USA: What’s next for the anti-racist movement?

“In my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built… And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”

Malcolm X, 1964

The recent murders by police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery have reignited the anti-racist movement in the U.S. The current situation is eerily similar to what we saw in 2014, when Michael Brown’s murder by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked protests that quickly spread around the country. Then, as now, the protests were met with fierce repression and violence by highly militarized police forces. Then, as now, the mainstream media smeared—largely peaceful—protesters as rioters and looters in an effort to discredit the movement.

While the 2014 movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter was energetic and inspiring, like many past movements against police racism and brutality, it failed to materialize real systemic changes. The Obama Administration’s Justice Department begrudgingly carried out a few more investigations of corrupt and racist police departments, but even that minor reform was quickly rolled back by the Trump Administration. Body cameras for the police, a central demand of the 2014 movement, has only been implemented in a patchwork fashion, and even where wearing one is official policy, officers frequently turn them off without consequence.

Encouragingly, the current emerging movement is even larger and more energetic than in 2014. Protests have taken place across all 50 states, many protests continuing for days. The protests are characterized by instinctive multi-racial and multi-ethnic solidarity against racism and police violence. And public support for the movement is high. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, “64% of American adults were ‘sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,’ while 27% said they were not and 9% were unsure.” Given the massive support for and participation of youth in the movement, this 64% figure is probably a conservative estimate.

The ruling class has been shaken to its core by this uprising, and the heavy-handed repressive response of police departments and the Trump Administration has so far backfired, adding steam to the protests instead of extinguishing them. We’ve seen a series of concessions in past days, granted under pressure from the protests. All four Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd’s murder have been fired and indicted. Six Atlanta police officers have been criminally charged for using excessive force on protesters. And institutions across the country, especially universities and colleges, have publicly severed ties with their cities’ police departments.

But the current anti-racist protest movement lacks organization, leadership, and democratic decision-making structures. Without these, it is vulnerable to fizzling out without achieving lasting change, as people succumb to protest fatigue. It is also vulnerable to being co-opted and de-radicalized by self-appointed “leaders” who would rather celebrate cops hugging black protesters than fight for systemic change.

What we need to win

The systemic changes we need include an end to racial profiling, “broken windows” policing, “stop and frisk” policies, the racist War on Drugs, and the criminalization of poverty—which disproportionately affects black communities. All police officers who espouse any form of racist or white supremacist ideas should be fired without question.

The assault on our democratic right to peaceful protest must end. The military, including the National Guard, should be immediately withdrawn from our cities and streets. The use of tear gas, rubber bullets, flashbangs, and riot gear in response to protests should be banned. We should demand the immediate release of all arrested protesters and the dropping of their charges, as well as the release of former Black Panthers and all other imprisoned black liberation activists.

All killer cops, past and present, should be prosecuted. It needs to be easier to fire police officers with excessive force complaints and criminally charge and convict killer cops. District attorneys’ offices have shown that they are not capable of prosecuting the same police officers that they work with on a daily basis and rely on to testify in court. Police departments have proven that they are not capable of investigating themselves.

We need community control of the police through democratically elected committees of workers and community members with hiring and firing power, the ability to review and create policy and budgets, and authority to conduct independent investigations into cases of police misconduct.

Police unions like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers should be decertified. The existing law enforcement unions are not like other unions. The main role of police in the U.S. is to serve the will of the capitalist class, including by enforcing racist and anti-worker policies, repressing strikes and labor activity, and putting down protests. These police unions exist to protect police officers from facing any consequences for their actions (up to and including murder). They make it difficult to discipline or fire bad cops and they oppose any public oversight of the police.

Police departments across the country must be demilitarized and their budgets reduced. Cities must stop wasting public funds on military technology and weaponry and invest the money instead in affordable housing, public transit, schools, and other social programs and services in order to make a dent in the poverty that disproportionately affects black workers. Even many police themselves complain that they are expected to do the job of social workers. Let’s take some of the public money currently spent on police budgets and use it to hire actual social workers instead.

Finally, we need a political party—a workers’ party—that will offer a real alternative to racism and austerity. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have failed for decades to meaningfully improve the conditions under which we live: widespread poverty, entrenched racism, lack of access to decent education, housing, jobs, and healthcare. Both parties play off of each other and seek to divide workers along racial lines—as well as by nationality, gender, sexual identity, etc. Despite their more “progressive” rhetoric of racial justice, when in office the Democrats have disappointed again and again. Just look at cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis, where decades of Democratic Party rule have not resulted in reforms to policing, and in many cases have actually passed some of the worst police policies, including “stop and frisk.” In fact, the Democratic Party-controlled major cities have been the epicentres of the majority of the murders of unarmed black people by police for decades.

How to win these demands and more

To achieve these needed systemic changes will require a high level of organization and coordination. The ruling class and their police and military forces are organized and we should be too. We should immediately form neighborhood committees, with elected members—workers, youth, and community members—and democratic structures, to decide future actions and tactics and develop a program with clear demands to direct the movement. These neighborhood committees should elect delegates to city-wide committees, which should, in turn, build links state- and nation-wide.

These elected neighborhood committees should prepare plans, train volunteers, and collect supplies and equipment for dealing with tear gas, rubber bullets, “kettling,” and other aggressive police tactics at protests and demonstrations. They should be ready to assess situations, make tough calls, and put forward proposals in the heat of the moment for how best to keep protesters and neighborhoods safe from police and right-wing aggression. They could also organize neighborhood patrols to document police interactions with community members.

Labor unions need to get involved and take a strong stand against police brutality and in support of the protests. Issuing public solidarity statements is a good first step, but unions should go further by organizing workplace meetings and discussions on the movement and mobilizing members to form union contingents at protests. Unions should also use their legal resources to defend protesters. Representing 11.6% of all U.S. workers—and 12.7% of black workers—unions are among the most diverse institutions of the working class. Solidarity against racism and all forms of oppression must be a key point of struggle for the whole workers’ movement.

Protesting can only be one part of our organizing strategy. Protests are effective to the extent that they call attention to the issue, demonstrate public outrage or support, and disrupt “business as usual.” But ultimately the ruling class only cares about actions that affect their bottom line—their ability to make profit. We should begin to organize for 24-hour general strikes of workers in all sectors in cities across the country to win the movement’s demands by putting further economic pressure on the bosses who are already staggering from the blows of the health and economic crisis. They will quickly get the message to their paid-off politicians that it’s time to grant substantive reforms.

Unions should play a key role in calling for and planning any general strikes, but both union and non-union workers should participate. If the union bureaucrats won’t do it, rank-and-file union members and workers should take up the planning themselves (and then elect new union leaders prepared to genuinely represent their class, not suck up to the bosses).

We need to build a truly mass movement to unite workers of all races in the struggle against capitalism and the racist inequality and violence that the system was founded upon. Only a multi-racial working-class movement has the power to win demands like demilitarizing the police, convicting killer cops, ending the War on Drugs, and community control of the police.

Only a movement that unites workers and youth regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, or any other form of oppression, can win guaranteed jobs, housing, healthcare, education, and a living wage for all. These reforms can be paid for by taxing the rich and nationalizing big corporations, as a step toward ultimately ending capitalism and replacing it with a democratic and egalitarian socialist society with power firmly in the hands of the working class. As MLK, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton all came to conclude, the only way to defeat racism is to defeat capitalism.

We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”

Fred Hampton, 1969

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June 2020