Leaflet distributed in downtown Chicago at the December 9 demonstration against police murder.
Hope and the possibility of real change have been sparked by the movement against police murders which has revived by protests in Minneapolis and Chicago in recent weeks. With an escalation of the state repression, enforced poverty, and racist rhetoric directed against people of color, few any longer believe that the election of Barack Obama as this country’s first Black president ushered in a new “post-racial” era. But the primary targets of those attacks are learning to look to their own efforts and collective capacity for struggle to change this situation. They are showing not only a power to force the rulers to make concessions, but, more importantly, a way forward for the entire working class.
The continued determination of working-class Blacks, especially youth, to protest is a testament to the grim conditions they face across the United States today – earlier peaks of the movement in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore were met with mass repression which included the arrest of protestors on charges of “terrorism,” curfews, and the deployment of military equipment and the national guard. From the first days of protest in Minneapolis, the police responded with mass arrests and the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, bulldozers, and cold water to breakup an encampment outside the fourth precinct. And with a return to old-fashioned, increasingly overt racism whipped-up by the media and Republican presidential candidates, demonstrators have faced the new danger of attacks by right-wing vigilantes, who shot five protesters in Minneapolis on November 23.
Chicago authorities, who suppressed footage of the unprovoked police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald during the height of the movement last fall, were forced by a lawsuit to make it public just as these developments were giving a new impetus to resist. Facing one of the most corrupt city administrations and oppressive police forces in the country, and the surge in white supremacism on display in Minneapolis, activists in Chicago sharpened the Black Lives Matter movement by demanding that not only the offending officer be held accountable, but for the removal of officials involved in the cover up. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a close advisor to the Clintons and Obama, has come under fire not only from protesters but from sectors of the ruling class eager to distance themselves from corruption and brutality: even the New York Times has called for his resignation to “restore trust” in the system. Emanuel has already been forced to sack Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, but this has failed to dampen the pressure on the mayor and Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez.
Mass struggles have won real achievements that would have otherwise been impossible. The arrest for first-degree murder of Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot Laquan McDonald sixteen times, marks the first time a Chicago police officer has faced such a charge in thirty-five years. Nationwide, fifteen cops have been charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings this year, three times the annual average.
But the more working-class people test the possibility of reform, the more it is proved that the police can be pushed back from their worst excesses only temporarily. Promises for “investigations” into the situation around the country since Ferguson have resulted in little real change in racist policing policies. This was cruelly demonstrated on December 2, when San Francisco cops in broad daylight surrounded and killed 26 year old Mario Wood as he was backed up against a wall. Chicago police have since released footage of another incident, the execution of 25 year old Ronald Johnson as he was running away, but announced that the officer responsible would not face charges – showing that any legal action is simply damage control, which will be kept to a minimum. Mayor Emanuel’s vow for “complete and total reform of the system and the culture” of police is just as empty as earlier promises. Meanwhile, while sympathy for the victims of racism grows on the one hand, repressive proposals become ever more mainstream on the other: it wasn’t Donald Trump but the Chicago Tribune that described protestors as “local terrorists.”
In this situation, it is crucial that the movement find out a way forward and resist efforts to wind down protests as in other cities. The focus which demands for the removal of officials implicated in racist attacks has a potential which has been immediately realized: since the sacking of Chicago’s police chief, protestors in Minneapolis have called for the removal of the police union head there, who has open links to white power groups, and rising anger in San Francisco is being directed against the police chief there.
The biggest obstacle, however, comes not from a lack of determination on the part of Black youth to resist racist oppression, or even from the repression of protests by the police, but rather from the potential for disorganization and disunity within the movement promoted by those who claim to speak on its behalf. During decades in which Black people were subject to worsening discrimination, poverty, and mass incarceration, the ruling class relied upon a narrow layer of Black “leaders” who deflect protests into powerless campaigns to “get out the vote” and win electoral offices for a few individuals with few gains for the masses. The ruling class hopes to continue this method to restrain the new wave of protests; for instance, Mayor Emanuel met with Black clergy to insist that they police the movement or else face the cutoff of funding to Black communities. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition has attempted to redirect the movement in Chicago into the meaningless call for “a full, thorough investigation with subpoena power.”
Such traditional Black leaders have lost most of their influence over the oppressed masses, however. Instead, the main forces attempting to establish themselves in a leading position in the movement have come from middle-class people organized in NGOs, wh attempt to use the movement to present themselves as responsible voices deserving of official recognition and funding. On the national level, groups claiming ownership of the movement such as #BlackLivesMatter and Project Zero have dissipated the energy from below by insisting that Black people have no demands to raise on the state, but simply a desire for dialogue with politicians to help educate them – as if having a Black president didn’t show that the rulers understand the realities of racism while failing to take any action to combat it. The NGOs promote Democratic Party-sponsored town halls and debates as the way forward, but even the “socialist” Bernie Sanders, while calling for reforms, refuses to demand that Emanuel go or to condemn Hillary Clinton or Obama for their continued support of the Chicago mayor.
These misleaders have their local counterparts. In Minneapolis an eight-person committee has adopted the title Black Lives Matter for itself. While claiming that the movement is “leaderless,” the members of that committee have assigned themselves the right to make decisions on behalf of the movement and to decide who is included in it. When the community’s protest responded to a violent attempt by the police to breakup their encampment on November 18 by throwing stones and bottles at police cars, these “non-leaders” told media that anyone who strayed from their policy of non-violence would be regarded an “outside agitator” and asked to leave, echoing the very rhetoric employed by the governor and other officials to undermine the movement. Of course, resisting police attacks with rocks and bottles is no solution. But such a desperate response is to be expected when the Black working-class youth who have been the driving force in the struggle against racism have no means to participate in the movement’s decision-making.
Police terror and racism are not accidental policies, but the necessary conditions for the survival of the capitalist system, which depends on keeping workers divided and exploited to maintain the ability to turn a profit. As the system has lurched into a deepening financial and economic crisis in recent years, it has no way out but to further drive down the living standards of all workers, which in turn depends on repressing the protests that emerge from those layers which already face the worse conditions.
The Black struggle has the potential to cut across the deepening political polarization in the U.S. and win broad support in the working-class public if it takes on these root causes of systemic racism. Opportunities for this exist everywhere; in particular what could be a pivotal one is on the table in Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers Union is preparing to hold a strike authorization vote. The attacks on public education have a clear class basis, hitting working-class children of all races around the country. Standing up against the assault on the future of children, and in particular against the police violence which young people of color face in schools as well as on the streets, could be a great step forward for the labor movement and anti-racist struggle.
But to realize such possibilities, the working class and oppressed who give the movement its strength also require the organizations and political program to lead it. The millions of dollars showered on NGOs have done nothing but propel a few careers while the masses face even worse conditions. We in the League for the Revolutionary Party believe that a party dedicated to socialist revolution will be needed to empower our class, and that it will have to be built by workers themselves, especially the most oppressed who are the primary victims of its attacks today. The experience of fighting for reforms can convince masses of people that the capitalist system is the cause of these abuses that rise up again and again, and that it can and must be overthrown. Those who can see this for themselves today must come together, even if our numbers are small at the moment, to build a leadership independent of the ruling class, its parties and its organizations, and will challenge all their attacks and their fake “solutions.”