Cincinnati’s streets have long run red with the blood of Black men killed by racist police. Police brutality has gone from one horror to another, because the cops have had nothing to be afraid of. After each atrocity the politicians and media would unite with the cops to claim that the shooting was justified. Preachers and community leaders would appeal for calm and advocate pathetic reforms that would change nothing. Pretty soon it would be back to business as usual, and victims’ families would be left to mourn.
When Timothy Thomas was gunned down in cold blood on April 7, he became the fourth Black man killed by cops in the last year in Cincinnati, the fifteenth since 1995. In response, the ruling class politicians on the one hand, and the community leaders on the other, went on “automatic pilot” with the same b.s. as usual.
Faced with a racist ruling class committed to allowing such heinous crimes to go unpunished, and “community leaders” unwilling to mobilize the popular outrage in a mass struggle against the police and the rulers they serve, the masses took matters into their own hands.
The media try to make out as if the unrest that followed was simply a riot where people just looted and set fire to their own neighborhoods and engaged in random acts of violence. Senseless acts of violence were committed. And there was much looting, though it is understandable why poor people steal goods they could otherwise not afford. But the heart of the response was a political rebellion aimed at the institutions of racist rule in Cincinnati: the police and the City Council.
The day after Timothy was killed, hundreds of protesters went to City Hall, led by Rev. Damon Lynch III. When the mayor and police chief denied responsibility and City Council members claimed there was little they could do, the angry crowd took over City Hall, breaking windows, bringing down the American flag and chasing the mayor out the back door. In an attempt to regain control of the protesters, Rev. Lynch then tried to lead them in a peaceful protest at police headquarters. But the protesters disregarded him, bringing down the American flag and re-flying it upside down, throwing stones and bottles at the headquarters and at the surrounding cops.
The next day, Rev. Lynch tried to lead a “peace march.” “His aim,” the Enquirer explained, “was to rein in the violence that had broken out among the young people the night before.” But the masses again rejected calls for peace without justice, breaking windows and setting fires to make their point. When Lynch tried to lead the protest back to his church, most of the protesters refused to follow, and instead stayed to fight. The leaders were now powerless to hold the masses back – the rebellion was on! Stores were looted, rocks were thrown at cops. In one incident, a cop was shot at, with the bullet ricocheting off his belt buckle. One night, protesters even attempted to set fire to a neighborhood police station.
By starting protests, making placards with political slogans, targeting the ruling class’s institutions, the Black working class, particularly the youth, showed political leadership at a time when the community’s “upper class” “establishment” leaders proved useless. As a sign at Timothy’s funeral read: “We Salute Our Youth: Thank You for the Revolution.” Had there been in place an organized political leadership prepared to lead the rebellion, the incidents of random violence could have been avoided, and the full force of the masses’ rage could have been unleashed.
Without mass organizations and a clear political perspective, the street fighters did all they could to lead the struggle, but could not answer the ruling class’s violent response. With a State of Emergency declared, thousands of police were mobilized to clear the streets of protesters, and enforce a curfew that denied Black people the elementary right to walk the streets at night. People were drowned with tear gas, beaten and arrested, and shot at point-blank range with potentially-deadly “bean bag” guns. Not even Timothy’s funeral was safe from the brutal police, who cowardly fired into the peaceful gathering. Over 800 people were arrested, most of them Black.
To make matters worse, the establishment community leaders urged the protesters to cooperate with the ruling class’s effort to restore “law and order.” Sure they spent a lot of time making heartfelt complaints about police brutality. But they used their rhetoric to get a hearing for their pleas for an end to the rebellion. Local leaders like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. Lynch were joined by national figures like Al Sharpton and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume in calling for an end to the rebellion.
Infamously, local leaders at one point locked arms to stop a protest march from taking on the cops. Their explanation was that they wanted to prevent protesters from giving the cops an excuse to brutalize them. But they weren’t saying to the protesters: “Wait, we’re not organized and prepared to smash the police yet, let’s save ourselves for another day when we’re ready.” No. Their whole perspective is that the masses should not attempt to defeat their oppressors, but peacefully pressure them for reforms.
Since then some leaders like Lynch have called for boycotts and led small civil disobedience actions. But they have avoided mobilizing mass struggle.
Organizers of Saturday’s protest are similarly trying to restrain the struggle. Their flyer for the march insists that it will be “peaceful” six times in four paragraphs! What happened to “No Justice, Peace!“? A demonstration doesn’t have to be violent to be loud, confrontational and threatening to the ruling class. Promises of a peaceful protest reassure the powers-that-be that they won’t be threatened, when that’s exactly what the demonstration should do.
The rebellion against the established leaders came to the fore again on April 16, at a youth forum on police brutality organized by the newly formed Black Youth Coalition Against Civil Injustice (BYCACI). Hundreds attended and cheered speeches that connected the continued racist police terror with the failure of the established leaders to lead a struggle. “Our Black leaders are not leading us,” said Derrick Blassingame, President of the BYCACI. “Some of our Black leaders just want their faces on TV. They are in this for four things only: reputation, power, politics and money.” While some older leaders complained that the youth should show more respect for their elders, many others in the audience, particularly the youth, agreed with the criticisms. Another speaker, for example, added “Some leaders will only go so far in battle and then turn around and go home. So now we’re the soldier-leaders.”
We don’t know much more about the political views of those speakers, but they were right to criticize the establishment leaders. These leaders sell out because they see no alternative to the capitalist system that relies on oppression and exploitation to maintain itself. While they no doubt hate racism, these leaders’ perspective goes no further than using protests to win reforms that give them a bigger slice of political power. The struggle needs a new leadership that won’t compromise with the system because it is dedicated to its overthrow – a revolutionary leadership. That new leadership will primarily come from the working-class and poor youth who led Cincinnati’s rebellion.
With the rebellion ended, the ruling class felt confident it could return to its old ways again. The clearest sign of this was the grand jury’s decision to indict Timothy Thomas’s killer, Officer Stephen Roach, on nothing more than misdemeanor charges. This travesty of justice was achieved by the state’s prosecutor, Michael Allen, who acted as if he was the cop’s defense lawyer. He explained the pathetic charges with the argument that Timothy may have appeared to be grabbing for a gun, even though Timothy had no gun, and Mayor Luken admitted that even top cops didn’t believe Roach’s story. Such is “justice” in racist America: for misdemeanor violations Timothy received the death penalty in the streets; for cold blooded murder, Roach got misdemeanor charges that he still may beat! The grand jury decision is a sign of what can be expected from various legal reforms that are now being raised.
Since the riots of 1967, Cincinnati has seen innumerable investigations, lawsuits and new laws, all of which have done nothing to stop rampant police racism, corruption and brutality. Their only real purpose was to help calm the masses and avoid mass struggles. The current reforms proposed are no different.
Some of the suggested reforms are ridiculous. Community leaders have, for example, called for the City Council to be able to hire a new police chief from out of town. Chief Streicher and every past racist Police Chief from the West Side are rightly hated, but we can’t let that trick us into supporting a demand that is a fraud. Everybody knows that racist police brutality is at epidemic proportions in almost every city in the country. Where are they planning to get a “good” police chief from, Mars?
Also insulting are calls for the federal Justice Department to reform the Cincinnati police. The Justice Department has a long record under both Republican and Democratic administrations of covering up police brutality. Now that it is headed by Republican John Ashcroft, an admirer of the slave-holding southern Confederacy, no one can take such calls seriously.
Calls for a Civilian Police Review Board with expanded powers seem more serious. But the long experience of such review boards is that they are at best powerless to prosecute, and typically cover up for police brutality. That’s because such boards are never really independent of the system, and the only power to punish the cops remains in the hands of the courts, who by their very nature work hand in hand with the cops. The League for the Revolutionary Party has produced a pamphlet, Fight Police Terror!, which provides a study of all the various proposals to reform the police and their record of failure in cities across the country.
In this capitalist society dominated by the few who make their profits by exploiting the vast working class, the rulers hide the nature of the system by dividing and conquering the masses. Racism is the key to this, turning whites against Blacks, Latinos and immigrants. Forcing people of color into the worst conditions of poverty and exploitation is supposed to make white workers feel lucky they haven’t got it so bad.
Police repression is central to keeping people of color in their oppressed position, and it’s no coincidence that as the capitalists seek to intensify their exploitation of the working class, police brutality is increasing. To raise their profits, the ruling class has been attacking the working class with cuts to education and health care, the slashing of welfare, and the replacement of full-time jobs with part-time low-paying jobs. To intensify the exploitation of the whole working class, the ruling class seeks to turn Blacks, Latinos and immigrants into even more of a source of super-exploitable labor. And the ruling class knows that if this plan is to work, people of color must be kept in a state of permanent intimidation, too cowered to fight back. That’s what’s behind all the “law and order” policies of the Democrats and Republicans, and the rise in police brutality.
This explains why all of the various attempts to reform the police, from civilian review boards to affirmative action, have failed to end police brutality. Racist brutality is engraved in the very nature of the police force and cannot be reformed away. But the strategy of mass action that we propose can force the cops to back off their terror campaign and win other concessions from the ruling class.
According to that notorious racist, Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police head Keith Fangman, the cops are now afraid to do much “pro-active policing.” “They’re afraid of being fired or indicted. They’re afraid of incurring financial devastation because of legal bills,” he complained. Fangman’s lying. Clearly the cops have no reason to fear the courts. But there is a grain of truth in Fangman’s statement: the only thing that can hold back the cops is fear. What can make the cops scared enough to back off is mass struggles of the oppressed that hit back at them. And mass struggles that strike at the profits of the ruling class the cops serve can force their bosses to temporarily rein them in.
Oppressed people should reject the reverends’ and politicians’ pleas for peaceful protest. Peace on the part of the oppressed always means war by the oppressors. Rather they should follow the guidance of Malcolm X, and assert their right to self-defense – by any means necessary! Indeed Malcolm in his day was so enraged that pacifist preachings by civil rights leaders allowed defenseless Black people to be brutalized, that he said such leaders were “almost agents of the Klu Klux Klan.” (Malcolm X Speaks, p. 209)
The history of Black people’s struggles, like those of the oppressed everywhere, is rich with examples of organizing for self-defense. The clearest examples are from the movements of the 1950s and ’60s. In spite of opposition from the other leaders of his organization, Monroe, North Carolina NAACP leader Robert F. Williams organized armed self-defense groups to protect the civil rights movement from the Klan and police, including shooting up a motorcade of Klansmen and cops that was on its way to attack a civil rights leader. His actions led to the formation of a network of self-defense groups in many cities in the South called the Deacons for Defense. This example was taken forward in the North by Malcolm X, and later by the original, genuine Black Panther Party.
Our pamphlet, Armed Self-Defense and the Revolutionary Program, provides a history of these efforts, and analyses their strengths and weaknesses. Some of the attempts at armed self-defense failed because they were small group actions aimed more at hype than effectiveness. Others didn’t last beyond the immediate situation. Key to successful armed self-defense is that it be a part of a mass struggle that is spreading and becoming more organized. Efforts to organize self-defense can inspire such struggles, but the most important thing is that revolutionaries and militant fighters are working in the struggle to organize and lead it. Lasting armed self-defense can only succeed when it is based on the discipline and organization of the working class. What’s needed is a strategy to develop community struggles of protest and self-defense against police brutality into powerful struggles of the whole working class.
Mass demonstrations like this weekend’s are important. All organizations committed to the struggle against police brutality should work together to build them. But they pale in comparison to the explosive power of April’s rebellion. The question is how such rebellions can be made to grow more powerful and politically focused. Key to this is organization and leadership.
The rebellion was the Black masses’ answer to the bankruptcy of their current leaders. A consequence of these leaders’ unwillingness to challenge the system is their failure to build mass organizations in the community. The protests that were a feature of the rebellion started spontaneously. In some cases, a small group decided to make signs at home and then just started marching down the street, and were soon joined by others who saw them.
Imagine if the community already had organizations it could turn to, in which decisions could be made on how to protest, where and when. How much more powerful the protests would have been! Such organizations must be built, and those who took the lead in the rebellion will have to take the lead in this effort. The youth, who were the backbone of the Cincinnati rebellion, do have pre-existing bases upon which they can build. Working-class high schools and colleges, for example, can be used as an important base for organizing, within which revolutionaries and other militants can launch and lead school-wide assemblies which could meet daily during such upheavals and conduct discussions of what actions should be taken. Elected leaderships could coordinate the network of school-based actions.
Within such an organized movement, revolutionaries would fight for a program which could reach and mobilize the working class as a whole, young and old, employed and unemployed. Revolutionaries aim at uniting the struggles of the entire working class, Black, Latino, and white, against the ruling class and its attacks. Only the working class has nothing to lose from fighting against the capitalist system that exploits it. Only the working class is at the heart of the capitalist economy and can cripple its profit-making by stopping production. And only the working class is brought together in factories and workplaces and taught the power of discipline and cooperation that can be turned against the ruling class, in the form of organized mass struggle.
This is why working-class-based struggles are more effective than those centered on neighborhoods and communities. As the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an important organization based in the auto industry in the 1960s, explained:
In one factory we have 10,000 people who are faced with the same conditions. ... When you go out into the community, the interests of the people ... are going to be more dispersed. ... The kinds of actions which can be taken [by communities] are not as effectively damaging to the ruling class as the kinds of actions which can be taken in the plant. ... When you close down Hamtramck assembly plant ... for a day you can cost Chrysler corporation 1,000 cars.
But everywhere in America the working class is divided by racism, particularly in cities as intensely segregated as Cincinnati. Racial divisions have been overcome in the past and must be overcome again, permanently. Most white workers don’t favor racist brutality and want a fair deal for everybody, but at the same time are ignorant of the reality of racist oppression. While some whites joined the protests, the lack of mass outrage among white workers at the murder of Timothy Thomas was obvious.
Black people clearly can’t afford to wait for white people to join them before they start organizing and fighting to defend themselves. Under today’s circumstances, it’s inevitable that struggles begin in the Black communities that are under attack, and those struggles must be taken forward. However, given the capitalists’ current attacks on jobs and living standards across the U.S., if Black workers launch a real struggle against racist attacks, their struggle can inspire other workers to join a united struggle against the system which is attacking all workers.
Behind the mass outrage at Timothy Thomas’s murder were the cruel conditions of Black life in Cincinnati. Unemployment is almost 30 percent in Over-the-Rhine versus 2 percent for whites citywide. Average income in Over-the-Rhine is just 37 percent of Cincinnati’s as a whole. Schools are nearly totally segregated, with Black schools underfunded. Yet Cincinnati is the home of some of America’s biggest multinational corporations: Procter & Gamble, Kroger’s Supermarkets, Federated Department Stores and Chiquita Brands. Ford and General Electric have plants here.
Revolutionaries will argue within community and school protests that they should not deal only with police brutality. They must take up the struggle against poverty and exploitation, and fight for decent jobs and wages for all, as well as quality education and health care. In doing so, community struggles can take the lead in the struggle against the capitalists’ attacks against the whole working class, Black and white. Such community struggles would organize Black workers who could lead their fellow workers in struggles against their bosses. The attack on white workers is not yet nearly as hard as that launched against Blacks, but it is intensifying. Big strikes in the early 1970’s showed that white workers will follow the leadership of Black workers when the latter make a strong fight against the bosses.
Such struggle is urgently needed. From mass layoffs at Procter & Gamble, to speed-up and layoffs at Ford in Sharonville, the capitalists’ attacks can provide the spark for a united struggle. In the factories and workplaces, where Black and white workers face the same enemy, racial divisions can be overcome through common struggle. The experience of such struggles can win more and more white workers to the side of their Black brothers and sisters in the struggle against racism.
The LRP has raised the idea that a one-day general strike be called in any city in response to any police atrocity. Such united working-class action would shut down capitalist profit-making. The ruling class may not listen to Black and Brown, but they listen to green. Hitting back at the ruling class where it hurts them most can force them to retreat and even grant concessions.
In cities like New York and Chicago, where unions organize large numbers of Black and Latino workers, our call makes immediate sense to many. In Cincinnati, where the unions are weak, white workers largely passive, and Black workers relatively marginalized, such actions are a ways off. But the strategy of mass community struggles we advocate can change all that. And it can begin immediately, with union members challenging their leaders to fight racism and the bosses attacks, and organizing to replace them when they refuse.
Mass struggle can show workers the power they have as a class – the power to overthrow this entire system and build a new world free of exploitation and oppression. There is a real alternative to capitalism. The world economy long ago developed the technology and power to produce an abundance of all we need. Homelessness, hunger and every other form of suffering are unnecessary. The problem is that in the hands of the capitalists, the economy is aimed at profit-making, and not toward providing what the masses need. For as long as this continues, society will be wracked by injustice and plunged into worse economic crises and bloody wars.
But the economy cannot be redirected from profit-making to producing for the masses’ needs through reforms. The capitalists have built their state power of police and armies to protect the system from the masses’ struggles. While important reforms can be won, it will take revolutions by the working class around the world to seize power from the capitalists and build a society free of exploitation and oppression.
A revolutionary workers’ state will direct production toward the masses’ needs. All work will be divided among all workers, eliminating unemployment. New technologies that today are used by the capitalists to replace workers and create unemployment, will be used to free workers from hard labor and cut the work week.
The capitalists use low wages and high prices to set workers against one other, pushing nationalism, racism, sexism and homophobia. In a world of plenty, the material basis for all forms of oppression will be destroyed. With an ongoing struggle, a truly human, socialist society of peace and freedom will emerge.
We cannot afford to let our struggle remain under the control of Democratic Party politicians and reformists who support capitalism and inevitably betray us. The most politically conscious workers and youth must join together in a revolutionary political party that can take our immediate struggles forward and convince our fellow workers about the true nature of the system and how it can be overthrown.
For too long the masses have hoped for leaders to come and save them, like a knight on a white horse. The leadership that can show the way forward will not come from “on high,” but from the working class and youth themselves. The League for the Revolutionary Party is a revolutionary socialist organization of workers in various cities, and with supporters around the world. We are dedicated to helping revolutionary-minded workers and youth educate themselves and organize to build the leadership that the struggle so desperately needs.
Our ideas come from the teachings of Marxism – the revolutionary, working-class science that alone explains how society works. Only Marxism can explain how police brutality and racism is based on the exploitation of capitalist society. Only Marxism can explain why the established leaders sell out their working class and poor followers. Only with Marxist ideas can today’s rebels fit themselves to lead the masses’ mighty struggles to victory.
The Cincinnati rebellion was a huge step forward. The struggle must continue. The most politically conscious must take the step of studying politics and deciding on the way forward. If you like the sound of our ideas, don’t just nod your head but do nothing about it. Believe in yourself and the struggle. Get in contact with us and let’s discuss these issues more. There’s no time to waste!