Left Party Declaration: African-Americans, Police Repression, Self-Defense, and the Left

Here in the U.S., the month of July 2016 has seen a marked increase in violence between the African-American community and the police that repress them. Black police officers have begun to speak out against the abuse, and, in two high profile instances, police have been attacked and killed by African-Americans as reprisal for the violence against their community. Although these shooters have no connection with any movement whatsoever, given the sharp increase in widely distributed video evidence of the police’s wanton use of deadly force against black people over the last twenty-five years, we are surprised that such attacks did not begin sooner. They are desperate acts of individuals that correspond to increased state repression. The state’s increased violence is part of the rightward shift of the entire political spectrum due to the prolonged economic decline and increased inequality here in the center of imperialism. Even though we should expect police violence to continue to increase as well as individual acts of violence against the state, we oppose the latter almost as much as the former because they provide justification for increased state repression. We do, however, support the right of the movement against police brutality to democratically organize its own self-defense through whatever means it finds necessary, including through force of arms. We oppose the state’s calls to disarm the population, and call for the labor movement and other organizations of the oppressed to join forces with Black Lives Matter to end police brutality and the capitalist system that requires it.

 

The latest round of increased violence began with two high profile police shootings of African-Americans. Within a day of one another, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5 and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on July 6, were shot and killed by police. The deaths of both men were captured on video and almost immediately distributed across the Internet to an international audience. The video of Sterling’s death showed that two white police officers held him incapacitated on the ground when they shot him.[1] Castile, whose partner broadcast his death over Facebook Live, was cooperating with police by informing them of his firearm for which he had a concealed-carry permit as he reached for his identification when the officer shot him, killing him almost instantly.[2] Both police departments indignantly demanded that we refrain from judgment until they can prove that the killings were motivated by the officers’ fear for their lives. While the police claim the right to be innocent until proven guilty, clearly they are quite comfortable depriving others—particularly people of color—of this same right.

 

Black police officers were troubled by Sterling and Castile’s deaths at the hands of white officers. Some time in early July, but clearly after the killing of Alton Sterling, Freddie Vincent, an African-American police officer from Cincinnati, Ohio, responded to with a warning to “[his] African-Americans.” “When you are encountered by a white police officer,” Vincent wrote, “make sure that you are in a public place, and comply to all of their commands, because they are looking for a reason to kill a black man.”[3] Vincent’s post was quickly deleted, and he was brought up for disciplinary review in his department. His post, however, had already spread across the Internet, illustrating the toll that the polarization between police officers and the African-American community is taking on black officers. He had also confirmed from inside the law enforcement community what the body count of people of color dead at the hands of police for minor (if not non-existent) infractions had already made abundantly clear from outside of it: police are targeting black folk.

 

On July 7, 2016, during a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration for justice for Sterling and Castile in Dallas, Texas, Micah Xavier Johnson, an African-American veteran of the U.S. Army, opened fire on police officers. All that can be known about Johnson’s motivations comes from the police negotiators who spoke with him, who say he told them he was “targeting white officers because of the recent shootings.”[4] Five officers were killed and nine others were wounded—as well as two civilians—before the police put a block of C-4 explosive on a remote control bomb disposal device, rolled it up to where Johnson was hiding, and detonated it. Johnson was immediately killed, with the police acting as judge, jury, and executioners on-site. As with Sterling and Castile, there was no due process for Johnson.

 

The very next day, July 8, Baton Rouge police officer Montrell Jackson responded to the Dallas attacks with an impassioned Facebook post. In it, Jackson bluntly states that he is “physically and emotionally exhausted”, attributing his stress to the increased violence, as well as living on both sides of the polarization between police and African-Americans. “In uniform I get nasty hateful looks,” wrote Jackson, “and out of uniform some consider me a threat.”[5] In his post, Jackson persuasively expresses the rising social tensions—tensions he would not live to see resolved.

 

A little over a week later, on July 16, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an African-American former Marine named Gavin Eugene Long opened fire on law enforcement officers.[6] In his social media postings in days leading up to the shooting, Long expressed his support for Micah Johnson and spoke effusively about the need for “fighting back” against the police’s brutality against African-Americans. Before the police killed him, Long killed two police officers—Montrell Jackson among them—and a sheriff’s deputy and wounded three other law enforcement personnel. The political establishment and the media treat the necessity of killing Long as self-evident, but the fact is that he was denied due process just as surely as Johnson, Castile, Sterling, and a long list of victims of deadly police violence stretching back through the entire history of the institution.

 

Two days later, on July 18, police in North Miami, Florida shot Charles Kinsey, an unarmed African-American behavioral therapist who was trying to convince his bewildered autistic client to come out of the street. As Kinsey lay on the ground with his hands in the air in explicit cooperation with the police’s instructions, police shot him three times in the leg. When Kinsey asked the officer who shot him why, the officer replied, “I don’t know,” as though he were merely a cog in a machine that produces police violence.[7] Clearly, there was nothing that Kinsey could have done to prevent the police from shooting him. He was unarmed; he was breaking no laws; and he was doing exactly what the police told him to do. The thread connecting these subjects of police shootings is that they were all African-Americans. Amongst people who have dark skin, law-abiding citizens, petty criminals, and assassins of police officers are all treated the same: with deadly force.

 

Nevertheless, the political establishment and the news media have represented both Johnson and Long as deranged loners.[8] U.S. President Barack Obama called Johnson and Long’s attacks “the work of cowards who speak for no one.”[9]  However, police violence against people of color has been rampant for decades, if not centuries. The police’s beating of Rodney King in 1991, recorded by a bystander with a video camera and broadcast on international television, began the current era in which police brutality is documented by civilians and presented to the public at large.[10] The death of Oscar Grant in 2008 at the hands of a BART police officer, recorded on multiple cell phones and video cameras and almost instantaneously presented to an international audience over the Internet, marked the beginning a new phase of highly publicized, continuous attacks against Black and Latinos, especially youth.[11] It is in this context that the Black Lives Matter Movement has emerged and reinvigorated a long deferred national discussion on the relationship between race, privilege, and oppression in the U.S. While it is wrong to represent Johnson or Long as spokesmen for Black Lives Matter, as those on the right of the political spectrum do, or indeed as having any organic connection with any movement, their actions are unquestionably expressions of rage and desperation that is widespread and entirely rational given the state’s failure to act on hard evidence of police abuse.[12] As Malcolm X said, explaining his famous analogy of the “chickens coming home to roost”, these actions are the result of a “climate of hate” established by the racist violence of the U.S. political regime.[13]

 

And this climate of hate seems to be intensifying. Because the imperialist ruling class has shifted overseas well-paying manufacturing jobs that used to sustain the U.S. working class in order to pay lower wages and thereby concentrate more wealth into their own hands, more individuals have been forced to compete among themselves in order to better deal with scarcity despite the outrageous embarrassment of overproduction.[14] Thus, the new economic decline has unleashed the development of a more authoritarian and repressive regime, at times even resembling the military dictatorships of Latin America, replete with secret courts and clandestine prisons.[15]

 

Accordingly, the whole political spectrum has moved to the right. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President, advocates racist violence against immigrants, especially Muslims and Latin Americans, and promotes the cult of law enforcement, making his campaign events similar in some ways to fascist demonstrations.[16] Speaking at the Republican National Convention in support of Trump, David A. Clarke, Jr., African-American Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, argued that, “So many of the actions of the Occupy movement and the Black Lives Matter movement transcend peaceful protest and violate the code we rely on. I call it ‘anarchy.’”[17] Inspired by Trump, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, announced his plan to run for U.S. Senate in Louisiana to defend “European American rights.”[18]

 

On the so-called “other side of the aisle,” President Obama and Democratic nominee for president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concede the possibility of institutional racism at a national scale in the police department while moving to strip people under attack of their weapons, even more heavily arm the police, and even further concentrate the police under a centralized federal authority. The deadly attacks on police by snipers and the military executions of the suspects take place in the context of this intensifying, racially charged polarization, suggesting that both the increasingly militarized police and those they oppress are becoming willing to take stronger and more violent measures against one another. Given the circumstances, these individual attacks on police seem likely to continue.

 

To be clear, as an organization, we are strongly opposed to individual violence as a means of political struggle. We stand for the mass mobilization of workers and the oppressed, with all actions democratically discussed within their organizations and agreed upon by their members. Acts of single combat against the state not only bypass the process of building the mass movement, as Trotsky observed,[19] but provide justification for an increase in state repression against it.[20] Further, these attacks tend to arouse pro-state sympathies within the ranks of the workers and the oppressed. Nevertheless, we understand how the frustration, despair, and rage that brought on by the unremitting decades (if not centuries) of state violence can drive a person to commit desperate acts. Furthermore, we protest the police’s summary executions of these men, denying them fair trials. We will defend any individual or group from state terror or from infiltration by agents provocateurs, as carried out by the F.B.I. in the seventies under the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), even if we do not agree with their positions or methodology. The real responsibility lies with the political regime and not those it has pushed to the edge.

 

As a result of Johnson and Long’s attacks, many liberal community organizations and individuals are calling for stricter gun control legislation as a way of protecting the police from the people they oppress.[21] Once again, these groups and individuals are falling into the trap of allowing the issue of the right to bear arms to be the exclusive province of the reactionaries, who, for all their many flaws, correctly argue that automatic weapons are essential for self-defense against state terror. Therefore, we oppose this call for the unilateral disarmament of communities under attack. Stricter gun laws will have no impact on the root causes of community violence, and even more importantly, such laws will do nothing to deter police attacks on communities of color. These communities have the right to defend themselves, even with force of arms, as a crucial element of their right to self-determination.[22] With the tradition of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and the American Indian Movement as precedents, we stand firmly in support of the right of these communities of color under attack to defend themselves in whatever ways they see necessary.

 

In solidarity with the movement that bears its name, we absolutely assert that Black Lives Matter. We wish to draw attention to the fact that, whatever the characterization of the political establishment and the media might say, Black Lives Matter remains a loose network of activists and organizations steadfastly and broadly advocating peaceful reform of the police in the interest of de-escalating violence.[23] It is the police who showed up at the peaceful demonstrations of Black Lives Matter organized to guarantee people of color a number of rights they are supposed to have under the U.S. Constitution in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Maryland, and other places armed with weapons supplied by the U.S. military and began gassing protestors and shooting them with “less lethal” bullets as though they were violent revolutionaries.[24] It is the political establishment and the media they buy with access who, in support of the police, represent actions like blocking traffic—one of the fundamental tactics of non-violent protest—as “violent” in order to justify the massive state repression against this movement. For its part, in its statement following the attacks in Dallas, Black Lives Matter objected to the killings of police officers on the basis that they distract from the police killings of black folk. Black Lives Matter seeks reforms of the police that will allow for “justice, transparency, and accountability.”[25]

 

For our part, we are certain that the state’s violent response to Black Lives Matter means that the achievement of the movement’s aims will require the dismantling of all repressive forces—by which we mean city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies—and their replacement by the formation of democratically elected community councils to administer justice. We demand the abolition of the prison system, which perpetuates the conditions of indentured servitude the ruling class of the U.S. has relied upon since it was founded, as well as the crime and inequality it is ostensibly supposed to deter. We demand the U.S. ruling class make reparations to African-Americans for their enslavement, the genocide against them, and the continued oppression of their population, and we similarly demand the U.S. ruling class make reparations to Native Americans for these same offenses as well as for the expropriation of their land.

 

We fully recognize that there is no way that these demands can be realized under the current political and economic system. It will take the permanent mobilization of workers and the oppressed through their own organizations and under their own leadership to achieve these goals, which would amount to a revolutionary reconstruction of society on a new political and economic foundation. In the absence of such a mass movement, individual acts of desperation seem likely to continue, and conditions will almost certainly continue to deteriorate. Organizations of the oppressed, the left, and, especially the labor movement must lend their strength to Black Lives Matter in order to help it become strong enough to stop police violence.

In order to address the root causes of racism, however, we must join all of our forces to build the movement against the mother of all systems of oppression and exploitation, capitalism itself.

 

 

[1] “Video shows Baton Rouge police officers shooting, killing man pinned to the ground.” http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/07/06/video_baton_rouge_man_alton_sterling_shot_by_police.html

[2] “Minnesota Gov. calls traffic stop shooting absolutely appalling at all levels.”

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/07/485066807/police-stop-ends-in-black-mans-death-aftermath-is-livestreamed-online-video

[3] “Cincinnati officer under review after controversial Facebook post.”

http://www.wlwt.com/news/cincinnati-officer-under-review-after-controversial-facebook-post/40822260

[4] http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2016/07/12_days_timeline_from_alton_st.html

[5] “Emotional Facebook post from Baton Rouge officer goes viral after his death.”

http://fox13now.com/2016/07/17/emotional-facebook-post-from-baton-rouge-officer-goes-viral-after-his-death/

[6] “Baton Rouge police shooting: what we know.” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/07/18/baton-rouge-police-shooting-what-we-know/87237740/

[7] “North Miami police shoot black man who said his hands were raised while he tried to help autistic group-home resident.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/07/21/fla-police-shoot-black-man-with-his-hands-up-as-he-tries-to-help-autistic-patient/

[8] One representative headline: “The Latest: Dallas Shooter a Loner, Collected Guns, Knives”. ABC News, July 16, 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/latest-rally-blocks-interstate-traffic-minneapolis-40544714

[9] https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/07/17/president-obama-attack-law-enforcement-baton-rouge

[10] “Rodney King Biography: 1965-2012.” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/07/18/baton-rouge-police-shooting-what-we-know/87237740/

[11] “Centuries of Rage: The Murder of Oscar Grant III.” http://sfbayview.com/2015/02/centuries-of-rage-the-murder-of-oscar-grant-iii/

[12] Even as we write, the police who killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore last year have been acquitted of all charges.

[13] “Malcolm X: Chickens Coming Home To Roost.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzuOOshpddM

[14] Interestingly, the death of Oscar Grant and the state’s intensification of its racist violence coincide with the economic crisis of 2008.

[15] “The secret US prisons you’ve never heard of before.” Will Potter. October 2015. https://www.ted.com/talks/will_potter_the_secret_us_prisons_you_ve_never_heard_of_before/transcript?language=en

[16] Full text: Donald Trump 2016 RNC draft speech transcript. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/full-transcript-donald-trump-nomination-acceptance-speech-at-rnc-225974

[17] Note that the introspection that Freddie Vincent and Montrell Jackson demonstrate in their Facebook postings is nowhere to be found at the upper levels of the law enforcement community. “FULL SPEECH: Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. Republican National Convention.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ghccQ58jHo

[18] “Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke running for Senate seat in Louisiana.” http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/22/politics/david-duke-senate-race/

[19] Trotsky, in his 1911 article “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism,” wrote: “In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.”

[20] Consider these words of Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie, Jr. After praising the member of the SWAT team that killed Gavin Long, Dabadie explained, “We’ve been questioned for the last (two) weeks about our militarized tactics and our militarized law enforcement. This is why. We are up against a force that is not playing by the rules. They didn’t play by the rules in Dallas and they didn’t play by the rules here.” In other words, do not expect the police to demilitarize themselves on their own initiative. Rather, expect them to further arm themselves and centralize their authority.

[21] “Why President Obama went right to gun control after five police officers were killed in Dallas.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/07/08/why-president-obama-went-right-to-gun-control-after-five-police-were-killed-in-dallas/

In her remarks following the shooting in Baton Rouge, Secretary Clinton said, “The wrong people, the wrong people keep getting their hands on guns, and not just any guns, military weapons like the kind the Dallas shooter had which allowed him to outgun the police.”

Read Hillary Clinton’s Remarks on Race and Policing After the Baton Rouge Killings

[22] They may even look to the autodefensas of the State of Michoacán in Northern Mexico as an example of how oppressed people may stand together to protect themselves against state violence.

[23] The Black Lives Matter Network advocates for dignity, justice, and respect

http://blacklivesmatter.com/the-black-lives-matter-network-advocates-for-dignity-justice-and-respect/

[24] The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that, “no person…shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law.” Furthermore, when police administer the death penalty without first guaranteeing them a fair trial, they, as members of the Executive Branch of local governments, concentrate into their own hands powers reserved to the Judicial Branch by Article 2, Section 3 of the Bill of Rights. All of this brings us to a theoretical point.

 

In his theory of “Permanent Revolution,” Leon Trotsky observed that the Russian national bourgeoisie was weakened from the moment of its constitution as a class by its dependence on international finance capital. In exchange for its financial and technical support, big banks and industrial concerns from Britain and France demanded that the Tsar remain in power in Russia so as to maintain a huge reserve of poor people living in semi-feudal conditions to serve as extremely cheap labor at first, and soldiers in World War One later. As such, Trotsky argued, correctly, as it turned out, that the achievement of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, such as agrarian reform and universal suffrage, required that the working class take political power at the head of the mass of revolting peasants instead of the bourgeoisie. Of course, the Russian Revolution led to the creation of an undemocratic, foully repressive bureaucratic regime that failed in less than a century, but only after state ownership of the means of production allowed Soviet Union to move from being a country dependent on largely dependent on nigh-subsistence farming and handouts from the west to a being a world superpower.

 

In present day U.S., we see the police, as domestic representatives of the imperialist bourgeoisie, reacting to demonstrators demanding their constitutional rights—rights that the U.S. uses as part of its self-identification as a “democratic republic”—as though they were violent revolutionaries. This suggests a possible corollary to the theory of Permanent Revolution that might be formulated as follows:

 

In the time of the economic, political, and cultural decadence of imperialism, the maintenance of the gains of the bourgeois revolution against increased repressive measures from the state will require that the working class take political power and form a government of workers and the oppressed with the aim of the transformation of society from the bottom up.

 

This, however, is a topic for a later discussion.

 

[25] Ibid.

 

 

 

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