The Kerner Commission
After rebellions in Harlem, Watts, Newark, Detroit and other cities, which had begun in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, on an emergency basis, appointed a blue ribbon commission in 1967 to investigate the uprisings.
The 11-member commission, representing both houses of Congress, business and all factions of the ruling class, except for the ultra-right, was called the Kerner Commission. It issued a much-heralded report which concluded that: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white — separate and unequal.”
The commission recommended a host of reforms in everything from jobs to education, housing, health care and welfare. If implemented in order to correct national oppression and achieve economic and social equality, it would have cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
Needless to say, the recommendations received no more than lip service. Thirty years later, after the rebellion in Los Angeles over the setting free of the cops who beat Rodney King — seen on videotape around the world — another commission was appointed, which showed that nothing had changed since 1968.
Today the capitalist system is in a far deeper crisis than it was in the 1960s. The ruling class is less inclined to make anything but cosmetic concessions, which will not change the suffering of the masses. Marxism shows that the state is an instrument of the capitalist class and the profit-making rulers will do nothing to weaken that state.
The capitalist establishment is on the defensive right now. It is posing as sympathetic to the protests against police killings. But the movement must not forget what happened to Occupy Wall Street. The OWS youth took the establishment by surprise. Big business media had to pretend to be sympathetic because the population was largely opposed to obscene economic inequality. By raising the slogan of the 1% against the 99%, OWS immediately became popular. But soon, the ruling class showed its true colors and repression took place in cities across the country.
The present movement is more widespread and will be harder to divert and repress. But no one should drop their guard for a moment and mistake the hypocritical sympathy of news anchors and columnists for anything other than a false facade, which will be cast aside if the capitalist establishment feels increasingly threatened by the mass movement in the streets.
Fred Goldstein is the author of “Low-Wage Capitalism” and “Capitalism at a Dead End,” which has been translated into Spanish as “El capitalismo en un callejón sin salida.” The books are available at major online booksellers.