Aug 26, 2020
The protests set off by the murder of George Floyd on May 25 were a real social explosion, unlike anything seen in this country for decades. Reinforced by media pictures of a Minneapolis police station in flames and looting in different cities, the explosive nature of the first weeks led some people to see in these events a new edition of the urban revolt of the 1960s.
Whatever the movement touched off by the June events finally turns out to be, this much is obvious now: the protests were massive. According to a survey made by The New York Times, half a million people came out on June 6 alone to protest the killing of George Floyd. But in fact, the protests were not restricted to just one day, and certainly not to just the 550 places noted by The Times. They touched cities like Louisville Kentucky, where there already were protests going on over the killing of Breonna Taylor, a city emergency medical technician shot in her own apartment in a no-knock raid. They spread to every state in the union, to every big city where demonstrations usually happen, but also to all those other cities, including very small towns far removed from the usual areas of protest, even areas that are essentially rural. One of the most important aspects of the demonstrations was how many young people took part, including leading parts. It’s clear there were tens of millions of people involved during the month of June, which was the period of greatest intensity. By the end of June, there had been demonstrations in at least half of all the counties in the country. Demonstrations of some sort have continued after since, even if their focus has changed quite a bit in some cities like Portland Oregon, and even if there has been a falling off in many areas.
There is no point in speculating where things will go, but several things are clear. A whole new generation has lived through these events and has already been marked by the experience. And a shooting by another trigger-happy cop—which is sure to happen, again and again—may well set off new rounds of explosions. We’ve just seen that with the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The very first demonstrations often started from militants who for the last decade or more had been organizing demonstrations to respond to killings in their own areas. By 2014, after the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, demonstrations had become somewhat more important. But still they remained relatively episodic, and restricted to the usual cities where people have the habit of demonstrating.
That changed with the video of the murder of George Floyd. In June, at the height of the 2020 movement, there were 30,000 people in the streets of New York and Chicago and 100,000 in Los Angeles, instead of the four or five thousand seen in earlier demonstrations. In a city like Detroit, where militants might earlier have struggled to get together a single demonstration of two thousand, there were tens of thousands with hundreds of demonstrations, organized at the beginning by dozens of different people. Many demonstrations throughout the country were like this, organized almost on the spur of the moment by a few individuals who felt the obligation to express outrage. This self-activity of many different people all over the country, activity that continued day after day, created the feeling that a dam holding back the population’s anger had finally given way.
“Black Lives Matter” became the slogan everywhere, picked up from a hash tag first used by an activist in California after the killer of Trayvon Martin was acquitted in 2013, then given much wider use after the 2014 murders. Many of those long involved added another slogan—“Say Their Names”—an insistence that the lives of people who had been murdered be remembered, their deaths not swept under an official rug, as had happened so often before.
The media took particular note of the number of whites who demonstrated, in many cities actually the majority. From many of them, it was a belated recognition of the daily violence perpetrated by the police against black communities.
While many black people might have been surprised and pleased to see all those whites out in the streets, it’s understandable that some might question if this sudden turn is genuine, or just a fad of the moment. In any case, it was a recognition of the reality facing the black population.
That reality has been brutal. In the five years running from 2015 through 2019, more than 1300 black people were shot and killed by cops. Overall, on average, a black person was two and a half times more likely to be killed than someone white. But averages mask a lot. Black men younger than 35 were the ones most targeted, although black women were also victims, as were a number of children, some as young as 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by a Cleveland cop.
These figures come from a log that the Washington Post started to keep in 2015, after the killing of Michael Brown. The Post compiles it from various sources—including official, media and community organizations—because no part of the central government requires police agencies to report on the number of civilians their officers have killed. Less than half report to the FBI, and even fewer designate the race of those killed. Government is clearly more interested in covering up reality than in dealing with it.
As the Post figures attest, other people also were killed by cops, especially other young men, Latino men, Native American men, white men. In fact, the largest number of people killed during these years by cops were white, but proportionate to their numbers in the population, black people were killed at a rate two and a half times more often. It’s important to note that, whatever the difference in rates, there is something that unifies all those killed by cop: by far the largest number were poor.
In 2014, the choking to death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York, was followed three weeks later by the gunshot death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Neither victim had a weapon. Both were originally stopped by cops for insignificant issues: Eric Garner was ordered to move off of a corner where he was selling single cigarettes; Michael Brown was accused of stealing several cigarillos from a convenience store. Each ended up dead. The cops who killed them were never charged.
In 2020, 1300 deaths and six years later, George Floyd was choked to death after a store owner complained that someone had paid with a counterfeit $20 bill. George Floyd, sitting across the street on the top of his car, was accosted by the police, ordered into a police car. Before the incident was over, he, too, was dead.
All three cases were perfectly “normal.” Normal? Violations that shouldn’t even rise to the level of a misdemeanor charge, and maybe weren’t even violations, ended in the deaths of three men because cops quickly escalate to lethal violence.
A steady drumbeat of examples like these brought many protestors to focus their anger on the police, demanding not only to have offending cops charged but to have police chiefs fired, and whole departments reformed in various ways, particularly by reducing their funding, i.e., “defunding” them, and taking their military-style equipment away from them.
But the special violence directed against the black population is not the result of conscious choices made by particularly racist cops—“bad cops,” as Joe Biden called them at the Democratic Party convention—although there still are quite a few such cops. Nor is it the result of the way the police departments are organized, who makes them up, who directs them and leads them, what equipment they have—although all these things may serve to make the police more or less noxious.
The violence carried out by the state apparatus against the black population is a durable institution with deep economic, social and political roots in the capitalist system. These roots go back to the beginning, before this nation was even consolidated. This is the basic issue that underlies the special victimization of the black population—victimization that includes not only police violence, but all the other discriminatory aspects of this society, including a very high level of joblessness and poverty—up to, right now, the fact that black people are dying at a faster rate from COVID-19 than anyone else.
The violent repression that is directed specifically against the black population has been embedded in the very running of the capitalist economy from its beginning. That economy rested on the unpaid labor of the peoples stolen away from the African continent, bound over into slavery. The accumulation of value first from the slave trade, then from slave labor in Southern agriculture, is what nourished the development of capitalism in both the North and the South.
Slavery was not just a passing episode, a bizarre little blip on the historical record—as many people who don’t want to hear talk of racism would have it. Slavery marked the first 244 years of this North American nation’s existence, 60% of its history. From its colonial beginnings in the 1600s, the developing capitalist order condemned the black population to a specific, highly restricted place in the economy, legally defined and institutionalized.
Slavery itself was given the imprimatur of the Constitution when the 13 colonies formed the new nation. Not only did the Constitution resolve that each slave counted only as 3/5 of a person, it specifically authorized enslavement until at least 1808, if not later, and it prohibited any state that didn’t recognize slavery from passing its own laws to protect slaves. Specific restrictions fencing in the black population were inscribed in laws written by Southern legislatures, recognized by Northern ones. Those laws defined, among other things, what an enslaved person could do, where they could go, how far they could go, whether they could be taught to read or write, what church they must attend, and which they could not, how they must address white people, whether they could have a plot of land, whether they could marry, what claim a mother had on her child, and for how long, what were the consequences of any attempt to escape or help another to escape.
In short, all those laws set apart, segregated off the people brought from Africa and their descendants. The laws were imposed by violence, organized by the slave owners themselves, reinforced by the “slave patrols.” Those patrols not only hunted runaways; they also were the instrument of imposing horrific punishment on recalcitrant slaves. In effect, the “slave patrols” were the very first organized and hired police force as it were, used to maintain the extreme exploitation of slave labor.
All of the Southern states and almost all of the Northern ones enacted laws against miscegenation, so-called race-mixing. It was the basic mark of how much the black population was to be set aside from everyone else in the ordinary laboring population, to be considered less than everyone else, in effect, less than human.
Ironically, the “race-mixing” that did take place was most often the result of slave women being raped by white slaveowners or white overseers on the plantation. A few of the slave women may have been given better conditions, considered as mistresses, but their children could never legally be recognized as the children of the slaveowners. They were considered the product of “miscegenation,” never to be accorded familial rights.
The Northern states and territories recognized the rights of Southern slave patrols to come into their domains in search of escaped slaves, and they sometimes let their own state militias help in the chase. The members of a slave patrol who killed a slave in the course of their “duties,” were not prosecuted. Not in the South. Not in the North either, for all practical purposes.
Northern territories like Illinois and Indiana restricted freed blacks and required them to carry papers with them, register wherever they went—when not subjecting them to enslavement in the southern parts of those territories where slavery existed. And a number of Northern states and territories, starting with Iowa, simply “excluded” the possibility that freed blacks could settle in their territory. At best, they could do so only by posting an exorbitant bond.
The legal restrictions against black people in the Northern states were not the simple product of a toleration of slavery imposed by the necessity of Northern states cohabitating in the new union with the South. They were a guarantee that the plantations could remain stocked with black labor, and they were the political recognition of how much Northern capital was dependant on the value ripped out of Southern agriculture with that labor.
It took the Civil war, the bloodiest war ever fought by American troops, to end slavery as a specific legal institution.
On both sides, the war was a recognition that plantation agriculture required expansion into new territories. Southern agriculture, which destroyed land, would die without expansion. But Southern expansion was truncating Northern territory, beginning to splinter it, as the South occupied the Mississippi River plain, physically keeping the central part of the North from engaging in commerce with Europe. The Civil War was a war over who would control the North American continent.
It was only during the course of the war that the North came to recognize it could not win without in some way emancipating the slaves. The first to recognize it were those of its generals who were pushing to pursue the war up to its end, Sherman and Grant. Whatever hesitations, whatever misgivings expressed by the Northern political class, Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
But words on paper could not end this institution that already had lasted for two and a half centuries. To have consolidated the ending of slavery required a popular revolution and, first of all, the widespread taking of the land of the plantations. The only Southern forces whose interests would have been served by doing that were the newly freed slaves, allied with the poor whites, who also had been in revolt against the slave-owning hierarchy. It also would have required the organizing of some means of defense against the former slave-owners, who made clear their intention to reassert their claim on the land, and on black labor.
The brief post-Civil-War period of Reconstruction was an attempt by the emancipated slaves and poor whites to set up their own governments, to establish their own collectively organized institutions, including those aimed at educating their children and at providing some kind of health care. In some areas, the poor, black and white, began to occupy the land of the plantations, putting it into production for their own sustenance—an action opposed by the Northern military overseers of Reconstruction, as well as by most of the Reconstruction governments, staffed as they were by the more educated among the poor, too respectful of legitimacy.
The North, faced with a Southern hierarchy that still was not ready to completely cede, had no choice except keep federal troops in the South. But Northern industry was facing the revolt of its own “wage-slaves”—and the federal authorities had to worry about the feelings of solidarity that developed between the troops and the Southern poor. It took less than 12 years for the Northern bourgeoisie to come to an accommodation with the Southern hierarchy, and to remove its troops.
Reconstruction was ended in a bloodbath. The poor, mostly black but also white, were its chief victims. Most of the repression was carried out by the militia-like organizations of the Ku Klux Klan, which came out of the slave patrols, reinforced by the officer corps of the defeated Confederate army. The governments of the poor were replaced by governments run by those who had organized the Confederacy.
It was a monumental defeat that meant the conditions born in slavery would continue, and the Southern poor, black and white, would remain impoverished.
The old plantation system of agriculture was reinstituted in the South. Land occupied by the newly freed blacks was taken from them, often violently, given back to the old slave-owning class and their descendants. If “freed” blacks couldn’t prove an income, which most people could not, they were subject to being funneled into the new Southern penitentiary system, which was established as a way to provide labor to the plantations. Sometimes the old plantations themselves were transformed into penitentiaries. At best, some blacks might be recognized as tenant farmers—a kind of serf—providing labor to wealthy landowners in exchange for bare subsistence. But the part of their crop that was owed to the landowner made them subject to imprisonment, if they couldn’t provide it. It was another way black people were funneled into the penitentiary system, that is, into labor for Southern plantation-style agriculture.
The reconstituted Southern legislatures enacted laws that mimicked the laws of slavery. Once again, the black population was segregated from those who should be its natural allies, the poor whites, who faced many of the same conditions. During Reconstruction, these two parts of Southern labor had started to forge alliances. Instead, over time, many of the poor whites became part of the violent forces that reimposed the old regime on the black population.
The newly freed black people were prevented, by law, from entering government buildings, from representing themselves in legal matters, from holding most jobs, attending most educational institutions, or even getting an education. They were blocked from voting, couldn’t sit on juries. They were denied the most basic elementary human right—to be judged before being summarily executed, trial by lynching. And then there were all the vilely demeaning laws: a whipping prescribed for not stepping off into the gutter to let a white person pass “unimpeded.”
This system, so-called “Jim Crow,” was enforced by violence, the organized violence of the state. The old slave patrols became the local systems of deputy sheriffs, which often in rural areas merged with the Ku Klux Klan.
This system served to maintain the bulk of the “freed” black Southern population as an agricultural labor force in the South. It was slave labor in all but name. And the reason for it was the same as during the period of slavery. Southern agriculture, which depended on black labor—first slave, then “free”—provided profit to the whole capitalist class, North and South.
Just as during the period of slavery, the Northern juridical system recognized the restrictions of the black population built into these laws. Northern police could be called upon to return a tenant farmer who hadn’t fulfilled the terms of his contract. Escape from the plantations, which now masqueraded as penitentiaries, made someone subject to Northern law enforcement.
There was an even more efficient reinforcement of Southern agriculture—and that was the fact that manufacturers and other large employers in the North essentially refused to hire black laborers when they managed to come North. To the extent there was hiring, it was only into the most dangerous, most back-breaking of work—or as scabs during a strike. Until the spigot of immigration was shut off in World War I, Northern manufacture wasn’t interested in black labor. The lack of work prospects in the North helped to keep black labor penned up in Southern agricultural fields.
For the few black people who managed to escape the Jim Crow South before World War I, the North itself had its own kind of Jim Crow system, every aspect of it given legal sanction by the juridical system.
Most property in the North was covered by racial covenants—that is, the sworn agreement of a person who buys property not to sell to someone other than a white person. These covenants usually had a secondary clause requiring owners of property not to rent to a “non-white” person. Those covenants, upheld by the courts, when they weren’t directly written into local laws, served to prevent the black population from living in all but a very few areas—the very restricted and crowded ghettoes of the Northern cities.
The whole state of Oregon, in fact, was organized on the basis of a de facto 1844 racial covenant which excluded the black population from residing anywhere in the whole state, subject to whipping for any who didn’t leave or later attempted to come in. Provisions for exclusion written into the state constitution were not removed until 1926. And language that remained in the law justifying the exclusion based on so-called “Negro inferiority” was not removed until 2002. Oregon may have been the most extreme, but it wasn’t the only one with such exclusions: California nearly passed such laws, and de facto acted as though it had.
These laws on property effectively had consequences on everything else, and first of all the educational system. Even as late as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, education in most places of the North was every bit as segregated as in the South. The racial covenants of the North, which had the force of law, combined with the highly localized way in which schools were organized guaranteed that result—and that guaranteed that black children had inferior supplies, old books, unrepaired buildings, etc., if they even had a building.
In one way or another, most of these laws, North and South, carried over in the legal system of this country right up to the 1960s. Most states did not get rid of their miscegenation laws until the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Racial covenants remained written into property deeds in states like California as late as 2000. FDA mortgages, guaranteed by the federal government after World War II, effectively continued them long past the time the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. And even after all these various restrictions were no longer part of the legal code, the institutions and functioning that had been established by more than two centuries of legal restrictions and organized violence carried over in every day functioning.
Effectively, everything served to keep the black population set aside, segregated from those who should have seen black labor as their natural allies, the white workers. Black workers were prevented in fact from entering into the jobs or residential areas that might have made such alliances possible—and proved their necessity to the white workers. But too often white workers, to their shame, organized to impose racial restrictions.
These institutions and practices have continued down through all these generations because the capitalist class, in its pursuit of profit, has been served by the permanent installation of the black population as the lowest caste of the laboring population.
Other peoples in this country have been exploited, oppressed.
Other people have come into this hemisphere from elsewhere, and others were ground down by the conditions they faced when they got here. First came those impoverished and desperate people from Britain, France and Spain. Remember, it was not just the so-called explorers and sailors and priests who came from Europe—there were also all the poor, emptied out of Europe’s debtor prisons.
Then came the Irish and Chinese, hauled into the U.S. to build the railroads.
Then came the Scandinavians and Germans, pushed into the fields on the lowest rungs of agricultural labor.
Then came the Italians and other southern Europeans, flooding into cities where industry was growing up. Then Slavic peoples and Jews from East Europe and Russia.
More recently, came the people from Asia and Latin America, particularly Mexico.
The biggest share came to escape poverty and/or militarism and wars.
All the different immigrant groups managed over a generation or two to become installed at least in the margins of economic life—and to gain, eventually, the legal rights contained in citizenship.
Those who came from Africa and their descendants didn’t.
This evolution and this difference is what lay behind the old racist argument: others made it; others worked hard and succeeded, why didn’t black people?
Why? Because the black population, transported here before almost all the others, has been economically fenced off, legally and forcefully prevented from entering the same development as did the others—as impoverished as the immigrants were.
Those who came—actually were kidnapped—from Africa and their descendants have occupied a special part of the labor force over all these generations, toiling as slaves for two centuries; escaping from slavery only to toil as slaves under another name—sharecroppers and prison labor on the plantations for nearly another century; and then pushed into the reserve army of the unemployed for industry, both North and South, the most marginal part of the working class, the part that might have a job when the economy is booming—as it was in World War II or in the Viet Nam war period—but the part that absorbs the worst of the unemployment in bad times, which increasingly are the normal times.
Over all the years since the Great Migration, when black people flooded up from the South, the black population has absorbed a large and disproportionate share of the unemployment, and that means everything else that goes with it, starting with poverty, including crime, of which the black population has always been the most direct victims. In a system where the exploitation of labor is necessarily enforced by the organized violence of the state, it also means that state violence would disproportionally be directed against the black population.
Black people weren’t pushed into this restricted, fenced-off place because racist attitudes are inherent in the white population, although there have been racist attitudes aplenty. Black workers occupied this special place because the capitalist class found it extremely advantageous for its profits to have a part of the working class that always absorbs the worst of the conditions for labor, the worst of the conditions of life.
If it has seemed to the black population that they have always been stepped over, bypassed by all the other groups who came afterwards, if it seemed that black workers were always the “last hired, first fired,” that’s because it’s how this system worked right up into the 1960s—and, with a brief interlude, how it works today.
The bypassing of black workers is certainly not because immigrant workers “took the jobs” of black workers, as demagogues like Trump would have it. Immigrants did not institutionalize this go-to-the-back-of-the-bus social seating order imposed on the black population. The workings of a capitalism built on slavery did. And finally, no one—other than the capitalists—has benefitted from the divisions this built into the working class.
Periodically, there had been social movements and revolts by the black population, such as during the populist movements in the South during the 1890s and the Garvey movement during the 1920s in the cities. But starting in the 1950s—even before in the years of World War II—the black population had begun to mobilize on a national scale. Labor from the countryside was moving into the cities. Veterans were coming home from the wars.
The movement spread slowly at first in the South, trying to overturn some of the most demeaning limits of Jim Crow by the actions of people who no longer accepted them, attempting to register to vote, organizing to defend their own community against the night-riders of the KKK. The determination and courage of hundreds of activists in the face of the violence of Southern sheriffs and the KKK began to pull thousands of people, then tens of thousands of people, ordinary people, into the struggle.
By 1964, the Civil Rights Movement had produced victories in boycotts, it had driven back the Bull Connors, it had produced legislation, won courtroom victories, opened school doors and lunch counters—and yet, the condition of the black masses had changed little. It was in that context, in fact, only two weeks after the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 had been signed, that the first explosions of anger burst out in Harlem, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Patterson and Elizabeth, as well as in the Chicago suburb of Dixmoor. Then came Watts in ‘65, Cleveland in ‘66, then Detroit and Newark in 1967, with dozens of other cities at the same time. Finally came the vast nationwide revolt in the days of 1968 after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That assassination—of the “man of peace”—was the explicit proof that this country built on violence would not be constrained by moral example and “appeals to its conscience.”
What appeared as a sudden explosion had, in fact, been simmering for years.
The movement spread into the army, infecting the black soldiers in Viet Nam who ignored orders and flaunted their unwillingness to accept discipline, spreading from them to the whites, making U.S. imperialism’s army undependable. The prisons became hotbeds of revolt and incubators of social protest. Taken together, it was a social movement unlike any ever seen in this country. It spawned other movements: among women, against U.S. imperialism’s wars, among the students. And it spread into the factories, where strikes grew precipitously.
Parts of the black population had been moving into industrial cities, North and South, bringing them into the seats of power in the economy. As the revolt grew in the streets, those angry young men from the streets carried their revolt into the workplaces, which themselves were infected with revolt.
The struggle of the black masses in the 1960s effectively challenged the control of the capitalist class over all of society. It shook the United States of America, the very citadel of imperialism, not only in its industrial centers, but also in its state apparatus. But finally, the social overturn that was implied by these events was not achieved.
There were militants like H. Rap Brown who said that if racist oppression was not ended, black people would have to burn everything down. But they did not say that racist oppression cannot be ended without, effectively, burning it down, that is, without overthrowing the capitalist system. There was no organization rooted in the poor black population able to give a perspective to the people who wrote “black power” on buildings during the urban revolts, none that might have given them the goal of carrying out a fight to eliminate the power of the capitalist class. Put another way, there was no revolutionary communist organization implanted among black workers. There was none implanted in the working class as a whole.
Faced with a vast mobilization that had carried the possibility of social revolution, the bourgeoisie, and specifically, the most conscious parts of the political apparatus that spoke for it, moved to divert and to block this movement. Despite wide activity that continued for most of the next decade, the population was channeled increasingly onto the path of reform.
And there were reforms, sweeping reforms.
Rapidly, a whole new cadre of black politicians, usually Democrats, developed. Many of the militants who had come through the movement began to take positions in government, believing they could now play a role from inside the system to better the situation of the black population, militants like John Lewis, who was elected to Congress, for example; or, Andrew Young, a lieutenant of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who was also elected to Congress and later became U.S. ambassador to the U.N.; or Coleman Young who became the first black mayor of Detroit, based on a campaign directed against police abuses.
It was through these new black politicians that the government offered what seemed like very large concessions to the black population. Law after law was passed, dealing with public accommodations, employment, housing.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act gave black people the right to vote—it should be said that this was the fourth time in 102 years, restating the same right that had already been recognized implicitly in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, then explicitly in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of 1868, and even more explicitly in the 15th Amendment in 1870.
Police departments were “reformed” at some level—the Detroit police department has been “reformed” three times over the course of four decades. Black cops were hired in many cities; black officials began to speak for the police to the population.
The state apparatus, on the crest of the long wave of economic expansion, instituted a broad range of social programs, larger than anything ever seen in this country. Medical care was widely expanded with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid; public school funding was increased, access to higher education opened up, including through grants and scholarships. Income support programs were widely expanded through a broadened social welfare system. Instead of the distribution of farm surplus, grants allowing people to buy the food they actually needed were instituted. Programs aimed at the most deprived children were put in place, serving educational, medical and nutritional needs.
These improvements that touched the black population also touched wide layers of the whole working class. Everyone’s standard of living went up.
The economy still had room, spurred by the war, to absorb new workers. For a period, black workers seemed to gain a solid foothold in the industrial jobs they had been barred from, joining the whites, more of whom were also hired. Black workers found a large place in the labor force that most cities, counties and states organized to carry out work on public services; and they moved into office and administrative jobs in those services.
Significant numbers of black workers were able, with the higher wages, to move into somewhat better housing. Moreover, restrictions on where people could live had been battered down by a vast movement that spanned from World War II up to 1971.
Some of their children were able, even aided to go to the better public schools that had been barred to their parents by residential segregation.
And a black professional class grew up, which was absorbed into both business and the public sector. In many plants, black supervisors became the rule.
But behind all these carrots lurked the stick. Black organizations that had played a role in the fights of the 1960s were attacked, sometimes by overt police operations that murdered or imprisoned militants, sometimes by inserting agents to foment internal problems. The Nation of Islam split and split again. Malcolm X was assassinated. Stokely Carmichael was forced to leave for Africa. Rap Brown was imprisoned. SNCC went out of existence. Huey Newton was pursued. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed in their beds as they slept. The Panthers were decimated by internal warfare set off by police agents working inside the organization, its organized activity within the community practically eliminated. George Jackson was assassinated in prison.
Behind the attack on these militants was the still greater attack being prepared against the black population. And over it all hung the economic crisis that emerged in 1971 and has lasted up until this day, quickly demonstrating the illusory nature of what seemed to have been won.
The long economic expansion that allowed for some reforms had been based on the favored U.S. position in reconstruction around the world after World War II and on military goods production for the wars in Asia. But expansion came to an end in the early 1970s. From then on, the economy went through one crisis after another. As the recessions rolled out in the mid-1970s, unemployment once again became the constant companion of the black working population. Unemployment attacked everyone—but the black population, the most recently hired, the first to be fired, once again carried its heaviest weight.
By 1980, the working class as a whole had begun to retreat, stunned by the suddenness of the onslaught.
The social gains of the movement began to be stripped away, as funding was repeatedly cut to schools in urban areas, to social programs and to public services that had ameliorated the living conditions of working people. Under increased pressure of the crisis and increased competition, every company in the country was pushed to squeeze out as much profit as it could in order to protect itself, thus reducing the living standards of the population. Cities, counties, states all cut back on the numbers employed. Jobs were subcontracted out to low-wage employers.
The black population had been at the forefront of all the struggles in the 1960s and early 1970s. And the bourgeoisie and its political class knew very well the danger this held as it carried on a war against labor. The government opened an overt political attack, the so-called “war on drugs.” Started under Nixon, continued under Reagan, Bush and Clinton, this war took the form of restrictive laws aimed at drug users and laws aimed at increasing the length of prison sentences, even reasserting the use of the death penalty.
Under the pretext of stopping the spread of drugs, a whole section of the black population was criminalized. A sizeable part of the unemployed population was effectively disappeared from the economy—they were in prison. To illustrate how big an impact this had: if those in prison for drug offenses in 2015 were counted among the unemployed, the official overall unemployment rate would have been 7.2% instead of 5.6%.
That part of the population that has been referred to as “the dangerous class”—that is, young black men for whom this system was not ready to provide a job—were picked up in large numbers, removed from the streets, sent to prison for years for nothing more, at least the first time, than possession of small amounts of drugs.
War on drugs? No, it was a war on young black men for whom this capitalist system would not provide work. This was, on the one hand, the simple consequence of a system in which racial bias has been institutionalized for more than 350 years. But it was more than that. It removed this “dangerous class” from contention in the streets. Nixon, Reagan and the first George Bush were open about targeting young black men. Clinton, who oversaw the most draconian changes in criminal law, pretended to ignore this consequence. But the result was the same.
The consequences for the black population as a whole have been devastating. One third of all black men between the ages of 19 and 30 have spent some time in prison. The very large majority of them started there for a simple drug offense. But once there, most go back. Having spent time in prison is an enormous impediment for getting a job. The first prison sentence for minor drug possession can end up pushing people into the drug trade or other endeavors as a way to survive. And that has its consequences as far as crime in neighborhoods is concerned.
Having spent time in prison also means in many states that a person loses the right to vote. Today, four times as many black adults are legally deprived of the vote as the result of prison as were prevented from voting by Jim Crow laws when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
The fact that so many men today are in prison at any time means that a much greater burden of child-rearing has fallen on women. To see what that means: in 1980, 14% of black children were raised by a single parent, usually women. In 2015, 67% were raised by one parent.
That enormous demographic change in that short a time may seem almost inconceivable. But it gives the picture of how devastating this “war” has been, how rapidly it has criminalized a whole part of the population and victimized everyone else, including, above all, the children.
The cops have been told over and over that they are in a war on the street. So, of course, they rush to pull out their guns. This war on drugs, and all the changes in criminal law that went with it, gave police the right to kill, almost with impunity.
But the police are only the tip of the spear. The spear is the entire capitalist system, virulently racist to the core.
If the murderers of George Floyd were quickly indicted, it’s not because Minneapolis is a “liberal” city that believes cops should not have impunity. If a few other cops now face the same fate, including cops whom authorities declined to charge in the past, it’s because this large and sometimes angry movement reminded authorities of what might happen.
That’s why police chiefs from around the country have been rushing to claim they are already instituting a process to “reform” how their officers are trained and act. By the end of July, thirty one more cities had banned chokeholds, the maneuver that killed both Eric Garner and George Floyd, meaning that 62 of the country’s 100 biggest cities had so declared. These laws guarantee nothing. Chokeholds had been banned in New York in 1993. But that ban did not protect Eric Garner. And chokeholds are not the only way to harm. Banning them is nothing but a way to avoid the issue of police violence. It’s a symbol, a promise of reforms to come. Many police chiefs and mayors are perfectly ready to engage in symbols, as they showed when they “took the knee” in the first days of the protests. But that hasn’t stopped police violence—as the families of Jacob Blake and Rayshard Brooks know only too well.
Promises to “reform” the police beg the question. Why do the police even exist? Quite simply, they exist, they employ violence to make sure the capitalist class can continue to make profit, directly by extorting value from labor, indirectly by draining the public treasury. That violence is used most often against the black population, specifically because black labor has been set apart as a specially oppressed part of labor, ever since the birth of American capitalism in slavery.
Until that issue is confronted head on, there can be no answer. The future the working class needs, the future the black population needs, the future most of the population needs can not be built by attempting to reform the system once again—just like getting the right to vote four times did not provide the black population today a guarantee that they can vote—or that their vote will even make it through the post office to be counted!
No, capitalism cannot provide lasting reforms. It’s absurd to imagine that looking at this country’s long history, even more absurd in this period of chronic crisis and decline, in which the capitalist class can increase its profits only by increasing its war on the living standard of the working population.
Addressing the problems we face—including, first of all, police violence—means tackling the system that has produced the problems, this system born in slavery, whose legacy is with us up to this day. Addressing the problems means ripping out capitalism root and branch.
It serves no purpose to speculate where things will go. Certainly, the events of June, and what has happened since are not the urban revolt that started in 1964, lasting up until 1971. Today’s events don’t have behind them the massive popular movement that led to 1964. Nor is a significant part of the popular classes raising the question of power by their activity. But history doesn’t ever play out in the same way, and the June events might be just the opening chapter of a much bigger, more conscious struggle.
But even if that were to happen, something else is needed. Will there be a party able to provide a revolutionary perspective, a communist one? In the current situation, that boils down to asking are there enough militants committed to the idea of social revolution, communist militants? Will they at least have begun to build a revolutionary organization rooted in the black laboring population, the part of the working class that is most implicated by all these questions, but that has proven itself over all these generations to be the ones ready to take the fight further, even up against the power wielded by the bourgeoisie? Will they at least have begun to build a revolutionary organization rooted in the working class, able to touch white workers?
These were the critical issues in the mid-1960s. They are still the issues today.
August 26, 2020