US: #blacklivesmatter movement challenges racism of the system
Hugo Pierre, Tower Hamlets Socialist Party
The US civil rights leaders of the 1950s, 60s and 70s couldn’t have foreseen a 21st century black US President.
But the struggles of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers for an end to poverty in black communities, democratic rights and equal treatment in the workplace and by the state would have hoped that a black President would have decisively acted in their favour.
Further, they would have expected the US to act as a beacon of what could be achieved worldwide to end discrimination for improving the lives of blacks.
Instead the presidency of Barak Obama has reminded blacks, in particular young blacks, that they still face the same repression from the state and discrimination. They face impoverishment that in many ways is on a level far worse than that of the civil rights generation.
The August 2014 murder of Michael Brown at the hands of the police in Ferguson, Oklahoma, brought to the fore the deep seated institutionalised racism of state police forces throughout the US.
Black youth in particular have responded with a mass protest movement right across the US. The #blacklivesmatter (BLM) movement has overtaken the traditional ‘civil rights’ campaigners.
This older generation, such as Rev Al Sharpton and others, are identified as too close to corporate business and media interests. They are often tied to many in the ‘black establishment’ particularly the black Democratic Party city mayors who have failed to act in the interests of black youth.
Instead, young people have adopted the tactics of youth in the civil rights movement with direct action: blockades of bridges, freeways and even railway lines.
They continued mass street protests when the unjust decisions not to indict the police in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (another black man killed by police) were announced. BLM has also taken inspiration from the Occupy movement.
The militarisation of the police, especially since 9/11, and increased racial profiling have come under attack. The ‘War on Drugs’ and various ‘zero tolerance’ approaches have increased the prison population since the 1970s by a massive 700%.
Blacks make up 50% of prisoners for drug offences (drug offences account for roughly half of all those imprisoned) even though they make up 13% of the population and surveys show they are less likely to use drugs!
Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than white men. This is in a country with an epidemic of police killings.
404 suspects were killed in 2011 alone. This is just the number of ‘justifiable homicides’ and not every death as there is only a voluntary reporting system. In the same period six were killed in Germany, two in England and Wales and six in Australia.
Hands up, don’t shoot!
In many poor communities the police’s ‘shoot to kill’ policy is a key factor. This contrasts sharply with the arrest of Dylan Roof after the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, Mississippi.
He has white supremacist views and was known to be armed. The arresting officer described how he was treated to a burger meal when he complained of being hungry.
On the streets young people face the hated ‘stop and frisk’ policies of many police forces. Under pressure to end this programme, Obama pledged $260 million dollars for police uniforms to be fitted with body cameras.
But these still did not to reduce the incidence of police violence. The murder of Eric Garner was filmed as was the brutal arrest of Sandra Bland for traffic offences, who later died in police custody.
On top of all this the economic crisis has hit blacks harder than the rest of the population. The median income gap between blacks and whites has more than doubled since the recession.
It is also estimated that African American communities would lose $194 million in property values. This is driving BLM on but also leading to the drawing of political conclusions.
BLM activists have disrupted political rallies during the presidential primaries and forced the issue of policing and the social issues facing blacks onto the agenda.
Obama, however, has moved to defend the state and not black lives. Following the anger that spilled over into rioting during the Ferguson events, Obama implored that it “requires we listen, and not just shout. That’s how we’re going to move forward together – by trying to unite with each other and understand each other, and not simply divide ourselves from one another.”
The protest movement is demanding radical action to defeat racism. This movement could move fast to learn the lessons of the 1960s and 70s.
The need to link up the struggle against the police murders, police racism and black imprisonment with the 15Now movement (fighting for an end to low wages) and the struggle against the stranglehold that the big corporations have on society, is urgent.
The movement will only get victories against the perpetrators of police racism if the police are forced to report all cases of police homicide and then face an independent labour movement inquiry. These should be presented not in front of closed grand juries but in open juries selected from local communities and trade unions.
BLM must demand the end of the increased militarisation of the police. The methods, accountability and policies of policing must be brought under democratic working class control.
Millions are spent on arming the police and imprisoning young black and poor men in particular. This could be spent on ensuring decent living conditions, the right to a free education and public services that are failing black families in particular. The ‘War on Drugs’ and zero tolerance programmes must end.
The movement must join up with campaigns such as 15Now and demand a real change in society. The 60s and 70s showed the importance of the trade union movement for blacks.
But unionisation must be linked to the struggle to change the unions into democratic organisations fighting for their members.
Unions also have to break with the cosy relationship with the Democratic Party and fight to change the dominance of corporate America in running society in its interests.
Fighting black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were drawing conclusions about the nature of capitalism and the integral part racism played in maintaining it. Today’s black youth have the distinct advantage.
While socialists and communists were witch-hunted from a generation in the 1950s and 60s, socialist ideas are finding a new voice in the US. The role of Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant shows what socialists can achieve and how important they will be to the fight to end racism.