Black Lives Matter

From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2015-2016
Decaying social order shows need for philosophy, revolution

Contents:

Introduction

I.    Black Lives Matter

II.  Things fall apart 

A. Arab Spring: Revolution and war
B. Economic weakness and shifts in global politics
C. Whiff of fascism

III. Greek masses in peril

IV.  Marxist-Humanist organization and philosophy


…Continued from Introduction

I. Black Lives Matter

The long-simmering outrage of Black masses has broken out into a movement against this racist society, particularly its pattern of racist killings by the police. It has not only reverberated internationally, but also made itself felt in the battle of ideas and the sphere of theory.1See “‘We all can’t breathe’: Reflections on Marx’s Humanism and Fanon,” Jan.-Feb. 2015 N&L.

Clearly, the subjective transformation has not overthrown the old order. The police have not stopped killing—as seen by the shootings of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Wash; Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisc.; Aura Rosser in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Yuvette Henderson in Emeryville, Calif.; and Anthony Hill in Chamblee, Ga. There is no confidence that the killers will suddenly start being convicted, even if one or two examples are made—as in the case in North Charleston, S.C., of Walter Scott. His killing in cold blood by white cop Michael Slager—who also placed a taser by his victim’s body to back up his lie that Scott posed a threat—was simply too blatant to ignore, but only because a citizen videotaped the murder.

Protesters at national demonstration in St. Louis Oct. 11-12, 2014, against police killings. Actions were prompted by the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo by Mar Quita Bradshaw for News & Letters)

Protesters at national demonstration in St. Louis Oct. 11-12, 2014, against police killings. Actions were prompted by the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo by Mar Quita Bradshaw for News & Letters)

The might of the federal government will not be brought to bear to convict the killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, killers set free by local prosecutors manipulating grand juries. Killer cops need fear nothing like the persecution visited on whistleblowers who reveal secrets of corruption, torture, even murder, perpetrated by government agencies like the CIA and NSA. The Justice Department will force the restructuring of one police department in Ferguson, Mo., but leave untouched the bulk of the racist, life-destroying national/state/local criminal injustice system.

Every level of that system is racist, from traffic stops, to treatment of young people by cops on the street, to the court system, to prison. Within prison, the system uses brutality to break resistance but also instigates racial divisions, which is why cross-racial organizing, as in the 2011 and 2013 Pelican Bay hunger strikes, is so important—and why the voices of prisoners need to be heard. In News & Letters they are heard in the context of a philosophy of freedom.

This is the broadest wave of protests against racist police since the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the revolts it sparked in dozens of communities across the U.S. The rapid nationwide spread of militant protests took established leaders by surprise. They were started and dominated by youth of color, and attracted a significant minority of whites, as well as Black, Latina/o, Asian, and Native American.

BLACK WOMEN & YOUTH IN MOVEMENT

Today, women are, at least in some places, acknowledged leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement. In Ferguson Johnetta Elzie, 25, who lived near where Michael Brown was shot, decided to look into it herself when she heard about it on Twitter at the time Brown’s body was still lying in the street. She helped organize demonstrations and, with DeRay Mckesson, began to produce an email newsletter (thisisthemovement.org) to tell the story of what was really happening in Ferguson. The newsletter now has over 14,000 subscribers.

She also saw that most people on the streets in Ferguson were women, but at the meetings “and private phone calls and the back door stuff…it would be predominantly male, predominantly heterosexual Black men. There would be little representation of everyone else that was out there in the streets….I would be silenced or people would speak for me instead of asking me…There would always be some man who would answer the question for me while I’m trying to talk.”

She makes the point of how inclusive Ferguson has been because, she says, “Blackness is all-inclusive….There are Gay and Lesbian folks, bisexual, there are religious Black people, there are atheist Black people.” This recognition, too, is new.

YOUTH IN THE LEAD INTERNATIONALLY

As in movements from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution to anti-austerity direct actions in Greece, youth are in the forefront, challenging not only the government but established groups and their approaches.

At a national march on Washington last December that was called by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, some youth demanded the microphone. Before the mike was cut off, Elzie declared, “This movement was started by the young people. We started this. It should be young people all over this stage.”2Gene Demby, “Protesters Of Police Violence Divided By Generation,” Dec. 14, 2014, NPR Weekend Edition.

In New York, two young women were mostly responsible for organizing the massive 60,000 strong Millions March. Both are artists, Synead Nichols, 23, and Umaara Elliot, 19.

This fight against racism explicitly confronts the state. In Wisconsin, after the police murder of unarmed 19-year-old Tony Robinson in March, thousands of African Americans, university students and professors, high school students and workers marched through the streets of Madison. Brandi Grayson with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition proclaimed, “The purpose of this march and this movement is [to] connect the dots between the different forms of injustice and how it all leads back to state violence. Stripping resources from our local communities is state violence. Cutting hundreds of millions from the University of Wisconsin is state violence. The non-taxation of corporations and the over-taxation of the poor and middle class is state violence.”

What is new is not that women of color have taken huge responsibility for a movement; what is new is that it is now, albeit often grudgingly, acknowledged. Women are refusing to step back and are challenging men who tell them they should. LGBTQ people are right there too. The battle is not yet won. Andrea Ritchie, director of New York City’s Streetwise and Safe, an organization working with Queer youth of color, in speaking of the fact that so many women of color have also been murdered by New York cops, said,

“[Women] never become part of the story of state violence. No matter how many women are in the leadership of the movement challenging police brutality, our experiences are never at the center of the conversation.”

Women of color are also the largest part of the workers fighting for a living wage at companies like Walmart and McDonald’s, both of which recently bowed to pressure and promised blanket wage raises for their lowest-paid employees. The raises, however, come nowhere near a living wage and did not apply to franchises or contractors, and the struggles continue. April 15 protests demanding $15 an hour went ahead in several cities, drawing thousands of workers. (See report, p. 3.)

It is no accident that Black Lives Matter events keep crisscrossing with strikes and protests for a $15 minimum wage. In these movements it is widely understood that we are up against an establishment, even a social system. The same forces cheering on cops who kill Blacks also support busting unions, throwing people off food stamps, shutting down abortion clinics, and legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people.

The philosophy of liberation reveals that struggles for freedom are as integral to the history of the U.S. as is its history of systemic racism. This insight—and the actual tracing of that history in American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard and other Marxist-Humanist works—are central to the 60 years of News and Letters Committees. It is a time period in which, as American Civilization on Trial put it:

“The Black dimension in the U.S. as well as in Africa showed that we had, indeed, reached a totally new movement from practice to theory that was itself a new form of theory. It was this new movement from practice—those new voices from below—which we heard, recorded, and dialectically developed. Those voices demanded that a new movement from theory be rooted in that movement from practice and become developed to the point of philosophy—a philosophy of world revolution.”

This philosophical foundation becomes even more urgent today, when the election of a Black president cannot hide the resurgence of virulent racism, from the police killings of young people to the code words of national politics, from resegregated schools to racially slanted budget cuts in government jobs, unemployment benefits and Medicaid.

Continued in Part II

References   [ + ]

1. See “‘We all can’t breathe’: Reflections on Marx’s Humanism and Fanon,” Jan.-Feb. 2015 N&L.
2. Gene Demby, “Protesters Of Police Violence Divided By Generation,” Dec. 14, 2014, NPR Weekend Edition.

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