The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Gangs That “Own the City”

Feb 6, 2023

What follows is the editorial that appeared on the front of all SPARK’s workplace newsletters, during the week of January 29, 2023.

Five men beat an unarmed man viciously. Those who beat him had guns, hardwood clubs, Mace, Tasers, pepper spray—as well as their fists and boot-shod feet.

It was a gang beating, it happened on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, and it ended with the death of another young man. Another young Black man.

The gang, as most people probably know by now, was a gang of cops, the "Scorpion" unit. It didn’t matter that they were black. They were cops.

As many people have known for a long time, cops like this, organized in gangs, exist in almost every big city in the country. They are the "special squads," the "elite forces," the goons that politicians claim are needed to keep order in poor neighborhoods of the country.

Maybe they aren’t all so foolish as the ones in Memphis who let their murderous attack be caught on video. But all of these gangs are constituted to show, as in the case of Baltimore—or Memphis—that they "own the city."

These gangs of cops are part of the capitalist system. Poverty and the oppressive conditions that come with it are produced by the system’s ordinary functioning. And this leads straight to official violence, to the gangs of cops who "own the city."

To produce profit, to amass still more profit, capitalist society not only drives down the standard of living of the working class in the midst of this long-running economic crisis. It needs at the same time a large number of permanently unemployed who serve as a threat to maintain the low wages in the productive economy. "If you don’t work for what we want to pay, there are others who will."

Does this army of the permanently unemployed contain a large proportion of young Black men? Yes, a system that developed out of slavery, that continued many of slavery’s oppressive conditions even after slavery was "officially" done away with, can’t help but be racist. The worst of capitalist society’s ills have always rested on those already disadvantaged. And particular oppression has often produced more official violence.

The Memphis police chief says this special "Scorpion" unit is now disbanded. Just like L.A. disbanded the unit which beat Rodney King almost to death in 1991. Just like Detroit disbanded the "Big Four" unit that killed Malice Green in 1992. Just like NYC disbanded the unit that killed Amadou Diallou in 1999. Right up to Louisville and Minneapolis, which disbanded the units that killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020.

But killings by such units have never stopped. Last year, 1176 people were killed on the streets of this country—or in their own homes, or even their own beds—by cops.

Consider that number: 1176. Almost 100 a month. More than three every day of the year. And 287 of the 1176 were Black, that is, 24% of the total. That is disproportionately high compared to the percent of Black people in the U.S., about 14%.

But this also means that other people are killed by cops each year: Latino, Asian, Arabic-speaking, other immigrants, Native Americans, white Anglo-Saxon. All of us.

These gang units are part of what Marx and Engels, 175 years ago, called the "special bodies of armed men," which a society organized into classes requires to maintain exploitation.

They have existed since the beginning of capitalism. They will exist until capitalism is put in its grave. But like the other ills of capitalist society, they can be overcome by the working class organized together, which has the potential of amassing a much bigger force than all these "special bodies of armed men" put together, including the army.

Because the working class occupies the very center of the productive economy, not only can it get rid of capitalism, it will be able to produce a society, socialist society, in which there will be no gangs that "own the city."