This article, which now appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 79, was distributed as a leaflet by the League for the Revolutionary Party at several protest rallies and marches in December against the police murder of Sean Bell in New York City’s borough of Queens. It has been slightly edited.
Once again the cops have killed an unarmed, innocent young Black man, this time in a hail of 50 bullets. The death of Sean Bell the morning of November 25, along with the critical wounding of his two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, was not just “unacceptable” and “excessive,” as Mayor Bloomberg put it – it was murder. And since then the cops have continued to terrorize the southeast Queens communities where Sean lived and died, hunting for a mythical “fourth man with a gun” to pin the blame on for the crime that only they committed.
The Queens shooting is by no means an isolated incident. Everyone remembers the torture of Abner Louima and the murders of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond under the blatantly racist Giuliani. But there have also been police killings under the “sensitive” Bloomberg, including Alberta Spruill, a DC 37 worker who died of a heart attack when cops raided her Harlem home, and Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed West African, in 2003; and Timothy Stansbury, a Black teenager, shot on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment building in 2004.
It is almost always people of color, and it is not only in New York. On November 18, Michael Smith was shot and killed by Chicago cops for allegedly not identifying himself. In Atlanta on November 21, 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston was gunned down by narcotics police officers on a search. In Los Angeles in mid- November, an Iranian student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, was handcuffed and stun-gunned when he was racially profiled and refused to show identification. He, fortunately, was not killed.
Racism is not just at work when it comes to the deadly behavior of police. It is a tool that keeps people of color down in every walk of life. Economic hardship is spreading. Full-time jobs are replaced by low-wage part-time jobs; union jobs by workfare. Health care, education and other services are being slashed. In a society dominated by a small number of big capitalists who profit by exploiting a vast working class, the rulers must keep the masses down; they hide the class nature of the system by dividing and conquering the masses. Racism is key. As tough conditions worsen, more police brutality is used to try to keep oppressed people of color in a permanent state of intimidation.
While Black and Latino workers are slammed hardest, white workers are also hit. The bosses and their government whip up racism with the lies that Blacks, Latinos and immigrants are taking away jobs. Turning workers against each other is their way of forcing down the wages of everybody and also preventing united mass action by the exploited and oppressed against the system. White workers are turned against workers of color; workers of color are turned against each other. Racist attacks have multiplied under the so-called “war on terrorism,” which especially targets people of color abroad and at home.
Some apologists for the police are trying to say that it was not an issue of race because four of the five cops who took part in the shooting were Black and Latino themselves. But on the one hand, the officer who fired 31 of the 50 shots was white; on the other, this wasn’t the first time that Black cops have been used against their own people. The real point, of course, is who the police target. It was young Black men in a working-class club who were attacked, in stark contrast to what happens in upscale clubs frequented mainly by whites.
The killing of Sean Bell cries out for justice and a mass struggle against cop brutality. But the same old plans for police reform being pushed from various quarters are frauds.
Much of the Black political leadership in Queens accepts Bloomberg’s expressions of sympathy and his wrist-slap criticisms of the cops. They have pledged to wait for the results of an investigation by the Queens District Attorney, hoping to keep protests quiet. They could be waiting a long time, since as of December 4 the D.A. hadn’t yet interrogated the five cops!
More militant talk has come from City Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, who calls for the resignation of Police Commissioner Kelly and a federal investigation. The group “100 Blacks in Law Enforcement” is calling for a special prosecutor, pointing to the tight relations between D.A.’s and the cops. They are part of the same corrupt “justice” system and should know.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who in the past has led mass protest marches against police killings, is sticking to a moderate role, asking that the city show “moral outrage” and that cops be “held as accountable as anyone else.” Sure. He stood silently with Bloomberg at a press conference two days after the shootings, providing protective cover while the billionaire mayor appealed for calm.
The truth is that neither an independent prosecutor, a new police commissioner nor a federal investigation will bring justice. As we have noted, racist police brutality is built into the capitalist system, to maintain its regime of oppression, exploitation and imperialism. What’s more, because the police serve the system, the government will never deal out real punishment to its own cops.
Prosecution of police officers for excessive use of force is extremely rare. In New York, only three cops have been convicted for on-duty killings since 1977. Diallo’s killers, who pumped 41 bullets into him, were exonerated. Dorismond’s were not even indicted. And after September 11, 2001, the ruling class began seizing every opportunity to give a green light to racial profiling and police terror. The courts overturned the guilty verdicts against the cops who assisted and covered up the torture of Abner Louima. Even if some of Sean Bell’s murderers are eventually indicted, there is little chance that the penalties will fit the crime. Anti-racist fighters should read our pamphlet Fight Police Terror!, written during the struggle to win justice for Diallo. It exposes in detail the failure of all the phony police reform schemes across the country.
Politicians of all colors keep reforming the cops – and the cops keep killing innocent people. The cycle has to stop!
While police terror against the working class, people of color above all, can be fought now, it will exist as long as the capitalist system lives. We in the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) believe that a fighting working-class movement – in which Black and Latino workers and youth take the lead – is the way forward to end police terror and racism once and for all. We believe the goal is to overthrow capitalism, which requires building a revolutionary working-class political party. Such a party, independent of all pro-capitalist leaders, fights in the interests of the whole working class to unite the working class by waging an uncompromising struggle against racism.
Even though the working class is not now convinced that revolution is necessary, the fact is that people, all of us, learn and raise our political understanding through the course of struggle. And those struggles can be successfully built and developed today. Cops can be forced to retreat. A mass movement against police brutality can be built.
Mass action is the key. There are key concrete steps that revolutionary-minded people should band together and do to start turning this situation around. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people turn out for protests – but there should be hundreds of thousands. To maximize our forces, we must take the fight against police terror into the working class’s most powerful organizations, the unions. Union leaders have barely lifted a finger to mobilize the ranks of workers in the struggle against police brutality. In cities like New York, unions represent large numbers of Blacks and Latinos, both U.S.-born and immigrant, who face the reality of police brutality directly.
But like the Democratic politicians, today’s union leaders are tied to the capitalist system and fear mass action even by their own members. They have been silent about the shooting of Sean Bell and his friends. And when they do open their mouths, it will be to advocate the same old reforms like civilian review boards, more Black and Latino cops and a special prosecutor for police brutality and corruption in New York – that’s what they’ve done, repeatedly, in the past.
A year ago the transit workers’ union, TWU Local 100, went on strike before Christmas against the bus and subway bosses to stop the attacks on their pensions and health care. The pro-capitalist union leaders caved in before the strike could win, but the strikers had shown the power that workers have to shut the city down and bring the capitalists to their knees. And the strikers had won the support of their fellow working people across the city, despite the great inconvenience it brought them.
Just imagine the effect if this union and others vowed to shut down profit-making in the city to show our outrage at the murder of Sean Bell! We have to start advocating, in the unions as well as the community organizations, the need not only for rallies but for a one-day general strike. And if revolutionary and militant Black, Latino and anti-racist white workers take the lead, more workers will follow.
Politicians like Sharpton say: No Justice, No Peace. But this can mean little more than noise which eventually dies down. Even riots triggered by police brutality, like Los Angeles in 1992 or Cincinnati in 2001, were unable to win substantive gains because they didn’t hit the capitalist ruling class where it hurts most. But the unions in this city have the power to mobilize masses of workers and spread a strike call; that would be the most effective protest against police brutality possible
We say “No Justice, No Peace, No Profits!” When there is a cop atrocity like what happened to Sean Bell the city should be shut down! A general strike, based on the power of workers to shut down the economy, is the opposite of the passive civil disobedience and consumer boycotts forever being called by reform liberals – and forever accomplishing nothing.
The impact of such an action in New York City would not be limited to the struggle for justice for Sean Bell. It would inspire workers and anti-racists all across America and the world. Once the working class sees that capitalism’s atrocities can be fought, millions of workers, who now feel too weak to achieve real changes, would begin to see that they have enormous power. Then workers and oppressed people would see the possibility of a new society not ruled by the bosses and their hired racist hit-men, a socialist society governed by and for the working class.