April 2011  

Mobilize Workers’ Power Against Racist Cop Terror

ILWU at October 23 Oakland rally demanding justice for Oscar Grant, murdered by the cops.
(Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr)

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in Revolution No. 8 (April 2011).

At two o’clock in the morning of New Year’s Day, 2009, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop Johannes Mehserle stood over Oscar Grant and shot him in the back with a Sig Sauer P226 semi-automatic pistol, killing the 22-year-old black man. It was a cold-blooded execution: another officer had pinned Grant face-down on the platform so he couldn’t move. It was the kind of cop murder, particularly of African American and Latino young men, that happens over and over in racist capitalist America. But Oscar Grant wasn’t killed out of sight in a dark alley – instead this police crime took place in front of dozens of witnesses on the BART train being held in the Fruitvale station in Oakland, California. Some of them videoed it with their cellphones.

Following the cues of police spokesmen, local newspapers and television painted the picture of police intervening in a chaotic “brawl” (San Francisco Chronicle headline, 2 January 2009), claiming Grant died “in scuffle with police” (Monterey County Herald headline, 2 January). The BART police and the district attorney announced an “investigation” of the gun’s “discharge,” after cops on the scene tried unsuccessfully to confiscate the cell phones and cameras of potential witnesses. Of course, the five police officers involved weren’t talking: they were preparing a cover-up. But it didn’t work. Eyewitness videos showing the police murder caught fire on the internet, and by the next day it was international news. Oscar Grant was murdered because he was black: the racist police figure they have a license to kill with impunity, and they do.

Working class and black Oakland was infuriated. Grant was a union meat cutter at a local supermarket, and father of a four-year-old daughter. While many had celebrated the new year full of hopes in the election of Barack Obama, yet another police slaying of an unarmed black man showed that some things were not about to change. Obama was put in office to be the head enforcer of U.S. capitalism, which ever since it was founded on the bedrock of slavery has enforced the oppression of the black population. Despite the passage of civil rights laws (many of them increasingly undermined), black people are still forcibly segregated at the bottom of this color-caste system. Particularly since the end of formal Jim Crow segregation, brutal police repression backed by the “justice” system is the prime instrument of this régime.

Police routinely kill innocent black people with impunity across the country. But last October 23, Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down the port of Oakland for the day shift and led a rally of 600 outside Oakland City Hall to protest the insulting “involuntary manslaughter” verdict against Mehserle (by a jury in Los Angeles on which there was not one black person) and demand “justice for Oscar Grant.” This was a first for the U.S. labor movement, at least in recent years. The protest was endorsed by the San Francisco Labor Council and numerous labor and community organizations. It received messages of solidarity from maritime workers in France and from Mumia Abu-Jamal on Pennsylvania’s death row.

Relatives of the slain Oscar Grant, union officials and victims of other incidents of police brutality spoke to the crowd. The Longshore union carried its large banner with the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Up to a hundred mainly black longshoremen came out, as well as Oakland teachers. ILWU representatives at the protest recalled the police killing of two striking dock workers during a 1934 port strike in San Francisco – Bloody Thursday, July 5, that sparked the San Francisco General Strike. Earlier, last July 19, ILWU members and supporters of Oscar Grant outnumbered a pro-police “Free Mehserle” demonstration in the white suburb of Walnut Creek.

A number of left groups were prominent in building the action, and in pushing the slogan “Jail Killer Cops,” one of the main demands of the demonstration. This call shows illusions about the nature of the state, which backs its professional strikebreakers and racist killers in uniform to the hilt. Still, the fact that a major labor union organized a protest and stopped work against the murderous action of the racist cops and courts is extremely significant. While mainly symbolic, the ILWU action points toward a real mobilization of workers’ power in militant class struggle against the brutal enforcers of capitalist “law and order.”

On 5 November 2010, killer cop Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison. As Mumia Abu-Jamal commented, with sentence reductions and good behavior he could end up doing less time for the murder of a black man than one black man, the famous rapper Dwayne “Lil’ Wayne” Carter Jr., spent in prison for simply possessing a gun (see “Free Lil’ Wayne!” in Revolution No. 7, April 2010). That night, hundreds angrily protested the verdict in the streets of Oakland, as they have repeatedly since New Year’s Day 2009. The police mobilized military force, arresting 152. Two days later the cops gunned down another unarmed black man, Derrick Jones, in East Oakland.

The stark fact is that to achieve justice for Oscar Grant and his supporters, the racist system that murdered him must be brought down through workers revolution.

“Jail Killer Cops”?

So what is to be done here and now? In the aftermath of the police killing of Oscar Grant, just about every “reform” measure to alter the functioning of the cops was proposed. BART management set up a committee to “investigate” its cops. A Coalition Against Police Execution (CAPE) was set up by activists from NGOs (foundation-funded “non-governmental organizations”) which called for a “citizen review board to monitor excessive force” and supervise “diversity training” for the cops. Ever since the Black Panther Party set up its patrols to keep tabs on the local police in the late 1960s, Oakland has had (liberal) “Copwatch” groups. Yet racist cop terror continues unabated.

All these measures, “community policing,” hiring more black cops, putting in black police chiefs, black mayors and governors, and even a black president – have not stopped the police in the least from demeaning, harassing, beating and killing African Americans from coast to coast. They only serve to prettify a system that will never provide the equal employment, education, housing or health care that have so long been promised and denied to the black population. The oppression of blacks and racism are built into U.S. capitalism, poisonous weapons vital to keeping the working class divided. And the ruling class will least of all permit any real reforms to the police, who along with the courts and armed forces are the core of the capitalist state.

The current left-wing version of these deceptive “reforms” is the call to “jail killer cops.” This demand is particularly pushed by the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and its International ANSWER coalition, but in protests over the killing of Oscar Grant it has been raised by virtually the entire Bay Area social-democratic left (International Socialist Organization, Socialist Viewpoint, Socialist Organizer, etc.). At the same time, Jack Heyman, a militant union activist in ILWU Local 10, who was one of the main organizers of the October 23 union action, wrote that “killer cops belong in jail” while correctly observing “that’s not how justice in capitalist America works” (Counterpunch, 18 October 2010). But in supporting the call to jail killer cops, he and others suggest that it could work that way.

Here it is important to distinguish between the clamor of the mass of the oppressed black, Latino and immigrant population who live in inner city ghettos and barrios that are occupied by the police, and the demands of leftist labor militants and would-be socialists. At a BART hearing on 7 January 2009, many Oakland residents demanded that the cop Mehserle be jailed. This racist murderer should certainly be behind bars for the rest of his life. But when the killer was finally arrested (and then released on bail) two weeks after he shot Oscar Grant, it was hardly the victory many (such as the By Any Means Necessary group) claimed. Mehserle is currently in jail, yet the whitewashing verdict (claiming it was an accident) and minimum sentence were a slap in the face to the black population and all victims of cop terror.

An oppressed population demanding that a particular cop guilty of a heinous crime be jailed is desperately seeking some measure of justice. Communists patiently explain that they are justified in their desire, but that even in the rare case where the rulers decide to take a minimum measure in order to head off militant protest, this won’t put a dent in the system of racist repression by the capitalist courts and cops. However, when leftists call to “jail killer cops” in general, they are propagating the bourgeois democratic myth that under pressure, the state can be made to serve the interests of the masses. This flatly contradicts the crucial Marxist understanding of the state as the instrument of the ruling class to enforce its class interests against the exploited and oppressed, and feeds dangerous illusions.

That, of course, is exactly what the reformist left does all the time, with its calls for books not bombs, jobs not war, tax the rich, etc., as if it is all a question of mass pressure to change government “priorities” rather than a fight against capitalist/imperialist class rule. Usually this is done through “popular front” style coalitions and “movements,” in which leftists tie the masses to a segment of the ruling class, usually via some token Democrats. If none were on the platform on October 23, that has something to do with the fact that black liberal Democratic Oakland mayor Ron Dellums (a longtime member of Democratic Socialists of America) was the boss of the cops who were smashing heads and arresting protesters while he was appealing for “calm.”

The San Francisco Bay Area is the capital of the popular front in the United States, in large measure in order to rein in a militant labor movement centered on the ILWU. One supposedly revolutionary organization active in the area, the Spartacist League (SL), responded to calls to jail killer cops with a curt, “In your dreams” (Workers Vanguard, 16 January 2009).  While it was correct to take the PSL/ANSWER to task for spreading illusions, with its sneering reply the SL does not distinguish them from the masses demanding justice. By one-sidedly arguing that any jailing of an individual cop would just be to “refurbish illusions” in the supposed neutrality of the state (WV, 24 April 2009), it even suggests that this would actually be a bad thing. And it hardly mobilized for protests against the cop killers of Oscar Grant.

The SL made those remarks in a polemical exchange with the misnamed International Bolshevik Tendency (BT), which tags along with the “jail killer cops” reformists while admitting that this won’t stop police brutality and terror. The BT recently (1917, March 2011) published a strange piece against the Internationalist Group for what it “can only assume” the IG position on the ILWU action to be, while claiming that the demo called to “jail the killer cop” rather than to “jail killer cops” in general (Mehserle was already in jail). The SL recalled a BT article on “Cops, Crime & Capitalism” (October 1992) which grotesquely went on and on about the problem of urban “crime” in black neighborhoods – the codeword of racist support for the police – in the aftermath of the 1992 protests against the acquittal of the racist Los Angeles cops who beat Rodney King. The BT also called then for “workers defense guards” to “prevent bloody spontaneous explosions, like riots.” How helpful, to the bourgeoisie.

One small group in the Bay Area, the Revolutionary Workers Group (RWG, associated with the former Étincelle minority of Lutte Ouvrière in France) used the occasion of a racist murder of a black worker by the capitalist state … to equate the “The Violence of This Society” with that of cop death squads in uniform! In the sanctimonious tone of a preacher’s homily (or a capitalist politician’s stump speech), the RWG’s October 2010 leaflet on Oscar Grant and the ILWU action declared,  “The violence in many of our communities is epidemic,” citing black and Latino areas in the East Bay. This kind of “evenhanded” liberal hand-wringing is used to justify ever-increasing police repression of the black community.

While noting the importance of a union-centered protest against racist police brutality, the Internationalist Group did not endorse the October 23 rally because of disagreement with the “jail killer cops” slogan. Mobilizing union power to protest police brutality is a step in the right direction, but only a step. It sharply poses the need to break with the Democrats and all capitalist parties and to forge a workers party to lead the struggle for socialist revolution. One organization on the Bay Area left that has actively protested the cop murder of Oscar Grant, Advance the Struggle (A.S.), underlined the importance of mobilizing labor in endorsing the October rally and calling on other unions to join the work stoppage. It argued that Mehserle was only arrested and convicted because the ruling class was scared of awakening oppressed working people, adding:

“If we successfully organize a general political strike for the 23rd, there is no doubt that he would receive the maximum sentence. Hell they might even give him the death penalty if we really shake things up. But the real justice will come when we come out of this struggle with a new level of militancy, consciousness and organization that can liberate us from the cycle of exploitation, incarceration, and imperialization.”

Although the ILWU work stoppage and protest action were a long way from a general political strike, even the latter would by no means guarantee that the ruling class would give their killer cop more than a rap on the knuckles. A.S. asks: “Now what fear can we strike into the ruling class? What justice can we really get? What will it take to put an end once and for all to racist police murder?” Their answer is: “When we not only make an example out of a racist killer cop, but build a movement that can eliminate the structures that create racist killer cops, that is when we will have justice for Oscar Grant.” Actually, no – it will take a workers revolution, not just a movement, it won’t just have to eliminate structures but to smash the capitalist state, and it will require the leadership of a communist vanguard party.

Advance the Struggle has been denounced by Socialist Organizer as “ultraleft” and by the International Socialist Organization as “squarely in the ‘adventurist’ camp” for insisting on the need for an actual strike against attacks on public education in March 2010 (while the ISO tried to obfuscate the issue). But although it is certainly for more militant action, the A.S.’s arguments here appeal to the same conception as their reformist detractors, that if they stir up enough trouble and build a strong enough movement, it can induce the police to stop being murderous guardians of the bourgeois order, or at least to tone down or clean up their act.

It is doubtless true that the Mehserle conviction was conceded at all because the ruling class saw it as the easiest way out. But granting concessions is not the only thing the capitalist state does when it gets scared: it is just as capable of stepping up repression. A rare concession here, sure, balanced by a massacre or a lynching there… but it won’t stop until the whole system is brought down by revolution. A real general strike would advance the struggle to the point where the question of class power is posed. The task is not to frighten the ruling class, but to defeat and overthrow them.

Unions should mobilize their power in the struggle against black oppression and police brutality, as well as in defense of immigrants’ rights. Labor/black/Latino defense guards can respond to particular threats. Faced with heinous crimes like the cop murder of Oscar Grant, what’s urgently needed is for labor organizations to mobilize immediately, in the streets and with political strike action, in defense of the outraged black population against the rampaging police.

The key is to forge a revolutionary workers party that champions the cause of black freedom through socialist revolution, the central political question in American society. For Oscar Grant and all the victims of the class war, we fight for a socialist future without cops and without racism. The way to get there is workers revolution.

To contact the CUNY Internationalist Clubs, send e-mail to: cunyinternationalists@gmail.com

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