Below are excerpts from a talk given by Larry Hales at a Workers World Party forum in New York on June 19.
The days since the massacre in Charleston, S.C., remind me of the days before and after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We watched the news, watched the swirling mass on Doppler radar as it drew closer to landfall. Do you remember telling yourself to breathe? This feels like that.
I refer to Hurricane Katrina — not the natural occurrence, but the neglect and circumstances of life for poor and oppressed people. That and the Charleston massacre and every day in between remind us of national oppression and white supremacy. This is but another in a long line of historical events directed at a people — a nation-within-a-nation besieged.
We all feel it, though not as personally as the family members. If you are Black, you feel it. If you are another oppressed person, you empathize, and as a person of conscience, you understand and burn with rage and sadness
What do we make of this? As Marxists, we are social scientists. Marxism analyzes events and behavior from a dialectical materialist perspective to make sense of the world.
We have been watching the news, listening to newscasters, cops, special agents and so-called experts, pundits and politicians. Fox TV hosts reactionaries like Rick Santorum who deny racism and falsely say the massacre is a result of a “war on religion.” Dylann Roof’s vile words mean nothing to them — not that he outright stated he was at the church to kill Black people, or that he wore the symbols of apartheid South Africa and Zimbabwe, formerly white-ruled Rhodesia, or that his car’s vanity plates were of Confederate flags.
We have heard the word “terrorism” on CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere. It is rarely used regarding white suspects. Credit this to the Black political movement which has demanded it and pointed out that racist designations for oppressed people aren’t usually applied to white crime. Questions have arisen over Roof’s mental state, but he has no background of mental illness. The answers are all there. If racism is discussed, it is not always raised in Roof’s case and not enough in a systemic way.
It is important to cut through the government- and media-engendered morass to give political clarity. Mental illness is examined whenever a white person commits a mass shooting. However, a person suffering from mental illness rarely commits a violent act. That explanation further stigmatizes people living with such diagnoses.
Mental illness in decadent capitalist society has to be seen against the backdrop of the U.S.’s violent history and the brutal means through which capitalist society was formed. The role of alienation should be part of the analysis in advanced capitalist society. Mental illness itself does not explain anything — the material conditions of life and subjective consciousness and their interplay must be examined to properly uncover reasons for these incidents. But the media will look for answers that leave U.S. imperialist violence off the hook.
U.S. imperialist violence
The gun control debate is reraised. It’s simple — no guns, no mass killings, right? As if U.S. imperialism has not been responsible for heinous crimes against humanity, including aiding apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. The former supporters of white rule are today trying to starve the people of Zimbabwe through sanctions designed to oust Robert Mugabe’s government, which is an obstacle to neocolonial rule over Zimbabwe. U.S. imperialism is today engaged in such crimes and is arming other comprador regimes to carry out mass murder for monopoly capital’s benefit.
We should address this issue and why reactionaries cling to the Second Amendment and hoard weapons stockpiles. Moreover, the right wing has supported disarming oppressed people who organize and arm themselves, from the Deacons for Defense and Justice, to Robert F. Williams and the Black Panthers, or even today’s Huey P. Newton Gun Club or the Black Riders.
Historically, regulation of gun ownership has kept firearms from oppressed people. Even before the South’s Black Codes were enacted, laws prohibited selling firearms to free Blacks and Indigenous people in the North. The Black Codes enshrined legal restrictions in the former slave states.
California’s Reagan administration enacted the first state ban on firearms in 1967 in response to the Black Panthers. The 1968 federal law restricted Black handgun ownership in inner cities. White men can openly carry assault rifles, as happened recently in Hartsfield Atlanta airport, while 22-year-old African-American John Crawford was fatally shot for holding a toy gun in an Ohio Walmart. Little Tamir Rice, too, was shot for holding a toy pellet gun.
This massacre can’t be separated from the issues of police brutality, mass incarceration or the political economy of racism as a whole — or from U.S. laws and institutionalized racism — or from how the capitalist media reinforce racist beliefs and empower white supremacy.
A good example is Charleston, which has built shrines to its racist past, with streets and parks named after slave-owning Confederates. Meanwhile, the Confederate flag flies on the State House grounds in Columbia. South Carolina’s reactionary politicians stress the flag’s importance to the state’s history and culture. They won’t break from the city’s racist past, still separating even the poorest whites from oppressed people by promoting belief in superiority because of their skin color and “glorious heritage.”
A main street in Charleston is named after John C. Calhoun, slave-owner and strong proponent of slavery. A white supremacist to the core, he and many others like him are hailed as heroes in a city where the tourist industry thrives off the history of Black enslavement and oppression.
Denmark Vesey, hero
However, there is the struggle against that history and the response to the imposed racist conditions. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church plays an important historical role in the Black struggle for liberation. The AME churches were created because of racism in Methodist churches.
Denmark Vesey co-founded this church, which merged with others in the Free African Society. He organized what would have been the largest revolt of enslaved peoples in the country in 1822. It was brutally thwarted, and the leaders, including Vesey, were tortured and hanged. Racist whites burned down the church. Black churches were banned in 1834. The slave masters’ religion justified their institution of slavery, while enslaved people’s beliefs spoke to them of the righteous cause to win freedom by any means necessary. The idolization of white supremacists and the history of struggle coexist — one officially accepted by the powers that be, the other begrudgingly allowed.
The June 17 violence is not isolated. It can’t be divorced from police brutality, not from South Carolina’s fatal police shooting of Walter Scott on April 4, nor from a state trooper’s shooting of Levar Jones on Oct. 24, 2014 — and not from oppression in general. Some will say it is an isolated act, with reactionary politicians condemning this mass murder and the assassination of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, who introduced anti-police brutality legislation.
The repressive state and the media propagate racist views of Black people. The capitalist system has profited from racism through mass incarceration, including prison construction, exploiting prison labor and operating industries surrounding prisons. Localities also raise revenue through oppressing Black people as in Ferguson, Mo.
Finance capital profits from this oppression and from destroying the safety net. The campaign against social programs is a racist one, whipping up a myth of Black “overuse of benefits.” This isn’t true, but if it were, so what?
U.S. capitalism grew from the free labor of African peoples, the stealing of Indigenous peoples’ land, and extracting surplus value from the labor of oppressed and white workers over centuries. Social safety net benefits are a pittance of what we are owed.
Dylann Roof got his inspiration from a racist society. Massacres in Sand Creek, Colo., Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla., Rosewood, Fla., and Wilmington and Greensboro, N.C., are as American as apple pie. The media help spread the hatred, as in Baltimore, where coverage whipped up bigoted whites who yelled racist taunts at people protesting Freddie Grey’s murder. Meanwhile, the media disregard the oppressive living conditions that propelled rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore.
The answer to racist violence, systemic racism and white supremacy is struggle — against fascist terrorists like Dylann Roof, austerity and capitalism itself. We must support Charleston’s Black community, raise up the struggle to politically disarm racists and neofascists, and relieve them of their weaponry. We must continue to fight state repression and war and, ultimately, to overturn the repressive, white-supremacist capitalist system.