(The following is the text of a lead-off presentation, edited for clarity, from a Cedar Rapids, Iowa public forum in solidarity with the #BlackOutAmerica National Day of Action.)
The movement that began last August in Ferguson after Mike Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson is a reminder of the power that’s possible in collective, social struggle. What can any of us do as isolated individuals? Not much. But as a collective, the Black Lives Matter movement so far has trained thousands of new activists in the methods of organizing, launched the problems of police violence, mass incarceration and poverty into public consciousness and has made sure that we will never forget the names of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd and so many others.
In a country where we already have a bloated prison system, Blacks and Hispanics make up 60% of the prison population despite being a quarter of the population together. We are ten times as likely to serve prison time for drug offenses as the white population despite similar use rates. The Black unemployment rate is twice that of whites. Inferior access to health care means that, on average, our life expectancy is four and a half years less than a white person’s.
All this reminds us why we’ve had to declare so loudly that “Black Lives Matter” – because the system we live under says they don’t. But like any emerging social movement, Black Lives Matter has reached a point where forks are appearing in the road. In different sections of the movement there are different class influences trying to assert themselves.
On the one hand there is a wing, expressing the interests of the Black middle class, aspiring bourgeois types and other sycophants, that Black Lives Matter should be a pressure group on the Democratic Party. This trend manifests in softer forms – think Al Sharpton and other “official” Civil Rights leaders, though their identification with the movement is questionable anyway – as well as in ‘harder’ forms. With this trend you’ll hear calls to vote for liberal (and not-so-liberal) Black candidates, pressuring national Democratic politicians to adopt some kind of racial justice policies. Usually these policies are pretty feeble to begin with – like federal funding for police body cameras. Whenever I hear about body cameras it reminds me of the old saying about putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. Remember Eric Garner – even Bill O’Reilly, that great friend of Black people, equivocated on the non-indictment in his case, where we had video. But this watering down and dismissal of demands and aspirations that come from the movement’s ranks is needed. You have to do this when your strategic horizon is tied to the Democratic Party – itself a party of racism and war, a party based on the needs of big business (in Marxist terms, the capitalist class.)
Imagine if the protesters in the Baltimore uprising earlier this year had relied on “black faces in high places” to see things through, instead of turning out for mass street protests despite provocation and repression ordered by the (Black) Mayor and police chief. The problem is that not all people of color have the same interests – I have much more in common with a white worker than with a Black CEO. The “1%”, the capitalist class, and their hangers-on, will not break with their own system and champion the needs of the masses, whatever their race may be.
But there is another wing, made up mostly of working class and poor elements. This element is where the tireless and energetic organizing around the country comes from. It’s taken up the solidarity principle – the idea that an injury to one is an injury to all. We’ve seen mutual support with pro-Palestinian activists and with Native American communities enduring high levels of police violence. Steps in the right direction.
The intersections between the Black freedom movement and the fight for $15 are especially important here. As we know, women and people of color make up a disproportionate number of all low wage workers – poverty is highly feminized and racialized. Over the past few years the movement of poverty-wage workers has made partial but real gains, mobilizing thousands of low-wage workers, trade-unionists and their allies in the community around the need for $15 and the right to form a union. The links and integration that has taken place so far with Black Lives Matter have been key to this.
For the ruling class, the idea that the white working class has a common interest with people of color is a dangerous idea – racism being one of the main tools used to keep us divided against each other, to redirect anger toward a racialized image of a “welfare queen” (to borrow Ronald Reagan’s phrase) or an immigrant rather than turning that anger toward the millionaires and billionaires at the top.
There is a lot of money to be made in Black oppression. The bosses can keep a “reserve army of labor” – a pool of unemployed and underemployed whose presence is used as a downward pressure on the wages and conditions of employed workers. Look at the payday loan, the ghetto bodega, the for-profit prison and the police department running off of fines and levies drawn from the Black community. The state’s repressive machine serves a dual purpose, too. The same cops who terrorize the Black community today are breaking up strikes and demonstrations tomorrow.
So what is the way forward? The existing links between the labor movement and Black Lives Matter must be deepened, the movement’s identification with working class politics needs to be solidified and expanded. We’ve seen some of this already, particularly in the way local trade unionists rallied for the cause in Ferguson and Baltimore – we’re also seeing it now in Missouri’s fight for $15 affiliate and in Wisconsin.
Historically, the way our movement has cut across racism within the working class – within the majority of the population, that is – is through mass agitation, mass education and, yes, mass struggle. Recall that Dr. King’s March on Washington in 1963 was a “March for Jobs and Freedom”, not for “pure” civil rights only. Democratic rights and economic rights are interwoven. Doctor King knew this with his focus on economic justice and his support for the Vietnam anti-war movement.
And the labor movement used to know this, too. It’s no coincidence that the massive strike waves of the 1930s that lifted up hundreds of thousands of workers happened while the labor movement was challenging the white supremacy within its own ranks. A representative example is the 1934 West Coast Longshoreman’s Strike that united Black and white workers and denied employers the traditional tactic of using the unorganized African-American poor as scab labor; they managed to win a union-controlled hiring hall to put an end to discriminatory hiring.
The most dedicated and consistently anti-racist organization of this time was the Communist Party; for them, bringing Black workers into the existing unions and forming new ones where none existed went hand in hand with fighting Jim Crow on the political terrain. Anti-imperialism has also been a historic component of radical Black struggle here at home, going back to the successful 1934 anti-U.S. occupation movement in Haiti and onward throughout Africa’s national liberation movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In one era the Communist Party, in another the Black Panthers; the underlying rationale was the same – solidarity to the peoples of the colonial (or today neocolonial) world because we have the same interests and a common enemy. A nation cannot be free if it oppresses other nations.
We can rediscover these traditions today on an even higher level. Now, I agree with Malcolm X when he said that “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” But we can begin building the foundations of a powerful liberation movement that points the way toward a different kind of society.
Living wage jobs for all, the right to affordable housing, universal health care and education, an end to the so-called War on Drugs & the release of nonviolent offenders from prison and the radical democratization of the entire justice system; that includes the police, whose power must be vested in the communities themselves instead of wielded from above. You have to have a democratic movement – not just spontaneous protests and affinity groups but mass, permanent organizations, including a party – standing for its own class interests to achieve that kind of vision. It sure as hell won’t come from above.