Only Revolution Can Bring Justice!
When Will It End?
Police Lynching of George Floyd
Thousands of young protesters outside Mission High School in San Francisco, June 3, begin march demanding justice for George Floyd (in portrait), murdered by Minneapolis police.
The following article was first published in Other Voices at disobedientbodies.com.
By Gordon Barnes
NEW YORK CITY, June 3 – Amidst the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, the United States has been wracked by nationwide protests against racist police brutality and murder. Nightly we hear the helicopters overhead; daily come new images of police violence, repression, curfews, arrests, and the threat of martial law.
When talking heads and politicos decry the ongoing protests as having “nothing to do” with getting justice for George Floyd, they seek to defame the countless thousands (myself among them) who are filling the streets day after day in fury and outrage. But this much is true: the protests aren’t only about the racist lynching of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police. They are about the everyday brutalization and violence which is endemic under American capitalism. Black people, as an oppressed race/color-caste – integrated into the U.S. economy but forcibly segregated at the bottom of society – bear and have borne disproportionate levels of the violence meted out by police forces across the country. This historic truth, when juxtaposed to the combined coronavirus and economic crisis’ disproportionate and horrific toll on black people, has created an explosive situation of social ferment.
Floyd’s murder was the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back, as it came shortly after the police murder of Breonna Taylor and the racist vigilante killing (by an ex-cop and his son) of Ahmaud Arbery. The murders of Floyd, Taylor and Arbery are new notches in a grim tally of black death at the hands of the capitalist state and racist vigilantes and served as catalyzing moments for the current rebellion. They are not unique, but rather horrendously routine, with previous waves reaching public attention in 2011, 2014, 2015, while in reality they occur all the time.
That George Floyd repeatedly cried out “I can’t breathe” while Derek Chauvin nonchalantly snuffed out his life is a chilling reminder of Eric Garner’s last words as an NYPD officer strangled him to death in 2014. Then, as now, a massive upsurge of discontent has followed. What is different now is that it occurs against the backdrop of a profound economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. As the contradictions of American society are laid bare for all to see, from the police killings, to the incapacity and inadequacy of healthcare infrastructure, to capitalism’s anarchy of production, we must ask: Why does this continue to happen, how will it stop, and what does the future hold as these protests develop?
Why is it that, despite the waves of protest and cyclical pledges of “reform,” the police keep murdering black people? The list of their names is endless. As marchers chant them, some of us add “It never stops.” Why is it, year after year, day after day, that the list keeps getting longer? Simply put, it is an outgrowth of the function of the police. Born as a professionalized force from the slave patrols in the U.S. South, the police serve the ruling elite and protect their property and social order. That is the fundamental role of the cops under capitalism. And today that class whose property and wealth have always depended on subjugation, and the power to maintain it, is the one that calls the shots. Literally. No set of policies will alter the social role and function of the police and no amount of “moral suasion” or “implicit bias training” will get them to somehow be egalitarian or non-repressive, since repression is their job and upholding social inequality and exploitation their very purpose.
Gang of half dozen New York police tackle black protester, May 30.
Now, cops and even notorious police chiefs are displaying supposed “solidarity” with marchers at some protests, “taking a knee” with protesters. It should come as no surprise, though, when these same police officers brutalize and arrest protesters mere hours after the charade, as has happened repeatedly. The numerous racist curfews are enforced by these same police. (Yes, the curfews are racist; they are legal weapons to suppress protests against racist terror. Here in New York, “progressive Democrat” mayor Bill de Blasio has imposed an 8 p.m. curfew, with cops wielding it to round up protesters.) Repression of the ongoing protests has been severe – including driving vehicles into protesters.
Trump has added fuel to the fire, threatening martial law and having mounted cops and tear gas drive protesters away from the White House so he could pose for a photo-op, bible in hand, outside a nearby church. Co-host to the horror show is presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, Joe Biden, who suggested that police shoot unarmed people “in the leg” rather than in the chest. Is it better to die whilst bleeding out from your femoral artery or perish quicker with a bullet (and knowing cops, it is likely to be dozens or hundreds of them) to the chest? The simple answer is: neither.
Meanwhile, ex-candidate and Biden endorser Bernie Sanders has proposed a list of police “reforms,” including his dangerous call to make social workers, EMTs, etc. into a “supplement [to] law enforcement.”
Just as previous police reforms – from more racial diversity to civilian review boards, to bodycams and implicit bias training – did not change the function of police, while the list of those they kill and maim keeps growing, neither will the current reform proposals. As many protesters and commentators state, the issue is systemic. I believe it is essential today to help young anti-racist protesters think through what that means. “Systemic” means inherent to the nature of this system, which continually creates racist oppression. That system is capitalism. Racist police violence cannot be ended within the confines of the already existing capitalist system. This has been demonstrated time and again with the ebb and flow of killings and protests over the course of the last two decades. And it has been demonstrated anew with each new set of “police reforms,” which have done nothing to end the killings or ameliorate the constant racist brutalization.
Democratic Party Roadblock to Black Liberation
Demonstrators against police brutality sit down in New York City Street, June 3. A vote for the Democrats is support for the capitalist party that is directly responsible for unleashing racist repression in almost every major U.S. city.
Central to this all, and what is in danger of occurring again during the current cycle of fervent protest, is the funneling of dissent into the Democratic Party. Yes, it is the Democratic Party, the oldest and most experienced capitalist party in the world, which has proved, and indeed will prove, to be the central roadblock to black liberation.
The racist and misogynistic bigot-in-chief in the White House flagrantly stokes race hate and xenophobia. Yet the Democrats, too, uphold the social order that makes racism systemic, have built up its forces of racist repression, and wield them against the oppressed. Democratic mayors largely control the urban centers in this country, and their police forces. It is these Democratic mayors who have instituted the various curfews and police crackdowns, and a series of Democratic Party governors have, along with their Republican confreres, deployed the National Guard.
Black Democratic Party politicians, such as Lori Lightfoot and Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayors of Chicago and Atlanta, respectively, have led the way in such draconian and racist measures. The latter was supported in an address by rapper Killer Mike who proceeded to grovel at the feet of the masters, while wearing a “Kill Your Masters” T-shirt. As the politicians speak out of both sides of their mouths, decrying the murder of Floyd while lambasting protesters for “violence,” it’s clear whose side the Democrats are on. It is the Democratic Party which seeks to advance racist gun control legislation, which would block the crucial right of self-defense (central to the advocacy and practice of black freedom pioneers from Ida B. Wells, Robert F. Williams, the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panthers and many others). And as has been made abundantly clear, the police can obviously not be relied upon for protection from the likes of the white supremacists and fascists like the Ku Klux Klan, with which they have so often, in this country’s deadly history, gone hand in hand.
Trump has menaced on Twitter that “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” Is it surprising to know that Obama called protesters thugs and criminals during the upsurges over police violence in 2014 and 2015? Not if we understand what “systemic racial oppression” actually means, and the bipartisan nature of how it is administered in capitalist America. Then as now, it was Democrats who called out the militarized police and National Guard. While Trump and his media chorus rant against “anarchists” and antifascist activists to spur on more reactionary and racist backlash, a string of Democratic mayors and governors threaten “outside agitators.” As a pretext for repression they cite vandalism and the destruction of property, as they have ad nauseam whenever these flashpoints erupt.
The lives of black and brown people do not in fact matter in the least to the ruling class (nor do those of poor white and working people or any others “essential” but expendable in their profit system). America’s foremost class-war prisoner, former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, asked the question in the title of his recent book, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? Today, with massive outrage at the murder of George Floyd, and given the daily oppression so many black people face, a striking 54% of Americans think protesters were justified when they overran and razed a police precinct building in Minneapolis.
Which side are we on? Not a hard one to answer. There is only one side to choose here, that of the oppressor, or that of the oppressed. The Democratic Party is no solution. What is needed for genuine black liberation is not just an upheaval, but an overthrow of the capitalist system. Today, many a liberal and social democrat talks of “dismantling white supremacy” and “decolonizing spaces” by “checking privilege” and other ritual phrases to claim change through a combination of moral suasion and guilt-tripping, while continuing to herd people into the Democratic Party. Those who may signal “wokeness” with a reference to Malcolm X (in the same breath as MLK), rendering him a harmless icon, conveniently neglect to mention that he pointedly condemned all obeisance and support to the Democratic Party, castigating it as a pillar of racism. And if he was right to emphasize that “you can’t have capitalism without racism” – which he was – then what this means must be brought home to young protesters today.
Racial oppression must be smashed, torn asunder, fundamentally defeated and torn up by the roots. This can only be achieved through a social revolution. With so many now joining protests, often for the first time, I believe it is crucial to help the most thoughtful grasp the meaning of a revolutionary program for black freedom, that is, of black liberation through socialist revolution.
For protests flooding the street are not enough, inspiring as they may be. The most striking aspects of the protests here in New York City, where I live, are the multiracial makeup, the amount of youth (many protesters are in their late teens and early twenties), and the demonstrations’ largely unorganized – that is, spontaneous – character. Even with Covid-19 an ever-present threat, thousands have poured into the streets to protest the killing of Floyd and so many others, and indeed the systemic violence against blacks so central to U.S. society. In a way that sometimes has the quality of ritual, they are chanting the now popularized “official” slogans of “No Justice, No Peace,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” amongst others. And from reports around the country, this trend is not unique to NYC, as the protests have now spread to every U.S. state. The demonstrations have spread so widely that the National Guard has been mobilized in over half of the states.
Workers Strikes Against Racist Repression
Internationalist Group and Revolutionary Internationalist Youth in June 2 march against cop murder of George Floyd call for workers action against racist repression and Trump’s threats of martial law.
The unorganized and spontaneous nature of these protests is one part of where we find their limitations. Demonstrators horrified, chilled to the bone and filled with anger at the wanton killing of black people obviously shed no tears for corporate private property. But no amount of shattered glass can change the racist status quo beyond mere policy adjustments and tinkering and a further sprinkling of “black faces in high places,” when what is needed is at the level of the social. To overcome the racial oppression which is, and always has been, part of the bedrock of American capitalism, the power of the multiracial working class must be mobilized. The working class in this country, with its large and strategic black and immigrant component, is the only social force with the ability to carry through this momentous task. And time and again, going back to the struggle to smash slavery, black freedom struggles have been on the cutting edge of class struggle in this country. Part of that history – often “buried” and important to unearth and communicate far and wide – is the fight for workers defense guards against racist terror, and the West Coast longshore union’s port shutdowns for Mumia’s freedom (joining with workers in Brazil), against the police murder of Oscar Grant (depicted in the film Fruitvale Station) and against imperialist war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Right now, it is urgent that labor bring its power to bear in the ongoing struggle. I witnessed the potential for this in microcosm at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn when an MTA bus driver refused to transport people who the cops arrested (after having beaten them with clubs). On May 29, the Transport Workers Union’s powerful New York local stated that “bus operators do not work for the NYPD” (New York Police Department) and “should refuse to transport arrested protestors.” In Minneapolis too, bus drivers are refusing to do the police’s dirty work, and now the Washington, D.C. transit union has followed suit. What is needed now more than ever are workers strikes against racist repression, the curfews and the threats of martial law. To shut down the ports, to quit transporting goods and harvesting food, to cease the functioning of transit, in other words, to paralyze the system.
Such strikes against racist terror, deploying workers power at the point of production, transport and communications, would link the still largely middle-class and youth protest movement with the working class that makes everything run in this society. Youth alone do not have the social power to overturn this racist system, and neither do black people in and of themselves, but those whose labor keeps it running, and can bring it to a halt, do. Doubly oppressed, in cities throughout the U.S. black workers are concentrated in strategic sectors of the capitalist economy. Today there is enormous potential to take the lead in joining with their class sisters and brothers, immigrant, Latino, Asian, white, Native American, as the current anti-racist struggle, combined with economic crisis and the pandemic’s ravages against the workers and poor, shakes this country. With their hands on the levers of social power, workers, many of them black, have the ability and requisite power to challenge and indeed overturn this racist system.
Here too the question of leadership is crucial. For far too long official “leaders” have chained black people, Latinos, immigrants and the working class as a whole to this social order, through the Democratic Party. Studying black freedom struggles here and elsewhere back to the Haitian Revolution of Toussaint Louverture, we see that revolutionary leadership is key. Today that poses a crucial need for a revolutionary workers party.
Its need is more urgent than ever right here, right now.
Working-class struggle is necessary lest the wave of discontent fall back into the dead end of relying on Democrats to fix a situation they neither want to nor are capable of remedying. The ruling class has offered some sacrificial lambs (to save the little semblance of face that it has) in arresting the officers guilty of Floyd’s murder. But as radical students of the Internationalist Clubs at the City University of New York (where I work) pointed out during the last wave of police brutality protests, “There is No Justice in Racist Capitalist America.” Only 1% of cops who kill unarmed civilians are convicted, and at that with paltry sentences. The cop who murdered Oscar Grant in 2009 was given two years for an execution-style killing. Only three of the six who snapped Freddie Gray’s neck in 2015 with a “rough ride” were charged, and not one convicted. The list goes on.
People on the outside of the protests looking in have contributed by making social media posts, which largely get lost in the cacophony that is online politics, or by donating to various organizations, often bail funds. While these bail funds are important, particularly so with the racist dragnets of the curfew in various locales, many of the other organizations to which people donate lobby Democrats and are aligned with them, at least in part, in the failed strategy to somehow effect “social justice” through one of the two main organs of racist capitalist rule in the U.S. The Democrats are already attempting to steer discontent with the system into the capitalist parties’ electoralism which helps keep the ghastly realities of this society alive. With double-speak and duplicity they have just reauthorized the USA Freedom Act, which affords Trump more police powers. They are, alongside Trump and the Republicans, the many-headed hydra, essentially the same beast with different heads.
The politics of lesser evilism will not suffice in the current moment as civil society shows increasing fractures and the specter of civil war is once again no figment of imagination. The Civil War has rightly been called the Second American Revolution. With the key participation of 180,000 black troops, it defeated the Southern slavocracy, but the Northern bourgeoisie betrayed the promise of black freedom.
Today, a Third American Revolution will be necessary to end the subjugation of black people, but that will only be the case if it is a war between social classes. For their part, the two big factions of the ruling class, Democrat and Republican, differ on how to administer the endless war of the exploiters against black people, immigrants and the working class as a whole. With an election in November, both are gearing up for intensified conflict with China, with Biden actually positioning himself to the right of Trump in the saber-rattling – two racist imperialists indeed.
With all this in mind, amidst the din of police sirens and bullhorns, the thrumming of helicopters and cadence of thousands of protesters, we must remember: “Only Revolution Can Bring Justice!” ■