The uprising of protest against racist police injustice has triggered a crisis of political rule in New York City, where the police are openly rebelling against the Democratic Party Mayor, Bill de Blasio. The cops’ public insults to the mayor and their current “virtual work stoppage” have undermined the ruling class’s effort to kill the protest movement.
The establishment tried to seize the opportunity provided by the shooting of two cops in Brooklyn by a Black man claiming to be acting in vengeance for the unpunished killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Politicians from President Obama and Mayor de Blasio to local sellout “community leaders” called on the protests to stop and for everyone to come together in sympathy with the police. They hoped that after a big show of united support for the police at the dead officers’ funerals, they’d be able to bury the protest movement as well.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy the cops, however. Their insubordination is a demand for all-out, unqualified support from the city’s leaders. No more tears of sympathy for the victims of police brutality. No more toleration of protesters who say “Jail the Killer Cops!”
All this exposes the true role of the liberal wing of the ruling class. Democratic Party politicians who usually cast themselves as sensitive to the concerns of the downtrodden are now demanding that the cops return to the streets to enforce law and order. De Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton insist on continuing their racist “Broken Windows” policy, making it the cops’ priority to crack down on minor violations of “quality of life” laws in working-class and poor neighborhoods that led to the killing of Eric Garner. “Do your jobs!” cry the editors of the New York Times.
There is a method to the cops’ “madness.” They know that fulfilling their quota of more than 20,000 arrests per month under Broken Windows requires more brutal acts on their part and inevitably means more deaths. They fear that while the cop who choked Eric Garner might have escaped punishment, the next cop whose brutality is caught on video might not get away with it. The cops can’t do their real job if they are worried about being recorded every time they beat someone up, let alone kill someone. They want political leaders who agree that to enforce the law, cops must be above the law. They are demanding a re-affirmation of their right to continue and extend their intimidation, brutality and murder – and to stay unpunished when they get caught.
That’s why Patrick Lynch, the notoriously racist head of the police “union,” the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), went beyond Bratton’s lie that the protest movement had “obviously” inspired the murder of the two cops. Lynch proclaimed that not only do the protesters “have blood on their hands” but so does Mayor de Blasio for refusing to allow the police to sweep the protests from the streets. In this context it means nothing to the cops that the mayor refused to criticize the grand jury decision to not charge the killers of Eric Garner with any wrongdoing and that he has insisted on continuing his tough-on-crime Broken Windows policy.
Because the cops are the armed fist that the capitalist class needs to rule, De Blasio and the Democrats will like try to quell the cops’ rebellion by rewarding it with concessions. No one should expect that the current reduction in harassment and arrests will last long. As the PBA reportedly instructed its members: “we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.”
In the aftermath of the shooting of the two cops, the movement has been thrown into a state of uncertainty and faces a crisis of leadership of its own. But in the present circumstances, there is great potential for the protest movement, and for the struggles of the working class and oppressed people in general, to make further advances.
The movement so far has achieved much. The mass struggle that began after the police execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last summer demonstrated its broad character on December 13 through the outpouring of fifty thousand-plus demonstrators in New York chanting “Black Lives Matter!”
Above all, the protests have begun to awaken growing numbers of working-class people to the need to fight back against all the capitalist system’s attacks on the working class – to challenge not only police terror and injustice but also the poverty and other miseries that the system imposes. The popular slogan “We Can’t Breathe” expresses not only sorrowful solidarity with Eric Garner’s last words and the danger the police pose to all people of color; it also condemns the chokehold that the capitalist economy has on young working-class and poor people that offers them little but precarious low-wage jobs or unemployment.
But the movement has won few concrete concessions so far. It has called on Obama and his Department of Justice to file Federal charges against the killer cops, but they have not done so. Instead, Obama met with a handful of protest leaders and told them to be patient. In New York likewise, de Blasio has rejected demands to end Broken Windows.
The movement now has to make decisions that will determine whether it survives or not. It needs a leadership that sees clearly through the lies of the politicians and media and can keep up the momentum of mass action.
There have already been beginnings. The most politically conscious and militant fighters are already learning not to rely on the politicians and sellout “leaders” who want to divert the movement away from the direct action of struggles in the streets and toward passively voting for politicians who can betray them. It was inspiring that young Black women activists from Ferguson succeeded in grabbing the microphone from Al Sharpton’s flunkies in DC on December 13, when he tried to divert the movement into an appeal to Obama.
A new leadership has to be built that will unite struggles of the oppressed and the whole working class. From our point of view as revolutionary socialists, the struggle has to become consciously aimed against the capitalist system as a whole, including the governments and police whose role in society is to defend that system by any means necessary. We say that what is most needed is to organize and build a revolutionary working-class party, a party armed with the Marxist analysis that explains racism’s roots in capitalist exploitation and works to convince more and more working-class and oppressed people that socialist revolution is the only way to finally bring these injustices to an end.
That said, for the movement to go forward, immediate steps must be taken. In defiance of the calls for people to unite with the cops, the protests to defend people of color from police terror are more urgently needed than ever. We are proud to have joined others in the first protests in New York last week that defied the politicians’ calls for the protests to end. While these events only attracted hundreds, they sent a message that the movement must not be intimidated.
We offer here some proposals for how the movement can recapture its momentum and move forward.
To regain the power that the movement enjoyed before the killing of the cops, a big central demonstration is needed. The upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday offers the perfect opportunity. The public’s attention will be focused on honoring the long history of Black people’s struggle for freedom from racism. The recent cases of police killing unarmed Black people and getting away with it and the protest movement that those atrocities sparked, will be widely recognized as showing how far that struggle has to go. So the potential to mobilize tens of thousands in protest again will be great.
So far only small groups have announced protests for the MLK weekend. While people should mobilize to make the most of them, it must be recognized that they their plans don’t call for the sort of united and power mobilization that is needed.
In particular, two groups with basically the same political views have called two different actions for the same day – Dr. King’s Birthday on Thursday, January 15. The ANSWER “coalition” (which is really a front for the Party for Socialism and Liberation) has announced a plan for protesters to “flood the subways” with signs and chants against racism and demanding justice for the victims of police brutality. But that doesn’t answer people’s need to feel their power when they are together at the same time and place in protest, and it doesn’t focus demands on a clear seat of power. Meanwhile, the “Peoples Power Assembly” (which is a new front for the Workers World Party) has called for a “strike against racism” on the same day, with a protest at 3pm. But especially after the movement lost momentum after the two cops got killed in Brooklyn, most workers are not going to risk their jobs by walking out in the middle of the day. It is bad that these groups don’t coordinate, but instead put petty divisions and competing ambitions ahead of the unity in action that the movement needs.
What is needed is a massive united protest on the weekend of the MLK public holiday (Monday January 19), when the greatest number of people can possibly attend. Meanwhile, the most influential groups playing a role in organizing protests – like the Black Lives Matter movement and the This Stops Today coalition – have not announced any plan for a protest march. We think that everybody who wants to see the protest movement return in force should call on them to organize a massive united protest like December 13’s “Millions March” that drew tens of thousands.
In New York, we think it is particularly important for the next big protest to target Mayor de Blasio in City Hall. De Blasio wants the cops to return to his Broken Windows strategy, which means harassing and arresting thousands of people every day for petty violations – as the cops did with Eric Garner. But the fact that there has been no rise in violent crime during the time that the cops have backed off enforcing Broken Windows proves that the policy doesn’t make people safer – it’s just an excuse to intimidate and persecute working-class and poor people of color. So now is the time for the movement to march on City Hall and demand: No Return to the Cops’ War on Blacks, Latinos and the Poor! De Blasio – End “Broken Windows” Now!
That’s the best way to also support demands for justice for other victims of the NYPD like Akai Gurley, who was killed in the stairwell of a Brooklyn project. Justice for Akai Gurley! Jail the Killer Cop!
A massive protest in New York, especially if it is part of a national day of protest in each city, could revive the struggle for justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner and all victims of police brutality. It could target the White House and Justice Department with the demand: Obama – Prosecute the Killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner Now!
No one should expect that the system can be made to police itself. But by demanding that killer cops be jailed, the movement can test the possibility of winning some justice within it. Where massive struggles pressure the courts to jail killer cops, it will make other cops think twice before pulling their triggers and killing more innocent people. And where the courts and politicians like Obama resist such demands, they and the system they serve can be further exposed, helping convince more people that a revolution will be necessary to win freedom and justice for all.
Before the killing of the cops in Brooklyn, when the movement of protest was at its height, it was attracting the participation of a broad range of people from all social classes. They were moved to act by the obvious injustice of recent cases of police killing people of color and getting away with it. But the movement was begun and pushed forward by working-class and poor youth of color who were driven to rise up by more than just racist cop terror. Many see that behind the racist criminalization of people of color is an economic system that has always relied on exploiting them as low-wage labor in the toughest jobs.
Since the economic crisis broke out on Wall Street, while the banks got bailed out with trillions of dollars, the working class has been left to drown in rising debts, falling wages and unemployment. Blacks and Latinos have suffered the worst. The fact that funding for public schools and colleges has continued to be cut, while billions more government dollars have been directed to police and prisons, has sent a clear message to young working-class people of color especially: they must accept a life of miserable jobs and poverty or face a life in prison or death on the streets. Their protests have been a mighty rebellion against all these injustices.
Even NYC police chief Bratton, in attempting to deflect the protests away from the police, had to admit on television that “You need to understand this isn’t just about policing. This is about the continuing poverty rates, the continuing growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. It’s still about unemployment issues.”
So it is time that the movement begin to raise demands that address the economic crisis facing working-class and poor people in general and people of color especially. The nationwide ‘Fight for 15!’ movement to raise the minimum wage was already growing in different cities before the uprising against police brutality. The White House and many states have tried to defuse the movement by pushing much lower raises in the minimum wage. President Obama has proposed raising it to $10.10 an hour, but that’s still not enough to survive. On January 1, New York state raised the minimum wage by a miserable 75 cents to $8.75, better than the insulting 15 cents raise granted in Missouri but still a condemnation to desperate poverty. The movement should raise the slogan Support the Fight for 15! Pass a $15-an-hour Minimum Wage Now!
But the fight for a living wage doesn’t directly help the unemployed. That’s why we think that movement should demand that the government create Jobs for All at a Living Wage! This can be done through public works projects that address important social needs, like rebuilding the crumbing infrastructure and addressing the worsening environmental crisis.
And the need of young working-class people for a better education should be central to the struggle. Budget cuts are seeing public schools closed across the country, but the protest movement against police brutality has already boosted the fightback against these attacks. For example in Baltimore, Black high school students who first organized to protest police injustice responded to a plan to close more public high schools there by marching into a public hearing on the question wearing their “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, chanting “Black Live Matter!” and took it over. The school board is still trying to go ahead with the closings, but this example shows how the struggle against police injustice is already boosting struggles around other issues effecting working-class and poor people. The protest movement’s encouragement of such struggles will be strengthened if it raises broad slogans now like Funds for Jobs, Education and Social Services Now!
Finally, the uprising of protest against racist police injustice has exposed how young working-class and poor people especially, generally lack arenas where they can debate the issues and decide on the way forward. The protests against police injustice have been inspiring, but they have generally ended with most people simply going home to wait to hear about the next event. This leaves the vast majority of people without any ongoing structure through which they can stay active in the struggle. And it leaves them without a forum where they can voice their opinions on politics and how the struggle can move forward, consider the ideas of others and democratically decide on the way forward by voting on proposals.
Forming organizing committees in schools and workplaces to build the movement is crucial, but for many young people it is only when they come together in protests that they sense the need and potential to get more organized. We think existing activist groups should cooperate in following up protests by calling for mass assemblies where protesters can voice their opinions in an organized discussion and democratically decide the way forward.
Ever since the decisions by local courts to let the cop murderers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner walk free without facing charges, the call to Shut it Down! has risen from outraged protesters, first in Ferguson and then throughout the country. And mass protests and civil-disobedience actions have succeeded in blocking roads and highways and popular iconic sites like Grand Central Station in New York and The Mall of America outside Minneapolis.
These actions sent the message that regular life should not be allowed to continue uninterrupted while people of color are being killed and the cops who murder them are being protected. The same can be said of the situation in which millions are jobless and homeless. But to really shut down the capitalist system we all live in requires united action by the people whose labor makes it run – the working class.
Many working-class people have participated in the protests so far, and many more have looked on them with sympathy. But the most exploited and oppressed workers mostly lack the benefit of being organized into unions. These are potentially powerful formations through which workers can fight, not only to resist their bosses’ exploitation but also to organize broader working-class action against police brutality and other attacks. There has recently been an upsurge in efforts by low-wage workers in the fast food industry as well as other sectors to organize into unions. A continuing protest movement would encourage such efforts. Moreover, workers who have come together in these organizing drives can also use them as a forum to coordinate participation in the protest movement and broader struggles.
To move further toward the united working-class action we need, we cannot ignore the existing organizations that the working class has. Unions in this country have been held back from struggle for so long by their pro-capitalist leaders that few imagine they could play a useful role. But the unions’ working-class members are being awakened by the rising struggles outside them. By raising demands on their union leaders to mobilize the ranks in support of the protest movement, union members can begin to organize forces committed to the struggle – and either pressure the current leaders to take steps forward or at least expose those leaders and thus take a step forward to replacing them.
That’s what the League for the Revolutionary Party’s supporters among New York’s subway and bus workers are doing, for example, with their newsletter Revolutionary Transit Worker and campaigns inside the Transport Workers Union. There we have called on the union to mobilize its members to attend the protests. We work to educate union members that the cops exist to keep the working class and poor down, and that the cops’ “unions” are not a legitimate part of the workers’ movement. Many transit workers, a majority of whom are people of color, already understand this – not only from their day-to-day experience of racist police, but also from the cops’ jailing of their union president after the strike in 2005. And we have begun a campaign demanding that the union’s leaders condemn Patrick Lynch and break all ties with him.
The ability of transit workers to bring to a grinding halt New York City, world capitalism’s financial center, is an indication of how powerful the working class could be – if it is convinced to use that power in defense of the oppressed and the whole working class. But like all the masses’ struggles, that will require a leadership that isn’t afraid to challenge the stability and profitability of the capitalist system. And the only leadership that can be trusted to do that is one that is committed to its overthrow – a revolutionary socialist working-class party.
As revolutionary socialists, we in the League for the Revolutionary Party believe that all the problems faced by working-class and oppressed people can only be solved when all the struggles of working-class and oppressed people culminate in a revolution that overthrows the capitalist system.
The essential role of the police and the rest of the state apparatus of courts, prisons and soldiers is not to protect and serve the people, but to protect and serve the capitalist ruling class against most of the people – the working class and poor. In this, brutality and murder are part of their job. Racism was created by the capitalist system and is needed by it to divide and conquer the working class. Only when the working-class and oppressed people hold a state power of their own will they be able to solve these problems by building a socialist society of freedom and abundance.
The fight for justice for victims of police abuse and for reforms that limit police powers can win limited and temporary relief from some of the worst abuses. But these struggles have an even greater significance: they can raise revolutionary consciousness. The more that working-class people test the possibilities of reforming the system, the more they can become convinced that it will take a revolution to win their demands. By showing the great power that the workers and oppressed have when they unite in action and become more organized to fight for their interests, mass struggles can show that revolution is not only necessary but also possible.