People across America and around the world are rightly outraged at the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the vigilante who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black youth, in Sanford, Florida last year.
Cops have always been able to get away with murder, especially when it comes to young Black men. But this court’s decision to exonerate a citizen vigilante for this cold-blooded killing encourages racists everywhere to feel justified in acting on their twisted prejudices – from shooting a harmless young Black man in the dead of night for fear he was a criminal, to not hiring one in an economy in which unemployment among Black youth is four times the average for whites. The court’s verdict didn’t just confirm some of the dangers that threaten young Black people on the streets of this country – it excused the hostility that Blacks and all people of color face in every walk of life in this capitalist society whose levers of power are still disproportionately in the hands of whites and whose normal functioning deepens the racial divide.
The discrimination and violence faced by young Blacks and Latinos is connected to the rising poverty and exploitation of all working-class and poor people. In the economic crisis, the banks and biggest businesses got bailed out while the working class has been abandoned to budget cuts, rising unemployment and falling wages, with Blacks, Latinos and immigrants being hit the hardest. In this context, the abuse suffered by people of color marks the conditions of life of society’s most oppressed people, toward which broader numbers of working-class people are being driven.
Workers and other poor people and youth will inevitably fight back against these conditions. To challenge the capitalist system that relies on racism to divide us and conquer all, they will have to unite across the lines of racial oppression and privilege that the system encourages. And that can begin with a struggle for justice for victims of racist vigilantes and police.
Trayvon Martin was unarmed and simply walking in his father’s neighborhood when Zimmerman, who claimed to be on a “neighborhood watch” patrol, followed him in his car, pursued him on foot, and provoked a confrontation, during which he shot Martin dead. Yet Zimmerman claimed he felt “threatened” by Martin and that he acted in self-defense – and the jury, which included no Black people although Sanford is over 30% Black, acquitted him of all charges in its verdict on July 13.
The problem was not just the jury. The verdict was just the culmination of the entire legal process, in which the criminal justice system was biased in favor of Zimmerman at every step of its investigation. Initially the local police let Zimmerman go free; only after more than a month of nationwide protests did the authorities, under the pressure of growing mass outrage, belatedly file murder charges against Zimmerman in April 2012.
It is little surprise that such a reluctant prosecution of Zimmerman ended in his acquittal. The same Florida State Attorney, Angela Corey, who as Special Prosecutor was responsible for the failed prosecution of Zimmerman, at the same time oversaw the prosecution and mandatory sentencing last year of Marissa Alexander, a Black mother of three, to 20 years in prison just for firing a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband. Corey’s own racially biased record of prosecutions proves wrong her own statement that “this case has never been about race.”
Corey’s record is just a typical example of the systemic racism carried out by police, prosecutors and courts across America. The criminal justice system in America has always been biased against Black people above all. This is true not only in a southern state like Florida, but also in the north, including New York City. The same month when Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham was shot dead in the Bronx by NYPD police officer Richard Haste, who chased him into his grandmother’s bathroom. Then just two months ago a judge threw out the charges against Haste on a technicality. And all Black and Latino youth in New York City suffer the constant harassment of the NYPD’s notorious “Stop & Frisk” policy.
The killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman show 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”!
Of course, all working-class people have suffered in the on-going 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.
As young Blacks and Latinos suffer increasing poverty and unemployment, many better-off whites are becoming increasingly afraid of a rebellion by them. This has contributed to a political climate of heightened calls for “law and order”, and suspicion of young people of color in particular. The jury’s acquittal of Zimmerman is also a reflection of this growing racist attitude in society.
Many people hoped that President Obama would address issues of racism, but he has steadfastly avoided dealing with racial inequality and oppression. For over three and a half weeks after Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama made no public statement about the case. And now, after the acquittal of Zimmerman, Obama stated that “we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” He is more concerned that people stay calm than that they express justifiable anger at a gross travesty of justice.
Further, Obama presented gun control as the answer to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death: “We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives.” The reality is that people like George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who worked closely with the local police, are exactly the kind of people who will always have legal access to firearms in this society, no matter what gun control legislation is adopted. Gun control will inevitably be used more to disarm the victims of racist violence than to disarm the perpetrators of racist violence – especially since the police are the greatest perpetrators of racist violence of all.
Unlike Obama, the vast majority of Black people (and many others in the U.S. and across the world) have no problem denouncing the killing and the verdict as racist. The continuing injustices faced by Black people go hand-in-hand with escalated attacks on other oppressed groups. The Obama administration has carried out record numbers of detentions and deportations of immigrants, over 400,000 every year. 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. And the new “comprehensive reform bill” passed by the U.S. Senate would fund a huge increase in border walls and patrols, a murderous operation that causes the deaths of hundreds of desperate would-be immigrants each year.
Muslims are also targets of profiling attacks, as the NYPD Muslim spying scandal and the aftermath of the Boston bombing 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, along with outright discrimination and vastly unequal treatment, have proved to be an extremely effective means of dividing workers. Now that the system is in deep crisis, the ruling class desperately needs to escalate the attacks on workers and oppressed people at home, to boost its profit rates as well as to maintain its dominant position as the main imperialist power super-exploiting people around the world.
In the economic crisis, 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.
Likewise, the trade union leaders have not built the kind of strong labor movement needed to stand up to the growing attacks, despite the willingness to fight back that working-class people have shown time and again, as in the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol against anti-union attacks in 2011, and in last year’s Chicago teachers’ strike. 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. Workers and working-class youth should demand that the unions, civil rights and immigrant organizations really mobilize their resources and members to protest every racist outrage like the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer. Such responses would help build the struggle we need right now, and point to working-class-wide action against all the outrages and attacks we face.
Today Sharpton, the NAACP and others are calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to undertake a case against George Zimmerman that he violated Trayvon Martin’s civil rights. There is nothing wrong with such a demand on its face, except that it is used by mainstream politicians as a tool for diverting the struggle from the streets to the courtroom, from masses of people to handfuls of lawyers. And even if successful, the punishment for a civil rights violation hardly fits the crime of outright murder.
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 they are 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.
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 and the outrage of George Zimmerman’s acquittal show that we don’t have a moment to lose.
1. More Black Men in Prison Today Than Enslaved in 1850
2. Foreclosed: State of the Dream 2008
3. See our Immigrant Workers and the U.S. Class Struggle and Stop the Deportations! No to the Repressive “Reform” Bill! Amnesty and Equal Rights for All Immigrants!.
4. See our pamphlet on police brutality Fight Police Terror!, which examined Sharpton’s role after the shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999.
5. See our article Election ’08 Won’t Win Real Change. See also our pamphlet The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles for a deeper analysis.
6. See our in-depth analysis in the pamphlet Marxism, Interracialism and the Black Struggle.