“What good is it to elect the first African-American president
if we can’t protect our own children?” — Rev. Mark Thompson,
at a rally for Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on March 22
Outrage has spread at the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black youth killed by vigilante George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida on February 26. Martin was walking on the street in his father’s neighborhood when Zimmerman, who claimed to be on a “neighborhood watch” patrol, shot him dead. Martin was unarmed, yet Zimmerman told the police that he felt “threatened” by him – and the police let Zimmerman go free, without even fingerprinting him or taking away his gun! Zimmerman’s story is completely contradicted by the tapes of cell phone and 911 calls, which showed that Zimmerman was the only aggressor in the confrontation. And now, a whole month later, this racist vigilante still hasn’t been arrested!
In the weeks after Trayvon was murdered, activists spread the news, and the blatant injustice began to get national attention. In recent weeks there have been protests of thousands of angry people in Florida and across the country. The growing mass outrage finally compelled local, state and Federal authorities to make a show of doing something – far too little and far too late.
Protests will continue. If the struggle can force the perpetrator to be punished fully and can overturn the “Stand Your Ground” laws that encourage vigilantism, that would be a victory and could inspire a greater fightback. Yet such a prosecution would be a rare exception to the general rule. Police have time and again profiled and attacked Black people, particularly young Black men. Police brutality and vigilantism go hand in hand, even though the police don’t always officially favor vigilante activity.
The killing of Trayvon Martin shows once again that racism is still deeply embedded in American society – 150 years after the end of slavery and almost 50 years after the end of Jim Crow segregation laws in the South. Even the election of a Black president has not reversed that reality. For example, incarceration rates for young Black and Latino men are at record levels today. As one aspect of this stark reality, Michelle Alexander summed up, “More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began”!
Further: all working-class people have suffered in the ongoing economic crisis. But people of color have been hit the hardest – devastated by unemployment, cutbacks in social services and home foreclosures. Jobless rates especially for youth of color have skyrocketed, and foreclosures alone represent Black and Latino people’s largest loss of wealth in modern history, over 200 billion dollars in just a few years.
Many people hoped that President Obama would address such issues, but he has steadfastly avoided dealing with racial inequality and oppression. Indeed, for over three and a half weeks after Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama made no public statement about the case. He finally felt compelled to express his sympathy for Martin’s family on March 23rd, observing that “If I had a son he would have looked like Trayvon.” But two days later, his senior adviser David Plouffe turned around and denied that Obama considered Trayvon Martin’s killing to be a race issue!
Unlike Obama, the vast majority of Black people (and many others in the U.S. and across the world) have no problem identifying this killing as racial. The continuing assault on Black people goes hand-in-hand with an escalation of injustice against other oppressed groups. A record number of 396,906 immigrants were deported last year, the third straight record year in a row for deportations carried out by the Obama administration. Obama’s “Secure Communities” policy has given a green light to cops in many cities to profile people “guilty” of having brown skin or speaking Spanish. In parallel, vigilante activity against immigrants has grown alarmingly.
Muslims are also targets of profiling attacks, as the recent NYPD Muslim spying scandal exposed. Just as young Black and Latino men are stereotyped as criminal, Muslims are stereotyped as “terrorists.” And vicious racist attacks are carried out with a far greater vengeance by the U.S. military – in its imperialist interventions abroad from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Underlying these atrocities is the fact that the capitalist system relies on racism for its very survival. Capitalism is based on the rule of a tiny minority, the bourgeoisie, who exploit the vast majority, the working class. If all workers were to unite in struggle against their exploiters, the capitalists would be overthrown and lose their power and wealth. So the capitalist class uses the divide-and-conquer strategy to prevent workers from uniting. Promotion of racism, along with national chauvinism and other reactionary attitudes, has proven to be an extremely effective means of dividing workers. Now that the system is in deep crisis, the ruling class desperately needs to try to boost its profit rates by escalating the attacks on workers and the oppressed at home, as well as to maintain its dominant position as the main imperialist power super-exploiting people around the world.
In the Great Recession, Black and Latino people have suffered worse than whites. Yet no political leadership in the Black or Latino community has built a mass movement to fight back against the double jeopardy of racist and economic attacks. Al Sharpton has functioned as a mainstream Democratic Party politician for a long time, and he is one of Obama’s biggest advocates today as a cable TV commentator. He has become the most prominent figure leading police brutality protests like those for Trayvon Martin. Yet his advocacy of the Democratic Party over decades has done nothing to stop police brutality or the other ills of capitalist society. If anything, his role has been to express outrage when an incident occurs, but to make sure that no movement develops in too radical a direction.
Immigrant workers have likewise not found a leadership willing to break with the Democratic Party and fight in their interests against the pro-capitalist politicians. Thus the immigrant rights movement has gone from millions of people in the streets in 2006 to hardly any mass protests recently. Most obviously, the trade union leaders have not built the kind of strong labor movement needed to stand up to the growing attacks, despite the willingness of working-class people to fight back shown by the mass occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol last year. Black workers play a very critical role in unions, especially in the public sector – a prime target for cutbacks and layoffs. The ranks of many unions could be mobilized if the union bureaucrats were not tied to capitalism, both materially and ideologically.
All of these leaders, with their far greater organizations and resources, were upstaged last fall by the small groups of middle-class youth who sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yet there are not just hundreds or thousands but millions of workers and youth who oppose police brutality and the austerity attacks that both the Republicans and Democrats are pushing. A truly mass movement of the working class and oppressed people is possible that would be far more powerful than Occupy Wall Street – and could really begin to turn the situation around. But the current leaders are a barrier to such a development.
Many working people, especially people of color, easily see through the Republicans. The major Black leaders, immigrant leaders and union leaders instead subordinate themselves to the equally capitalist and imperialist Democratic Party. The Democratic politicians try to appear as if they are some kind of real alternative. Yet once elected to office Democratic politicians betray the hopes of their base of supporters time and again. That is why the betrayals committed by Obama once he took office were predictable.
Many Democratic politicians present themselves as friends of workers, Blacks, Latinos and immigrants. But the heart of the Democratic Party, along with its money and power, belongs to wealthy capitalists, just like the Republicans. Still the leaders of the working class and the oppressed have misled every past movement off the streets and into the voting booth. There is a long history of betrayals, culminating in the bipartisan bailing out of Wall Street bankers with trillions of taxpayers’ dollars followed by the bipartisan austerity cutbacks and layoffs to make workers, poor and oppressed people pay for it.
Militant mass action is necessary to restrain the cops as well as the vigilantes. But getting rid of police and vigilante brutality altogether means getting rid of the system they serve. The capitalist system rests on the exploitation and oppression of the working class and poor masses by the ruling class. Racism is central to U.S. capitalism because it keeps the working class divided. As well, the targeting of Blacks and Latinos is an attempt to keep people of color in a permanent state of intimidation, in order to hamper the historically most politically militant sections of the working class, who most easily see through the system.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that only people of color are potential victims of violent attacks by the police and military arms of the capitalist state. Two recent examples this past fall were the violent attacks on the ILWU longshore workers in Longview, Washington and the military-style assaults on Occupy protesters in Oakland, California, where it was only through luck that no one was actually killed. Such assaults will be on the rise as more workers of all colors are forced to actively resist the capitalist offensive.
The workers and youth of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) believe that to get rid of racism and capitalism once and for all will require a socialist revolution by the working class. The goal of socialist revolution is to replace the capitalist state with a new state ruled by the working class in alliance with all oppressed people. It will take massive interracial and international struggles by the working class to accomplish this goal. There is no doubt that Black and Latino workers will play a decisive role in building the revolutionary working-class party that is needed to lead these struggles.
A socialist society would seek to produce for the needs of all rather than for the private profit of an elite class of profiteers. Capitalism has itself laid the basis for transcending the misery to which it condemns humanity. It long ago built up the productive forces – industry, technology and a globalized economy – to the point where the potential exists to produce an abundance of all the things people need. Shortages of housing, food and every other form of want can be easily overcome, and the material basis for fights between different groups over pieces of the shrinking pie will be rendered unnecessary. But that potential remains trapped by capitalism’s pursuit of profit. Join us in the fight for socialism!
Supporters of the LRP participate fully in struggles like the fight for justice for Trayvon Martin. We strive to convince fellow workers and youth of the need to build the revolutionary party of the working class as well as arguing for effective tactics to strengthen the struggle at hand. It is urgently necessary to discuss the difficult questions of strategy and leadership for the anti-racist and workers’ struggles of today and the future. The tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death shows that we don’t have a moment to lose.
5. See our analysis May Day 2011: Immigrant Workers and the U.S. Class Struggle.
6. See our pamphlet on police brutality Revolutionary Strategy vs. Democratic Party Trap:Fight Police Terror!, which examined Sharpton’s role after the shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999.
7. As in our article Election ’08 Won’t Win Real Change. See also our pamphlet The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles for a deeper analysis.
8. See Occupy Wall Street: A Marxist Assessment.
9. See our in-depth analysis in the pamphlet Marxism, Interracialism and the Black Struggle.