‘Little has changed in the ghetto’

By BILL ONASCH

The following commentary was posted in early May at kclabor.org/wordpress.

“Baltimore: We Have Been Here Before”—that is the title of a perceptive piece by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Of course, every such uprising like the one sparked by the death of Freddie Gray while in custody of the Baltimore police has some unique features. Perhaps the most bizarre was the decision to play the first Major League Baseball game in history without a live audience (Orioles beat the White Sox 8-2) and the shifting of a series with the Tampa Bay Rays to St. Petersburg, where Baltimore played as the “home team.”

A more substantial—and encouraging–difference was the gutsy move by a young prosecutor to promptly file criminal charges against six cops involved in the “rough ride” homicide of Gray after his illegal arrest.

Rev Jackson, aware of the different response in Baltimore, reminds us of the underlying similarities not only to the recent protests against killings of Black men by police in Ferguson, Staten Island, Tulsa, and other places but also a landmark study produced before most readers were born.

He writes, “In 1968, after race riots had erupted in Watts, Chicago, Detroit and Newark, Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the riots. The Kerner Report described a nation ‘moving towards two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.’ It called for better training for the police, but also for new jobs, new housing, an end to de facto segregation. Police misbehavior was often the match that sparked the eruption, but there would be no answer without fundamental change.

“Baltimore and America have changed, but for too many in our ghettos and barrios, the reality is the same. The New York Times reports on 1.5 million ‘missing black men,’ one of every six aged 24 to 54 who have disappeared from civic life. They are either dead or locked away. Jobs have dried up as manufacturing plants closed and were shipped abroad. Mass incarceration—with African Americans still suffering from racial profiling and injustice—destroys possibility. The official black unemployment rate is twice that of whites, but that does not even count those who want a job but have given up trying to find one.”

In addition to the enormous losses in decent paying union jobs once held by African Americans in manufacturing—which more than offset the modest progress for a while under affirmative action in education and employment—not mentioned by Rev. Jackson in this article are the setbacks in the public sector. This erosion of an important source of good jobs for African Americans has accelerated on the watch of the first Black president with massive cuts in the Postal Service and Social Security community offices.

The Obama administration’s attacks on public education have also hit Black educators particularly hard. The pressures of teaching to the test to avoid loss of funding under the rewards and punishments of Race to the Top were dramatically and ruthlessly revealed in Atlanta. Some teachers, with the knowledge of top administrators, allegedly gave improper help to students during testing. If true, while understandable it was wrong and reprimands, even suspensions could have been expected.

Instead, a 2013 Grand Jury indicted 35 mostly Black teachers, principals, and the superintendent on racketeering charges. Most took plea deals to avoid the legal expenses of a trial. Two died before they could be tried. Eight were recently convicted and received prison sentences of up to seven years—more than most violent offenders get for a first offense. And a whole lot more than the community service sentence received by the former four-star general and CIA director who leaked secret documents to his non-vetted mistress-biographer.

By just about any important measure you choose—employment, income, savings, housing, health care, accessible transit, accessible grocery stores, quality schools, affordable higher education—African Americans are worse off today than when the Kerner Report was issued nearly 47 years ago.

And the “match of police misbehavior” is now more like a flame-thrower. Dr Martin Luther King opposed riots for both moral and strategic reasons, but he understood them and recognized their violence was different than that of police and white supremacists. Shortly before his murder—which ignited a wave of big riots—he famously said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

We need to do more than just say “we hear you.” This is not just a “Black problem.” African Americans are overwhelmingly working class and that alone makes their injuries our concern. And while Blacks may have claim to being the worst oppressed of all workers, there are plenty of pale pigment that share many of their just complaints.

Not far from the ghetto where Freddie Gray lived is a slum known as Billy Town. The name came from the pejorative “hillbilly” used by Baltimore cops to identify poor whites from West Virginia who came to Baltimore for jobs during World War II. The subsequent deindustrialization of Baltimore left them and their progeny facing similar economic challenges—and relations with the police—as poor Blacks.

Dr. King recognized that such groups should be natural allies and he devoted a lot of attention in his final years to building a Poor People’s movement that could unite them. Rev. Jackson has undertaken similar projects through Operation Push, including reaching out to not so poor predominantly white unions on occasion.

Last Friday [May 1], several Minneapolis unions organized a May Day march and rally as part of International Worker’s Day. That holiday with American roots has long been ignored by the mainstream labor movement in this country, but Minneapolis is noted for often going against the current, and there were other labor-endorsed actions in several cities.

This year, there was an added dimension, as described by Barb Kucera on Workday Minnesota, “Young workers were in the forefront at a Twin Cities May Day event that brought together advocates of the worker rights, immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter movements. … The day’s actions are ‘not just about staying alive’ in the face of police brutality, but ‘also about making sure we have the wage to take care of ourselves and our families,’ said Mica Grimm, an organizer for Black Lives Matter.

“Thirty-four-year-old Luke Fahey, wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirt, stood by his bicycle as the May Day marchers gathered. He said there is an ‘intersectionality’ among the issues raised by the demonstrators, which included calls for higher wages, drivers’ licenses for undocumented workers and an end to violence by law enforcement. ‘I believe it goes beyond just police brutality and fair treatment of workers’ to larger concerns like corporate power.”

Such steps are important and need to be expanded. But the fundamental problems require political action that can lead to a government run by worker advocates in the interest of the working class majority. Dr King was studiously nonpartisan. Rev. Jackson has devoted his life to reform of the Democrats. And now the “independent socialist” Senator Sanders wants to lead us into the Democrat primaries as Rev. Jackson did in the Eighties.

“No Justice, No Peace” is a popular slogan in movements for social change. We will find neither in the party whose nomination the “socialist” Senator seeks. It is the party of war abroad and attacks on civil liberties at home. It brought us NAFTA and now peddles TPP. It has championed fracking while wrecking the prospects for climate agreements.

It is the party that twice imprisoned Eugene V. Debs, who learned his lesson the first time and did just the opposite of Bernie Sanders—Debs left the Dems to become a Socialist. It has been, in fact, the graveyard of progressive causes for over a century.

Class matters. Our future depends on uniting those who work or seek work for a living on the job, in the streets—and in a party of our own.

Photo: Protest march in Madison, Wis. By Carl Sack / Socialist Action