The Red Party condemns Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina, where white supremacist Dylan Roof killed nine Black worshippers at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a routine Bible study meeting.
This act of mass murder illustrates the powerful hold that racism has on U.S. capitalist society, particularly but not exclusively in the South. Black oppression is built into the very DNA of this country, where today Black people are disproportionately cast into the bowels of the prison-industrial complex and the racial wealth gap is even higher than it was during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
The attack can’t be understood as an isolated incident or, as right-wing pundits somehow manage to argue without bursting into laughter, an attack on religious liberty. Mother Emanuel itself has already been the victim of white-supremacist terror before, when in the 19th century it was burned to the ground as retaliation for its role as a hub of anti-slavery organizing.1 Racist terror has long been part of the ‘discipline’ leveled against oppressed peoples in a state of unrest, with white vigilantism as an auxiliary complementing the official forces of state repression that so many have been familiarized with in the wake of Ferguson, New York and Baltimore.
In contrast to those who would rebuke us for ‘politicizing tragedy’ and instead have us quietly mourn the dead while we wait for the next high-profile attack (or the everyday occurrences of mass incarceration, unemployment and political disenfranchisement that confront communities of color), we would argue that we cannot challenge American racism – whether in its extreme or mundane forms – without a consistent political approach based on recognition of the class struggle.
Indeed, ruling class politicians and pundits have spared no time to advance their own politics here. Consider Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an anti-worker stalwart who once bragged that her leadership will make the Palmetto State “one of the lowest union-participation states in the country.”2 Haley was quick to paint the attack as a freak aberration and call for Dylan Roof to face the death penalty. But executing Roof wouldn’t do anything to change the neo-Confederate social conditions that prevail in South Carolina, nor will it alter the fact that one of U.S. capitalism’s two major parties more or less openly relies on whipping up racist and chauvinist reaction to mobilize voters to the polls.
As for the Democrats, President Obama gave a frustrated appearance; understandable, given that this is the fourteenth time he’s had to comment on a mass shooting during his tenure – and called for more gun control while somberly noting that “the way politics works in this town [D.C.]”3 it wasn’t on the agenda. Of course, he is correct in saying that the United States is the only “advanced country” where mass shootings occur on such a depressingly regular schedule – however, the liberals have the question exactly backwards when they claim the relatively easy availability of armaments as the cause of such violence.
Guns are a means, not a cause. In this shooting, it was the profound structural racism (and the tense reactionary mood among the more backward elements of society that have been stirred by right-wing forces since last August) that is to blame. We would not say that lynching is caused mainly by the availability of ropes. As for Aurora or Virginia Tech or even the steady background hum of individual gun deaths occurring daily in every major city, we need look no further than the terrible poverty and social atomization that American capitalism produces so reliably, not to mention the miserable inadequacy and often inaccessibility of mental health care.
In fact, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”4 is a fundamental democratic principle that the left must wrest back from the right if our aim is the transformation of society through far-reaching democratization. If any state is going to be subject to the will of the people, those people need a means of control over it from below. The “well-regulated militia” (in the modern epoch, a workers’ or popular militia) is the guarantor of liberty for the working class, as opposed to the bureaucratic monstrosity that is the standing army – which even the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson recognized as an “engine of oppression.”5
So communists do not line up behind the Democrats’ calls to disarm the people any more than we line up behind the NRA’s facile mythology of ‘rugged individualism’ and the racialized defense against the Black bogeyman at the door. Instead we must critically support and engage with initiatives like the Huey P. Newton Gun Club6 in the near term while setting our sights on nothing less than a regenerated workers’ movement and the socialist future of humanity as the ultimate cure for racist terror.
4. The Second Amendment reads in full: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
6. Huey P. Newton Gun Club