The whole world watched as long-suppressed Black grievances came to a head after Darren Wilson, the cop who killed unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., went unindicted.
But police violence is far from the only abuse that Blacks face; community control of the police is an urgent need, but only part of the answer. Cop brutality takes its place beside every aspect of the “justice system” — from official police policy to grand juries, prosecutors, and the prison-industrial complex — in a long history of oppression. And it cries out for a radical solution.
A short history of official segregation. People blame many things for the conditions in Black segregated communities today. What goes undiscussed is the history of a range of explicit government policies that enforced segregation through most of the 20th century in every major city. A YouTube documentary called The Making of Ferguson describes this history.
Blacks didn’t move to Ferguson because they chose the area; they moved because many were forced out of St. Louis, and other suburbs wouldn’t accept them. In the city’s public housing, segregated by law, Black projects had turned into areas rife with gangs and crime, thanks to poverty and lack of jobs and services. Government dealt with the problem by evicting families and blowing up housing projects. Some of these spaces in St. Louis were snapped up by developers who created neighborhoods for the wealthy in their place. Some are still vacant lots today.
As suburbs proliferated after World War II, the Federal Housing Authority routinely subsidized the development of white-only enclaves. Unsubsidized suburbs, like Ferguson, suffered. Construction was shoddy. Banks wouldn’t extend mortgages to buy homes, and rents were high. For African Americans, the problems of the inner city replicated in the suburbs.
The subprime loan scheme that helped trigger the 2007 financial crisis aggravated an already unendurable situation.
Inspiration of Black leadership. The blossoming movement against police repression is mobilizing thousands in the U.S. and capturing the support of many more around the world.
This is due in large part to the leadership of African American youth. In Seattle, where this reporter lives, many of the protests have been organized by students from Garfield High, a largely Black school.
This reflects the fact that Black issues and Black leadership are key drivers of U.S. social change. But that doesn’t mean that the proper role for whites (or other people of color) is a subordinate one, as some activists believe. As Gwen Carr, the mother of slain Eric Garner, said at a rally in Washington, D.C., “It’s just so overwhelming to see all who have come to stand with us today. Black, white, all races, all religions. We need to stand like this at all times.”
It would also be a mistake to undervalue the crucial role that Black women play. Although most victims of cop murders are men, Black women are also disproportionately killed or brutalized by police. And they are left to pick up the pieces and fight the good fight when sons, partners, and community members are murdered.
Black women have been leaders in the movement all along. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” was coined by three queer Black women from the San Francisco Bay area as a call to action after the murder of Trayvon Martin. And the Ferguson-based group Millennial Activists United was formed by three young Black women — a student, a mother, and a poet.
Building a movement that matters. Many groups are recognizing that to keep the momentum going and strike a real blow for racial justice, some coordinated national strategizing needs to happen. A national conference on race, racism, and what’s next for the movement could lead to a countrywide mobilization with a clear set of goals and demands.
Only a democratic organization in which all groups have an equal part in the decision-making process will be able to last and make an impact. Left groups could consider this a chance to leave past sectarianism behind and set an example of principled cooperation. Labor activists could also play a valuable role by talking up this idea and generating material support for it in their unions. Perhaps a large labor body could even offer to host such a conference.
What are the demands that the conference might take up? Some proposals:
• Demilitarize police forces and place them under community control; cut spending on law enforcement. Instead, invest this money into Black communities by massively improving jobs, housing, and schools.
• End the phony war on drugs. Release prisoners convicted of minor drug or property offenses or prostitution; fund free, community-operated drug rehabilitation; release all political prisoners and stop hunting Assata Shakur, a political refugee in Cuba.
• Reinstate affirmative action in jobs and education. Use public policy to attack segregated housing, for example by prohibiting landlords from rejecting tenants whose rent is subsidized.
Making demands on the system is important. It brings people together, gives us a sense of our collective power, and sometimes even achieves victories on specific issues.
But this is not enough. Racism and cop brutality, like sexism, are indelible features of capitalism. The only way to truly eradicate oppression is to replace the profit system with a socialist one, and for that, we need nothing short of a revolution.
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