Aug 3, 2015
On July 29, a cop in Cincinnati was charged in the murder of Samuel DuBose ten days earlier. Just three months before, six cops in Baltimore were charged in the murder of Freddie Gray.
The cops in these two cities were only doing what thousands of cops had already done, killing a young black man. But in these two cases, they were charged, and almost immediately. And that was practically unheard of.
How many people are killed every year by cops? Four hundred? Six hundred? A thousand? No one knows because in the United States, this country that counts everything, there is no official count of this kind of murder, murder by cop – no place that tallies centrally all the killings by cops of civilians, nothing that requires local police departments to keep their own count.
Hardly a murdering cop is ever charged. Through newspaper accounts or court records, the Legal Defense Fund identified at least 2,000 black people killed by cops in the last seven years. Of those 2,000 cases, fewer than 30 cops were ever indicted for anything other than minor charges. Only two of them were convicted. Of those two, only one served any time in prison.
If it had not been for the young people of Baltimore who went out into the streets on the night of Freddie Gray’s funeral, he would not even have been another statistic, only another young black man killed. But what happened on the streets of Baltimore, and before that in Ferguson, Missouri, has put authorities on notice: people will have justice.
Of course, young black men are not the only ones killed – older black men are also killed, as are black women. So are whites, so are Hispanics. With few exceptions, all of those killed are poor. But out of all proportion to their numbers, those killed are young, black and male.
Undoubtedly, an important reason for these murders is the outright racism that exists in many police departments, and the deep racism of many cops. But that’s only the smallest part of the problem. These murders are the consequences of conscious policies carried out at the highest level of government, federal and state, for the past 40 years, policies aimed at confining large parts of the poor laboring population.
The whole working class, living through this period of one crisis after another, has suffered high rates of unemployment. But, as has always been the case, the worst of that unemployment rested on the black population – particularly after the big companies shut down their facilities in the big cities and towns, shipping production into the small towns and rural areas where few black people lived. The number of black unemployed rapidly increased – even while the Barack Obamas, the many other black politicians, and the layer of well-off black petty bourgeois and small bourgeois found their place in U.S. capitalist society.
The American state has responded to the growing army of the unemployed by throwing them in prison – under the pretext of a war on drugs.
With only four per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. has twenty-four per cent of the whole world’s prisoners. And then there are all the others – no longer in prison, but with a prison record. Certainly, there are many million poor whites and Hispanics among this number. But out of all proportion, prison defines the life of the black population. One third of all black males will spend time in prison – and in some big cities, the proportion is unthinkably worse. In Chicago, Barack Obama’s home and among the most racist of U.S. big cities, more than 55% of adult black males are either now in prison, have been or will be.
The very large majority of them went to prison the first time for a minor drug offense, even simple possession of marijuana. Whatever they were when they went into one of those hellholes, they aren’t the same when they come out. Quite a few turn to crime to survive. They couldn’t get a job before. Even less can they get one when they come out with a prison record. How else can they survive?
Effectively, a large proportion of the black population has been criminalized as the result of conscious policies carried out under every administration, going back to Richard Nixon, all the way up to Barack Obama. Some of the very worst legal changes were implemented by the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton.
The cops treat all young black males in the poor neighborhoods as criminals. They stop them day after day, search them, use whatever they find – or plant – to arrest them. And if someone resists, they may shoot them. The cops might be marked by racism, but they are simply implementing policies laid down from on high.
Many of those killed were unarmed. But we should be clear. A lot of those young men on the street are hard. They need to be to survive.
Many of those young people are fighters, but who do they fight today? Each other. And maybe workers who live near them. They are fighting against themselves and against their class.
But when there is a fight, when the working class begins to move, these young people have to be brought into that fight, made part of it. They know how to fight. The working class – first of all, black workers, but black, brown and white workers – can give all these hard young men something worth fighting for, no matter what their color.
They could fight against the capitalist class that puts every one of us, every part of the working class, in a kind of prison today.