Baltimore, Ferguson and The Importance of the Struggle for Civil Rights in the U.S.

Written by Florence Oppen

“Black Lives Matter”

It was with this slogan that in August 9 2014, Black youths mobilized with neighbors, friends and families in Ferguson and in the entire state of Missouri and the rest of the country to demand the trial and punishment of the policeman who killed Michael Brown. And it was again with this same slogan, that the Black community went back out in thousands in the city of Baltimore on April 18, 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year old Black man who died while in police custody.  Yet once again, the protests spread in many other cities. Beyond the details of what exactly happened and how the legal prosecution is advancing (or not), we would like to explore the main underlying causes and possible solutions of such a widespread and constant state violence against the Black people in the United States. This is because if there have been national mobilizations in response to these events, it is precisely because Brown’s and Gray’s are not isolated or accidental cases.
From Ferguson to Baltimore:  The Problem is not an Issue of “Representation”

One of the main obstacles in fighting the violence towards Blacks and the oppression they face is ideological. The other, is obviously organizational: we do not have anymore real national organization of the Black community, with mass influence and calling for mass action, like in the 60’s and 70s. But the two of course are tied.
In the last two decades, a disingenuous explanation of racial oppression has been systematically promoted from all the institutions of power (from the government and the bipartisan system to schools and universities):  that white people oppress black people because they have “privileges” and they “happen” to be in power, and thus if Blacks were to occupy positions of political responsibility and power, this would not happen anymore. This “privilege” theory covers the root cause of the problem. It proposes a vision proposes a “politics of identity” which relies in the inherently progressive politics of “being oppressed”: because one is Black, Latin@, or a woman, it means automatically that one embodies the struggle of these sectors for their rights, regardless the politics one puts behind. The “politics of identity” have immensely served the Democratic Party to get Obama elected and to channel rebellions, strugglers and grassroots organizing efforts towards lobbying and election campaigns – and we think these politics are mistaken and detrimental. The situation in Baltimore demonstrates this.
Baltimore has been a stronghold of the Democratic Party (DP) for 150 years, and the DP has managed to co-opt the struggles and occupy positions of power with their Black representatives- which is a distinct phenomenon from Ferguson. Yet if one looks at reality, and not at the pretty picture offered by the institutions of bourgeois representations, the situation is grimm. In the city of Baltimore (with a population of 600,000), where 64% of the population is black, there is “racial representation”: the mayor is black, two-thirds of the council members are black, the school superintendent is black… the chief of police is black… and most cops are black. Yet, this did not prevent the death of Freddie Gray or makes Baltimore a place where Black youth are less discriminated against and violated by the police. Having “representatives of a color” in positions of power is not what matters, Baltimore and Obama show it. Instead, what matters are the policies carried by those representatives, and even more so, the class character of the institutions from which they govern. The questions we should ask is what interests the Democratic and Republican parties represent? What is their historical balance, what have they done? What interests have historically represented by Congress, the police, the FBI, the National Guard, etc.?
We Socialists say that the current situation of black people goes beyond a problem of training and education of the police forces or a problem of “underrepresentation”. It is the result of the neoliberal offensive of criminalization and mass incarceration of black people. This offensive did not happen by accident: it was part of the response to the crisis of American capitalism in the 1970s and the end of a wave of accumulation. For to recover their benefits and their rate of profit,  the large multinationals and the ruling class as a whole – led by Reagan – had not only had to demolish the major gains of the labor movement (wages, benefits and rights), they also had to resubmit the black sector of the class to a vulnerable and super-exploited state, with lower pay and a chronic social marginalization and exposure to unemployment. Since 1982, with the “War on Drugs” initiated by the Reagan administration, American capitalism turned back the fictional clock of bourgeois progress. The government began to implement in a covert way regressive wave of policies targeting Black young workers. And this offensive has managed to make a dent in all the conquests of the movement for Civil Rights in the 60s, so that today most of these conquests towards equality and freedom are purely formal. The black community today, after 30 years of neoliberal criminalization lives a new form of social segregation.

The “War on Drugs” and the New Economic and Social Segregation:  The “Black Problem” is a Working-Class Problem

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article with a sensationalist and “shocking” title but, terribly true one: “1.5 Million Missing Black Men.”[1] This one and a half million Blacks, the vast majority being workers, were not swallowed up by the earth, but instead devoured by the capitalist system. The study shows that “For every 100 black women not in jail, there are only 83 black men. The remaining men – 1.5 million of them – are, in a sense, missing.”  That ratio is 99 to 100 for white males. When the general proportion in the country is of 49%, in Baltimore the ratio is 44%, in New York and Chicago it is 43% … and in Ferguson it is 37.5%. Where are the “missing” black men? They either had an early death or they are in prison (600,000 of them).[2] Between the ages of 25 and 54, one in 12 black men are in prison while for whites the ratio is 1 in 60 men. Jail  is the destination of choice that the capitalist system reserves for black people today.
The neo-liberal offensive of the last  30 years has radically shifted the lives of black people. Throughout that period, the US prison population grew from 300,000 to over 2.5 million prisoners, making the U.S. the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world (more than Russia, China or Iran).[3] A study in 2014 showed that at least 12 million people pass through some sort of local jail per year, and that of those who are in these prisons, slightly more than half have not been convicted, and they yet are locked up pending trial since they have no money to post bail or to get a good lawyer.[4] The rest are in jail for very minor offenses. The judicial problem is clearly an issue of class.
The “War on Drugs” was, and still is, a war against the working class, and in particular, against black people to snatch the rights they won and make them pay the cost of the crisis:  38 % of prisoners are black (when only 12.9% of the population is black).[5] The result of this operation of stigmatization, criminalization and incarceration (“all blacks are violent and drug addicts”) has led the black population to a new kind of social and economic segregation. 80% of young African-American men in major cities have a criminal record and thus they will not be able to find a steady job.[6]
The “American Dream” does not exist for young & adult Blacks. In the US there are now 65 million workers who have criminal records, i.e. a quarter of the active population, and most of them are Black and Latin@s. That means they will not be able to find stable work or work pays well-enough (i.e. a living wage, health care plan, a decent pension, vacation days and sick leaves) because 92% of companies check the criminal records of “some” candidates, while 73% checks them all.[7] By law, these workers are excluded from several professions, nor do they have access to social housing or food stamps … and many of them lose the right to vote in elections. In the national elections of 2012, 8% of the Black electorate could not vote for this reason.[8]
Racial oppression is therefore a working-class problem:  Obama & the Mayor of Baltimore have nothing to do with the life of 99% of Blacks, who share more of the structural features of their social existence with the rest of the working class. The reactionary offensive against the Black population is in fact an offensive against the working class as a whole. And the US judicial system has become the main instrument for controlling, depoliticizing and oppressing our class, particularly the Black and Latin@ population.

The Politics of Obama: In favor of Multinationals and Repression

But perhaps the rebellion and the hatred of the youth that are taking to the streets today is not only the result of decades of marginalization and violence, but they may also feel victimized by a terrible political betrayal. The Obama administration not only did not pass a single measure in favor of Black people, but instead it continued the anti-working class offensive and the racial criminalization of the U.S. state: it chose to save the major banks and multinationals from the 2008 crisis and to apply austerity to our class.
It’s priorities are clear: this past 2014 it spent 17% of the country’s resources to fund the Department of Defense, the war occupations,  non-U.S. military bases, and only 2% for education –  percentages that remained the same and similar to those of the Bush era.[9] In fact, the first budget presented by the Obama administration in 2010 represented an increase of 7% for Defense and 21% for the Department of Homeland Security, which reached a record high in 2011 of $75 billion… the year that saw the birth of the Occupy movement.
Obama has continued the program of the militarization of the local police forces initiated by Bush: since 2003, $ 34 billions in federal funding has been allocated for local police to buy military equipment from the war contractors.[10] In major cities, particularly those with a high percentage of Blacks and Latin@s, police have armored vehicles, helicopters, drones, tanks, assault equipment and night vision.

We Must Organize the Movement with a Class Politics

In the face of the current urban riots and uprisings, we Socialists unconditionally defend the right of Black people to rebel, to organize themselves and to defend themselves from the continuous attacks by local police and the federal state that has militarized their neighborhoods. The central debate should not be whether the political struggle is made on a moral principle of non-violence or if violence is a legitimate means for political action. Instead, the discussion should be focused on the need to organize the nationwide movement to confront the national government, to organize a movement with class independence from the government and corporations, and to make a call for the  unity of the working class as a whole.

Therefore, we call on all workers’ organizations, labor unions, community organizations, and in particular to the leaderships of the AFL-CIO and Change To Win Coalition federations to follow the example of dockers of the West Coast (ILWU), who organized a work-stoppage on May Day against police violence and racism, and for a trial and punishment of the responsible police officers. What we need is a general strike to demand an end to the criminalization and militarization of Black neighborhoods and for the recovery of all labor and civil rights and force the Obama administration to take a real action.
Trial and punishment for all cops guilty of murder!
Immediate release for all the youth that was prosecuted for participating in protests!
Stop the militarization of the police and the politics of mass incarceration!
Money for stable employment and education, not for war, prisons and militarization!
Let’s follow the example of ILWU! Let’s organize a National Day of Strike against police violence and racial discrimination!
[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, The Age of Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (2010) p.6.
[4] “Mass incarceration: The Whole Pie, A Prison Policy Initiative Briefing” Peter Wagner, Leah Sakala, Prison Policy Initiative 12 marzo 2014.
[5] Siegel, Jonah A. (January 1, 2011). “Felon Disenfranchisement and the Fight for Universal Suffrage.” Social Work 56 (1): 89–91.
[6] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.7
[7] 65 Million “Need Not Apply: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment”, The National Employment Law Project, March 2011.
[8] Pilkington, Ed (July 13, 2012). “Felon voting laws to disenfranchise historic number of Americans in 2012”. The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-08-07.
[9] Between 2010 and 2014 the Federal Government invested between $500 to $630 billions per year to finance wars and military operations abroad, and only between $45 and $48 billions to finance education.

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