A struggle for justice everywhere

September 3, 2014

In a society that produces racism and police murder, we need to advance every struggle against oppression and injustice--and also work toward a completely different world.

THE GRAFFITI in Ferguson, Mo., tells a story.

Go to the fire-scarred QuikTrip on West Florissant--symbol of the bitter anger at the murder of Mike Brown--and you'll understand why Ferguson will never again be an anonymous collar suburb of St. Louis. You'll see Mike Brown's name linked together with other victims of police murder and racist violence, like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. And you'll see "Ferguson 2014" on a list of cities that have risen up in rebellion over the past half a century.

The murder of an unarmed Black teenager for the "crime" of walking in the street was certain to shake Ferguson to its core. But the killing itself wasn't unique--the statistics tell us that a similar police shooting was more likely than not to take place somewhere in the U.S. at some point during the next day after Mike Brown died.

The killing of Mike Brown is shaking the entire country, on the other hand, because of a sustained mobilization, which has torn away the veil that usually obscures the racism and violence endured by African Americans and other people of color, especially in poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods.

Grafitti at the QuikTrip in the center of Ferguson, Mo.
Grafitti at the QuikTrip in the center of Ferguson, Mo. (Eric Ruder | SW)

The worldwide shock at Ferguson is driven by the barbarism of the killing itself and the sickening justifications for it, coming from police and politicians--which have included smearing the victim with all the vile stereotypes used generally to stigmatize and criminalize Black youth.

Ferguson 2014 has also revealed the alarming extent of the militarization of police departments around the country. The response of authorities to the angry demonstrations after Brown's murder was to roll out the full arsenal of high-tech weaponry and equipment that law enforcement has been accumulating, with no one asking any questions.

Many other issues stand out in a new light today because of Ferguson: the intersection of race, class and poverty; the many forms of political disenfranchisement that keep a white elite in power; economic disinvestment in a former industrial city; segregation in housing and education.

This is not unlike the so-called "Katrina moment" in 2005, when even the mainstream media--at least parts of it--had to acknowledge the U.S. government's contempt for the African American poor of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. In Ferguson, mainstream media personalities like CNN's Don Lemon and Jake Tapper reacted to the chaos and violence--caused by the state and inflicted on people exercising their elemental right to protest--with stunned disbelief and even outrage.

Not all media personalities, of course. The same CNN that broadcast Lemon's and Tapper's reports from Ferguson featured witless anchor Rosemary Church asking why police didn't "perhaps use water cannons" to disperse demonstrators.

IN OTHER words, the response to Ferguson is polarized--and polarizing. On a broader level, opinion polls found different conclusions about the source of the unrest in Ferguson among whites and Blacks. A Pew Research Center survey found, for example, that more whites than not--just under 50 percent--thought the issue of race was "getting more attention than it deserves" in explaining what has taken place.

For anyone in solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson, this is a startling and depressing result that reflects the enduring hold of racism in the U.S. But it may not be so surprising given the relentless rhetoric of the media and political leaders about how we are living in a "post-racial" society, where institutional discrimination is a thing of the past--especially now that an African American is president of the United States.

This proves that merely exposing racism and its consequences to the light of day isn't enough. We have to organize--on every front, whether ideological, activist or otherwise--to confront prejudice and bigotry.

Still, it should be remembered that polarization works in two directions. Throughout the U.S., there are millions of people, including significant numbers of white people, who will never think about police violence and racism the same way after Ferguson--just as they will never forget the name Trayvon Martin. And at least some of them will move closer, if they haven't already, to the conclusion that something must be done.

Among African Americans, the upsurge of bitter anger in Ferguson has been a clarion call--and an important one given the response from Black political leaders that has ranged from disappointing appeals for "peace" in the face of a police-state crackdown to Barack Obama's downright insulting lectures that it's time to "listen and not just shout."

Vigils and solidarity actions--often hastily called, sometimes by people who have never organized such an event before--drew dozens and hundreds in different places, and even more than 1,000 in a few cities. Besides their importance in the continuing battle over how Ferguson will be defined in the mainstream discussion, these demonstrations can help build up long-term relationships among individuals and groups, so the response to racist violence can be stronger and better organized in the future.

IN THIS regard, one of the most heartening responses to Ferguson has been the number of political and activist organizations that explicitly identified with the anti-racist struggle and drawn connection to their own fights.

Of course, all it took was one look at the nightly images of the streets of Ferguson--choked with tear gas and filled with police dressed in riot gear that would make the imperial storm troopers of Star Wars envious--for Palestinians and the international solidarity activists who support them to recognize the parallels between the Israeli occupation and the police occupation in Ferguson.

Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and beyond signed on to a powerful statement of support for the demonstrators in Ferguson. In St. Louis, Holocaust survivor and veteran activist in support of Palestinian rights Hedy Epstein was among those arrested in an act of civil disobedience at the office of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. "It's the same kind of violence that I've observed when I was in the Israeli-occupied Palestine," Epstein said.

Another example is 350.org, the climate justice organization, which released a statement standing "in solidarity with those in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting the shooting of unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown--and we call on the climate movement to stand with us. We believe unequivocally that working for racial justice is a crucial part of fighting climate change."

Taking this stance was unprecedented for 350.org, which was formed by progressives who felt the urgent need for grassroots activism around the issue of climate change. It's a very important development in a movement where establishment liberal organizations--not 350.org, though--have a history of downplaying the issue of environmental racism, if not actively ignoring it.

It's worth pointing out that 350.org might not have moved from unspoken sympathy with the Ferguson protests to public support without Dierdre Smith, the group's strategic partnership coordinator.

In a blog post, Smith explained that she made the connection between the police murder in Ferguson and her work as a climate justice activist because she first became involved in the environmental movement following the Katrina disaster. "When crisis hits," Smith wrote, "the underlying racism in our society comes to the surface in very clear ways. Climate change is bringing nothing if not clarity to the persistent and overlapping crises of our time."

SMITH WAS echoing the principle of solidarity at the heart of every great social struggle--expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. in the famous words from his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

It's also worth pointing out the importance of individuals like Smith to the struggle today. The course of movements and campaigns--whether they make connections with other struggles or not, for example-- isn't pre-determined, but is shaped by the ideas and actions of actual human beings.

Ferguson may not be remembered as another Montgomery or Watts--upsurges that we now know heralded the crystallization of a mass movement. But even short of that, the demonstrations in Ferguson and the wider sentiment in solidarity with them can take our struggle forward--not only on specific issues, but as part of a wider challenge to a system that produces police violence, racist disenfranchisement and poverty; and, on the other side of the world, imperialist war and sectarian conflict; and, around the globe, environmental devastation.

In the face of such a world, the vision of a completely different society, based on solidarity and struggle, is as relevant as it has ever been.

At the heart of socialism is the idea that the evils of this society are connected--that they all arise from the same source, a capitalist system, dominated by a tiny minority whose main priority is to increase its wealth and power--and so we need an alternative that connects all that is positive in the world: the struggles that offer a different way.

The many struggles we will be involved in this fall--against racism and police brutality; in solidarity with Palestine; to save the planet from climate change--are vitally important.

But those committed to being a part of them also need something more: to educate themselves about the history of past struggles; to discuss the many intersecting political question facing us today; to build up their common experiences and the potential to bring together larger numbers of people in struggle.

In addition to all the activism we'll be involved in this fall, the International Socialist Organization will also be holding meetings and discussions about socialism--what that tradition stands for, how revolutionaries organize and more. We hope SocialistWorker.org readers get engaged with these discussions about building a socialist alternative.

After all, we have a whole world to win.

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