From the July-August 2015 issue of News & Letters
A burly white cop grabs a 14-year-old Black girl’s hair and pushes her face into the ground, pausing to wave his gun at two teenage boys who rush to her defense. The video of Cpl. Eric Casebolt’s June 5 attack on Dejerria Becton and other kids at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, went viral because it was simultaneously shocking and commonplace. In 2015 USA, protests were inevitable and were heard around the world.
Similarly, the fact that Baltimore cops murdered Freddie Gray in April is sickeningly familiar. As Billy Murphy said at Gray’s packed funeral, “Most of us are not here because we knew Freddie Gray, but we’re all here because we know lots of Freddie Grays!” That is not only the story of Baltimore but of the whole racist country.
NEW IS THE NEVER-ENDING REVOLT
What is new is not the killings but the revolt that has been snowballing since the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. Now people who live where racist killings by cops and vigilantes are part of everyday life are not the only ones forced to think about what they mean.
The intensity of revolt has compelled responses, from a predominantly Black, multiracial outpouring of youth at protests, to recognition in the mass media that have so often disregarded the killings and protests, to solidarity from movements seeking liberation for women, Queers, immigrants and workers. All feel the gravitational pull of “Black Lives Matter” precisely because of the power of its challenge to this society, a power rooted in the revolt that has been fermenting all along.
Suddenly, the enduring segregation and poverty in Baltimore became newsworthy. Media reported that the area at the heart of the rebellion has over 30% unemployment and an average income of $17,000 per year. Some news reports even dared to note that Black unemployment and poverty are both still more than twice that of whites, that over one quarter of U.S. Blacks live below the poverty line and that nearly one in three Black and Latino children are at risk of hunger.
THE POWER OF REVOLT
How threatening this revolt is to the power structure was seen in the occupation of Baltimore by National Guard troops and the curfew imposed there. Over two weeks, nearly 500 people were arrested, many of whom were never charged, even though they were held longer than the 24 hours allowed under Maryland law. Some reporters were beaten and jailed for reporting on the protests and their repression, and 12 National Lawyers Guild legal observers were arrested.
The fact that six Baltimore cops were charged so quickly in Freddie Gray’s killing is a measure of the revolt’s intensity. Protests and other forms of revolt have spread all over the country since the events in Ferguson last year. (See reports on page 8, “Black Lives Matter actions: Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles.) As #BlackLivesMatter spread, #SayHerName was begun to highlight the often-overlooked killing, rape, and abuse of Black women by police. Dozens of actions were held on May 21 to observe the new National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women and Girls.
Conviction of Freddie Gray’s killers is far from certain. Cops are rarely punished even for videotaped crimes. The mild reforms being considered in many cities and states—mainly, body videocameras on cops and better statistics about police violence—do little to address the systemic bias, let alone the fundamental problem that the police as an institution exist to preserve the given social order, which is racist through and through and is based on a class division of society into the rulers and the ruled.
The fact is that “innocent until proven guilty” does not apply in practice to targets of police action—especially Blacks and other people of color, homeless people, Trans people and poor people. All too often, they are punished until proven innocent, and even afterwards.
REVOLT IS A PATH TO SECOND NEGATION
Kalief Browder’s suicide in June is a horrific example. At 16, he was wrongly accused of stealing a backpack and thrown in New York City’s Rikers Island jail with an out-of-reach $3,000 bail. By the time he was released in 2013, he was 20 and his case had been dismissed without going to trial. He had spent most of that time in the torture of solitary confinement and was repeatedly beaten and starved by guards. This is what happens to a teenager who was not convicted!
There are many who see revolts like those in Baltimore and Ferguson as justifiable reactions from people pushed to the limit by an occupying army. What most commentators forget is that no new society can be built without tearing up the existing one by its roots. That is, the only way to get to the second negation is through the first. The Subject has to self-develop through revolutionary self-activity in order to become the Subject of the creation of new human relations.
Often portrayed as mindless destruction and looting, these revolts involved a development of consciousness of self as Subject, of Subject as power to transform, when Subject becomes masses in motion.
We are surely at a new stage of revolt. The question is not whether it is yet a totally new beginning, but rather: What are we going to do to help it become one?