The fight against racism returns to the streets

December 11, 2014

Today's protests are a first step toward achieving change--but how far they go depends on what happens next, starting with nationwide mobilizations on December 13.

"THE AMERICAN people have this lesson to learn: Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe...Oppression makes even wise men mad and reckless; for illustration I pray look at East St. Louis."

The great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke these words in an 1886 speech on the theme of "Southern Barbarism." And the city Douglass referenced so his audience would immediately understand what he was talking about is today a 20-minute drive from Ferguson, Missouri.

Douglass' words speak volumes against the insulting complaints of the mainstream media after the announcements that the two cops who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner would not stand trial--against their questions about why people in Ferguson were "burning down their own neighborhood," and now why people around the country are on the march and disrupting business and travel.

Thousands march in Washington, D.C., after Darren Wilson was let off by a grand jury
Thousands march in Washington, D.C., after Darren Wilson was let off by a grand jury (Stephen D. Melkisethian)

What the press and politicians can't seem to understand is that these twin injustices represent a turning point for many people--the moment when they recognized that there is an "organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade," and that they need to raise their voices against it.

The numbing, horrific frequency of police violence--a Black person killed every 28 hours by police, security guard or vigilantes, according to a study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement using 2012 statistics--makes it certain that there will be victims like Mike Brown and Eric Garner.

What's different about these cases is that they galvanized a response and a resistance, on a higher level than even the nationwide protests following the murder of Trayvon Martin--first for months in the streets of Ferguson, and now across the country.

The long-overdue return of anti-racist resistance to the streets adds a new element to the customary cycle of police murder, community grief and episodic protest. But at the same time, the question remains in the minds of even of those who have participated in numerous marches, die-ins and blockades: Will these protests do any good?

The answer is yes--but how much good they do ultimately depends on what happens next, starting with the nationwide mobilizations, centered in New York City and Washington, D.C., set for this weekend on December 13.

THE IMPORTANCE of the eruption of struggle since the Brown and Garner grand juries refused to indict is unmistakable. Veteran activist and journalist L.A. Kauffman described what she witnessed on the streets of New York City after the Garner decision:

I've been attending and observing protests for 30 years, and I've never seen anything quite like what I've experienced in New York City over the last week...The crowds--impassioned, racially diverse, with on-the-ground tactical direction from young people of color--have not only been venting rage and sorrow at yet another unpunished police killing. Along with their counterparts all across the country, these protesters have been staking out a bold new kind of street action, a fierce and uncompromising activism for our time...

[T]ry as I might to think of a precedent, I can't come up with another time when protesters have engaged in as much spontaneous and simultaneous disruptive action as they have in the two weeks since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for shooting Michael Brown.

Hasan Jeffries, a civil rights movement historian at Ohio State University, sounded the same theme in a segment on MSNBC:

This is more than just some of the things that we've seen in the past, where people respond to a moment, and then it dissipates. I'm inclined to believe that what I'm seeing in terms of the grassroots organizing being done, the kinds of small-group organizations that are emerging--that we will look back on this and judge it to be a social movement.

There have been significant mobilizations against police violence and the injustice system in the recent past--the angry protests in Oakland and beyond that forced prosecutors to indict the transit system cop who killed Oscar Grant in 2009; worldwide demonstrations against the state murder of innocent Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis; mobilizations against the New York Police Department's "stop and frisk" racial profiling policy; and, of course, the nationwide outburst of protest after the murder of Trayvon Martin, which forced the indictment of his killer, even if George Zimmerman was ultimately found not guilty.

But the protests today are on a new level, in terms of size, national scope and radicalism.

AS DURING the Black Power struggles of the 1960s, the broader political context is crucial for understanding the bitterness that is welling up today.

Back then, the mass urban rebellions of the late 1960s were the result of a combination of factors: frustration with the slow pace of change after years of civil rights protests; anger that Blacks had been locked out of the postwar economic boom; and--then as now--an instinctive reaction against police violence and official racism.

When the first pieces of 1960s anti-poverty legislation failed to quell the anger that led to rioting, conservatives began arguing that the so-called "War on Poverty" was the problem, not poverty itself--just as Fox News commentators today insist that "race hustlers" like Al Sharpton are "stirring up" Blacks, while ignoring the daily, systemic racial discrimination and police brutality in Ferguson and across the country.

As for the liberal Democrats of the 1960s, they offered rhetorical support for a struggle against racism and half-hearted legislative proposals--but they were quick to turn to repression when words weren't enough to pacify the demands of the Black community.

Today's context has similarities and differences. Instead of a war on poverty, there has been three decades of a war on the poor--with Blacks disproportionately suffering the consequences. Racist police abuse and violence still exists, but it has taken on monstrous new proportions under the conditions of mass incarceration.

A significant Black middle class has emerged, including thousands of African American elected officials--among them, the first Black president of the United States. But conditions for the majority of African Americans have not improved.

The chasm between the raised hopes after Obama's election in 2008 and the reality of so little change since has been a jarring political education for a generation of young Black people. Thus, St. Louis rapper Tef Poe's recent open letter to Obama echoed Frederick Douglass' words from more than a century before:

I speak for a large demographic of us that has long awaited our Black president to speak in a direct tone while condemning our murders. From our perspective, the statement you made on Ferguson completely played into the racist connotations that we are violent, uneducated, welfare-recipient looters. Your remarks in support of the National Guard attacks upon us and our community devoured our dignity.

When an assault rifle is aimed at your face over nothing more than a refusal to move, you don't feel like the American experience is one that includes you. When the president your generation selected does not condemn these attacks, you suddenly begin to believe that this system is a fraudulent hoax--and the joke is on you.

Michael Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, connected this disillusionment to the condescending and victim-blaming tone Obama has used since even before he became president:

If there was a message delivered to the unwashed masses of Black folk in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama, it was "don't fuck up." And indeed beginning with his 11th-hour election season screed about sagging pants, the president has taken every opportunity to admonish Black folk about the value of education, wearing the right clothes and marrying your baby-making partner...

AS FOR whether today's protests against police violence and racism will make a difference, the first answer is that they already have--at least a little.

The Washington Post, for example, noted the Obama administration's shift away from the "politics of Black respectability": "[Obama] has instead focused on African American concerns about unfair treatment and called them part of the American family--which makes it awfully hard to single them out as the problem child in need of some tough love."

But of course, the people taking the streets in protest today have much higher aspirations than a change in presidential rhetoric. To achieve more than this, however, ongoing organization is necessary. The 1960s urban uprisings gave rise to new radical formations, like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Revolutionary Union Movements that focused on organizing Black autoworkers.

Today, we are only at the beginning of such a phase. But the ongoing and widening demonstrations against police violence and racist injustice have given the question a new relevance.

This weekend, there will be demonstrations in New York City, Washington, D.C., and other cities. The protests come from different sources: New York's mobilization began among a handful of activists at the grassroots and gained steam, while the initiator of the D.C. demonstration is civil rights leader Al Sharpton, who has been criticized by many for his too-often scolding attitude toward the upsurge of protest today.

Nevertheless, both demonstrations, and many others locally, will bring out people who see them as an opportunity to take that critical political step of moving from outrage to action. Anyone who wants to see the new anti-racist movement grow stronger and more organized should take part and continue the process of connecting individuals and organizations dedicated to taking this struggle forward.

At the height of the late 1960s social struggles, British Marxist John Berger wrote about the importance of mass protest to transform the people who participate in them:

The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. The delay between the rehearsals and the real performance may be very long: their quality--the intensity of rehearsed awareness--may, on different occasions, vary considerably: but any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle...

The importance of the numbers involved is to be found in the direct experience of those taking part in or sympathetically witnessing the demonstration. For them, the numbers cease to be numbers and become the evidence of their senses, the conclusions of their imagination. The larger the demonstration, the more powerful and immediate (visible, audible, tangible) a metaphor it becomes for their total collective strength...The more people there are there, the more forcibly they represent to each other and to themselves those who are absent.

The demonstrations against police terror and the injustice system have grown stronger in every way since the New York and Missouri grand jury decisions not to punish killer police. We hope the protests on December 13 are another step in rebuilding an anti-racist struggle and the wider movement of the left, which are both so urgently needed today.

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