By MARTY GOODMAN
In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to deny freedom to Dred Scott, a slave living in Missouri. The decision stated that Black people have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Today, as yesterday, the racist system of capitalism operates much the same in real life—if no longer on paper.
Each day adds to the deadly toll as racist killer cops walk free. Grand juries failed to indict Darren Wilson, the cop who murdered Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., last summer and officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked to death Eric Garner, 43, in Staten Island, N.Y., in July. The Brown and Garner cases have galvanized a new generation of anti-racist youth—especially African Americans, many of whom are women—who are taking to the streets in outrage.
Adding fuel to their anger were the cop shootings of two African Americans—Akai Gurley, 28, in a Brooklyn stairwell on Nov. 20, and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old in Cleveland, gunned down in a park on Nov. 22.
The anger has spread internationally to protests in London, Tokyo, Melbourne, Toronto, and many other cities. The video of Garner’s savage murder was viewed worldwide and gave the lie to Washington’s propaganda that U.S. capitalism and imperialism deliver “equality” and “democracy” to occupied countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. racism is 400 years old and it still continues—despite having a Black president in the White House!
The current anger comes almost three years after the big nationwide mobilizations that followed the murder of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old gunned down in February 2012 by a racist vigilante in Florida. In New York City, Ramarley Graham, 18, was killed inside his Bronx home by a cop without a warrant right in front of his family in 2012; Kimani Gray, 16, was shot seven times, three from behind, in 2013 in Brooklyn. All of the above victims were unarmed.
The number of killings by police thugs is almost mind numbing. A Malcolm X Grassroots Movement study found that an African American is killed by police or a vigilante every 28 hours! Outrageously, there are no official national numbers of police killings of Black and Hispanic youth by U.S. law enforcement. USA Today (Jan. 1) reported that only 750 out of 17,000 law enforcement agencies even report the numbers. The Wall Street Journal found that 550 civilian killings between 2007 and 2012 were not even counted.
Research by Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, found that only 41 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter between 2004 and 2011. Despite the hype, the number of cop deaths has actually gone down.
Albert Burneko, of Deadspin.com, wrote, “America employs the enforcers of its power to beat, kill, and terrorize, deploys its judiciary to say that’s OK. … This not a flaw in the design; this is the design.”
Most members of the new generation of anti-racist activists taking part in the struggle are, so far, sidestepping the older civil-rights organizations and leaders that are linked to the Democratic Party. On Dec. 13, dozens of U.S. cities had anti-racist demonstrations.
Tens of thousands participated in the giant Millions March on Dec. 13 in New York City. One protester, Kayesha, told Pacifica Radio, “It’s amazing. It’s empowering. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is my first protest of this magnitude. And I’m just grateful to be part of changing history, because that’s what we need to do—not make history, we need to change it!”
Another protester on Dec. 13 was Thenjiwe McHarris, who told Pacifica, “What we’re seeing in the U.S. is what some may call an uprising, an uprising of young Black people, but also people across issue, across race, led by young Black people, saying enough is enough, you can’t keep killing Black people. And we’re not going to stop because Black lives do matter!”
At the same march, Frank Graham, father of Ramarley Graham—murdered in his own home by a New York cop in 2012—chanted, “Killer cops, killer cops, killer cops must-must-must-must-go to jail!” In Graham’s case, as in that of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a grand jury declined to indict the police officer for trial.
Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, speaking at the thousands-strong protest in Washington, D.C., on the same day, called the demonstrations a “history-making moment.” “It’s just so overwhelming to see all who have come to stand with us today,” she said. “I mean, look at the masses. Black, white, all races, all religions. … We need to stand like this at all times.”
Brown’s death on Aug. 9 sparked months of protests in Ferguson, Mo. Working-class and unemployed African American youth and other anti-racists took to the streets in boiling rage, but usually peacefully. Democratic Party Governor Jay Nixon sent in thousands of militarized police and the National Guard, clubbing, arresting and tear-gassing protesters. Also arrested were journalists—23 and counting (Dec.18).
Gov. Nixon formally ended the siege on Dec. 17, but the protests and police onslaught continued. The Dec. 31 Daily Dot reported that protesters “swarmed the St. Louis Metro Police Department headquarters and briefly occupied the lobby. Participants handed out a mock ‘Eviction Notice’ and circulated a list of demands, including a meeting with either St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay” or other officials. Police used pepper spray on the crowd.
Militant rallies have taken place in dozens of cities across the U.S., from Oakland and Los Angeles to Nashville and Miami; from Milwaukee and Chicago to Boston. An Amtrak train was stopped by a die-in in California; another die-in was held at a Brooklyn Nets game when Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate attended. In Oakland, 250 protesters blockaded a police station for hours on Dec. 15.
Major Christmas shopping hubs, like Macy’s in New York City, were disrupted by die-ins and other forms of protest. In many cities, highways, bridges and tunnels were occupied as protesters, mostly youth of all backgrounds, said ‘hell no to racism.’
Philadelphia has seen many marches and die-ins, involving hundreds of people at a time. A broad coalition in Philadelphia is organizing a large march on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 19, which will protest police violence and call for an end to their “Stop and Frisk” policies.
The diversity of the militant, although mostly peaceful, protests and the apparent leading role of African American activists represents a new and higher stage in the anti-racist struggle.
The grand jury masquerade
In the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” a novel about New York in the 1980s, Judge Sol Watchler said, in a famous quote, a grand jury could “indict a ham sandwich.” Exceptions have historically included violence against African Americans, as in the recent Brown and Garner cases. Essentially, when the rulers want an indictment, they get it. Justice Department statistics from fiscal 1994 to 1998 reveal that federal prosecutors obtained 122,879 indictments. Over the same period, in only 83 cases did prosecutors fail to get indictments!
Lynne Stewart, a veteran civil-rights attorney who spent over four years in prison as the victim of a vicious government frame-up, insists that the grand jury system, “should be abolished” (see her article on this page).
The grand jury system of secret hearings is responsible for letting many cops walk—as in the Brown, Garner, Martin and Graham cases. Grand juries decide whether to bring charges against cops in a highly manipulated setting. There is no cross-examination of witnesses. Attorneys for victims cannot attend. Most prosecutors have close ties with local police and are loathe to genuinely seek an indictment of cops.
On Jan. 5, a juror who sat on the panel that reviewed evidence in the Ferguson, Mo., killing of Michael Brown filed suit to remove a lifetime gag order that prevents grand jury members from speaking publicly about the case. In the suit, the juror contends that “the investigation of Wilson had a stronger focus on the victim [Brown] than in other cases presented to the grand jury.” Also, explanation of the law was made “in a muddled and untimely manner” compared to other cases.
“In Plaintiff’s view,” states the suit brief, “the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate—especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges. … Moreover, the public characterization of the grand jurors’ view of witnesses and evidence does not accord with Plaintiff’s own.”
The suit names St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch as the defendant, since he would be the person to bring charges against a grand jury member who violated the gag order. The plaintiff, who is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, is identified in the lawsuit as “Grand Juror Doe.”
An example of McCulloch’s conduct in the Brown case is that he knowingly presented “Witness 40” to the grand jury as Sandra McElroy, a deranged 45-year-old St. Louis woman with a criminal record and a history of using the “N” word online. After being outed by the “Smoking Gun” website, McColloch admitted that although he had known McElroy’s testimony was false, he referred to it in order to favor Officer Wilson. (Smoking Gun also claims that the video provided by police showing Brown’s theft of cigars is false and was edited.)
Most countries have abandoned the grand jury system. Although it was begun in Britain during medieval times, Britain discontinued it 80 years ago. Only 19 U.S. states require a grand jury in felonies.
Democrats no answer to racist cops
Within the protest movement are forces like TV personality Al Sharpton and the National Action Network (NAN), with close ties to Barack Obama and the Democrats. With Sharpton’s unique platform and resources, he has managed a close alliance with the families of Brown, Garner, and several other police brutality victims.
Although Sharpton called an Eric Garner demonstration on Staten Island, which received significant labor support, the rally of several thousand was nevertheless organized as a tame, top-down affair loaded with speeches praising the Democratic Party. So too was the Washington, D.C., demonstration on Dec. 13 called by NAN, which was challenged by youth from Ferguson who briefly mounted the stage. Before being chased off, one called from the mike, “This movement was started by the young people. We started this. It should be young people all over this stage. It should be young people all up here.”
The Justice League NYC has also gotten attention organizing entertainment at protests and arranging a meeting with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to discuss the grand jury decisions and racist police practices. The group is supported by Russell Simmons, a hip-hop music and clothing entrepreneur said to be worth $340 million in 2011. The meeting was without conclusion, although a Dec. 19 New York Daily News article reported comments by the mayor indicating a willingness by the group to help police identify violent protestors—a claim, says one key activist not in the group, that the Justice League NYC has denied.
Glen Ford, Black Agenda Report executive editor, wrote on Dec. 17, “The Al Sharptons of the community are attempting to isolate the core Ferguson activists and prevent the coalescing of a youth-led national Black movement—especially one that might act in concert with non-Blacks in the remnants of the anti-war and Occupy movements.
“Sharpton’s crude lunge to capture and corral the anti-police protest has put youth activists on notice that a battle for national Black leadership has begun. From this point forward, Sharpton and his colleagues in the old line civil rights groups and Democratic Party Black caucuses will deploy every scheme imaginable to hijack, subvert and otherwise thwart the growth of a radical, youth-dominated, Black grassroots movement.
Mayor de Blasio & cops
Mayor Bill de Blasio first took office in January 2014 as New York’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years. Framing himself as a “progressive,” de Blasio ran on a platform of “A Tale of Two Cities” to highlight inequality. A top spot in his campaign promises was changing racist police tactics known as “stop and frisk,” which led to wildly disproportionate stops and arrests of Blacks. What many didn’t notice is that de Blasio set out to reform, not eliminate, the policy in a political slight of hand to get votes, particularly Black votes.
While “stop and frisk” is officially gone, the heart of the policy known as “broken windows” remains—with the mayor’s blessing. As recently as December, de Blasio told reporters, “I’ve said very clearly that I believe in the broken windows theory of policing.”
“Broken windows” means busting poor people (of color) for small infractions like littering, drinking beer or smoking pot, etc., in the belief that small infractions are also practiced by serious criminals. This is challenged by several studies, and serious urban observers think the claims are bogus. They have been proven to be racist in practice. Eighty percent of Blacks arrested were found innocent of charges.
The first to fully implement broken windows was Mayor Rudolph Guiliani and his police commissioner Bill Bratton in the mid-1990s. Bratton was the LAPD’s chief of police after he left New York in the late 1990s, earning low marks for human rights by Amnesty International.
Josmar Trujillo wrote last March in Black Agenda Report, “In 2001, Bratton was a special consultant to the capital of Venezuela when a failed coup d’etat briefly removed Hugo Chavez from the presidency. Bratton and the local police chief were at the helm when 17 pro-Chavez protesters were shot by police before Chavez returned, jailed the chief and sent Bratton packing.” Bratton said he would have “cleared” protests by Occupy on Wall Street “right away,” something too reactionary even for then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Yet before de Blasio even took office, in December 2014, the mayor-elect re-appointed Bill Bratton as his top cop!
Despite de Blasio’s credentials as pro-cop—he called Bratton one of the finest cops of “this century”—he has made known his advice to his bi-racial son Dante: “Very early on with my son, we said, ‘Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone.’”
In response to the mayor’s cautionary advice to his son and the shooting death of two officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, on Dec. 20 by a deranged African American man, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, the right-wing Police Benevolent Association (PBA) went on a reactionary campaign to blame the officers’ deaths on—of all things—protesters and de Blasio. At the funerals of the two officers, hundreds of PBA cops turned their backs on the mayor.
PBA President Patrick Lynch launched a campaign against the mayor and protesters, calling the situation “wartime” for the NYPD; the police, he said, “will act accordingly.” Lynch added, “There’s blood on many hands tonight. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.” New York police officers held a small pro-cop rally at City Hall, some wearing T-shirts that included the racist taunt, “I Can Breathe.” Anti-racist counter-protesters drew hundreds, while the cops had a mere five.
As is typical of liberal capitalist politicians, the mayor immediately back-peddled to please the PBA, calling for a “moratorium” on protests and “respect” on the day of Ramos’ funeral. But defiant protesters marched anyway in Midtown Manhattan, without incident. The mayor even went on a rant blaming the media for stirring up “divisions.”
Obama sent Vice President Joseph Biden, a pro-cop Democrat, to the Ramos funeral. In 1994, Biden wrote the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, considered the most far-reaching crime legislation ever. It put more cops on the street and was signed by President Clinton. Yet, none of the dignitaries present had ever bothered to attend a funeral for a murdered Black man, executed by racist cops!
The mayor has promised that in January, “We’re going to take a very different view going forward about how we respect people’s rights to express themselves.” Those changes are not known at press time, but, recalling the highly coordinated repression of Occupy Wall Street by Obama’s Homeland Security and police and even banks, as revealed in secret documents made available to Naomi Wolf of the British Guardian, we must be on guard for possible nationwide repression of the anti-racist movements.
Both de Blasio and Obama are promising thousands of body cameras as a concession to civil-rights forces in order to rope them in more closely to the Democratic Party. But then again, Garner’s death was caught on video, and the killer cop walked free! The outgoing U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, has pledged to investigate violations of civil-rights in these cases, but, so far, these promises have netted nothing. Obama is also promising a special commission to study police conduct, but it is to be headed by two former police officials.
Stay in the streets!
The emergence of a young and radicalizing Black leadership in the struggles against police violence represents a major step forward in the struggle for Black liberation. In significant part, these youth see through the Democratic Party’s Black reformist establishment, who were pressed into service to try to head off a deeper radicalization.
The life experience of these radicalizing youth has taught them that racist murder and racism in general are inherent in “the system.” They justifiably and necessarily see the need for a new Black leadership, and are currently exploring how to bring it into being.
It is also noteworthy that the post-Ferguson demonstrations were in significant part multi-racial, including radicalizing white youth, Latinos, Asians, Arab Americans, and others—also victims of capitalist oppression and exploitation. The cross-fertilization of several social struggles was in evidence, with every sort of protest movement finding ways to join the struggle in the streets, and to express solidarity while finding ways to add vital issues to the demands.
So far, the mass organizations of the working class have generally been missing from this movement. Multi-ethnic labor unions have the muscle to fill the streets and ultimately shut the system down. African American, Hispanic and immigrant workers would be the first to respond to appeals from union leaders to act, but the timid leadership is reluctant to confront racism in the unions and to allow the possibility of loosening their ties to the Democratic Party wing of the ruling 1%.
Nonetheless, today’s emerging anti-racist movement has stirred the conscience of millions and galvanized new layers into action. It will bode well for Black activists to establish their own mass organizations rooted in the communities of the oppressed, while remaining in constant search for allies among all those who seek to challenge capitalism’s inherent racism and the exploitative policies of the white ruling class.
Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action