Trayvon Martin Case: Black Oppression and Gun Laws in America

No to Gun Control! Down with Racist Vigilantism!

Workers Vanguard

On February 26, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down in cold blood by a racist vigilante in Sanford, Florida. For six weeks, state authorities allowed the killer, George Zimmerman, to walk the streets. Amid an outpouring of nationwide protest sparked by Martin’s parents’ desire merely to see Zimmerman forced to answer charges in court, he was finally indicted for second-degree murder on April 11 and jailed. With Zimmerman’s arraignment scheduled for May 8, he has been released on a $150,000 bond.

After Zimmerman’s arrest, the liberal bourgeois press breathed a collective sigh of relief, concerned that black people, for whom this country remains the same “American nightmare” described by Malcolm X nearly 50 years ago, weren’t buying the myth of a “post-racial America.” Black New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who has often compellingly described the racist workings of the criminal justice system, declared: “The wheels of justice are finally turning…. In this case, America seems to be finally getting it right because equal justice under the law is one of her greatest ideals” (“Justice for Trayvon,” 13 April).

There is no justice for the black masses in racist America! Like countless black men, women and children before him, Trayvon Martin was the victim of a capitalist system that was built on slavery and is maintained on a bedrock of black oppression. Since the beginning of the year, the list of black people killed by cops includes Ramarley Graham in the Bronx, Stephon Watts and Rekia Boyd in the Chicago area, and Dane Scott Jr. in Oklahoma. This time it was wannabe cop Zimmerman, rather than the police themselves, who targeted Trayvon and pulled the trigger. We can’t predict the outcome of Zimmerman’s trial—if one actually takes place. But until America’s capitalist rulers are swept away by proletarian socialist revolution, there will be no justice for Trayvon Martin nor for the multitudes of black and Latino youth, who on a daily basis are stalked by the cops, stopped, frisked, beaten and, if they survive the encounter, framed up and railroaded to prison hell.

It took some weeks before Trayvon’s killing was widely known. Then what followed was an outpouring of goodwill for the family and protests tying the killing to the racist victimization of black youth everywhere. His parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, made the rounds of news shows. Hip-hop/reggae artist Wyclef Jean composed a song for Trayvon. Hoodies were widely worn on campuses and even in churches to protest racist profiling. Sympathetic accounts were initially splashed on newspaper front pages across the country, some of which alluded to the routine cop terrorization of ghettoized youth.

But more recently, a vicious racist backlash has been gaining steam. Efforts to portray Trayvon Martin as a thug proliferated, starting with the release of school records showing that he had been temporarily suspended for having some marijuana residue in a baggie inside his book bag. The Web site of right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin posted a picture, falsely identified as Trayvon Martin, of a shirtless black teen with his boxers hanging out of his pants flipping the bird to the camera. Meanwhile, reactionary media mouthpiece Ann Coulter has denounced press coverage of calls for Zimmerman’s arrest as “a lynch mob.” Amid the media blitz equating black youth lifestyles with criminality, an eighth-grade teacher in Michigan was fired for encouraging students to plan a wear-a-hoodie-to-school day in honor of Martin and advocating they raise money for his family.

Gun Control Kills Blacks

Providing some high-toned fuel for the racist backlash was a Wall Street Journal (6 April) opinion piece, “The Exploitation of Trayvon Martin,” by black conservative Shelby Steele, who argued: “America has greatly evolved since the 1960s. There are no longer any respectable advocates of racial segregation.” His conclusion: “Blacks today are nine times more likely to be killed by other blacks than by whites,” so why not “a movement against blacks who kill other blacks”? Bill Cosby chimed in by telling CNN that the debate over Trayvon Martin’s killing by a neighborhood watch volunteer should be focused on guns, not race.

These despicable comments by Cosby, who likes to lecture black people that they’re responsible for their own oppression, were echoed in one way or another by a cadre of liberal pundits and black Democratic Party politicians railing against the proliferation of guns. Liberals are especially trying to steer opposition to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, under which Zimmerman claimed self-defense, into assaults on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. This view was expressed by labor bureaucrat George Gresham of SEIU 1199 in the “Union Matters” column in the Amsterdam News (12 April), in which he called to put on trial “Florida’s shoot-first ‘Stand Your Ground’ law and the dangerous prevalence of handguns in our nation.”

In “Trayvon Martin: Killed for Being Black in America” (WV No. 999, 30 March), we explained why as Marxists we oppose Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, “which, in removing retreat as a criterion for self-defense, sanctions vigilantism, including murder.” At the same time, we stressed that “the working class and the black population must zealously defend the Constitutional right to bear arms, a product of the Revolutionary War against British colonial rule.” Upholding the right to armed self-defense, Marxists oppose gun control laws, which are a means to enforce a monopoly of violence in the hands of the capitalist state. Gun control leaves guns in the hands of cops, criminals, vigilantes and Klansmen. Gun control kills, and it kills black people in particular.

In the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, the most democratic period for black people in America’s history, many recalcitrant Southern state governments tried to outlaw possession of firearms by blacks. In response, the federal Freedmen’s Bureau widely distributed circulars that read in part, “All men, without distinction of color, have the right to keep arms to defend their homes, families, or themselves.”

The Northern bourgeoisie, acting on its class interests, went on to make peace with the Southern planters, and blacks were forced into backbreaking labor on the land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Following the end of Union Army occupation of the South during Reconstruction, naked white-supremacist rule was restored. Jim Crow segregation was enforced by police-state repression, supplemented by the extralegal terror of the Ku Klux Klan. As race-terror swept the South in the late 19th century, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells wrote:

“The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.

“The lesson this teaches and which every Afro American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

—quoted in Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Jacqueline J. Royster, ed. [1997])

Black self-defense has historically been met with frenzied state repression. The earliest 20th-century gun control laws were passed in states like South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi as a way to disarm blacks in the face of KKK terror.

An article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker (23 April) aptly points out, “In the nineteen-sixties, gun ownership as a constitutional right was less the agenda of the N.R.A. [National Rifle Association] than of black nationalists.” In 1965, the New York City Council passed a bill especially to keep Malcolm X from carrying a carbine for his protection; he was assassinated shortly afterward. In 1967, the California legislature banned the carrying of a loaded gun after a demonstration by the Black Panthers, who were legally carrying guns, at the state capitol in Sacramento. The Panthers had been patrolling the Oakland ghetto, where police terror was rampant.

The state’s ban was followed by gun control laws nationwide, especially after the ghetto upheavals that broke out following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. As Lepore notes, gun control, “along with a great deal of subsequent law-and-order legislation, was intended to fight crime, control riots, and solve what was called, in the age of the Moynihan report, the ‘Negro problem.’ The regulations that are part of these laws—firearms restrictions, mandatory-sentencing guidelines, abolition of parole, and the ‘war on drugs’—are now generally understood to be responsible for the dramatic rise in the U.S. incarceration rate.”

“Stand Your Ground”: License to Kill

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law eliminated the historic requirement that in order to claim self-defense, a person facing deadly force must first try to remove himself, if feasible, before himself using such force. Passed in 2005 amid a campaign to “get tough on crime”—code for targeting black people—the law is an open invitation to just the kind of racist vigilante violence that killed Trayvon Martin.

To see the racist intent of Florida’s law, one need look no further than its authors. The law was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing think tank founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, who was also a founder of the Heritage Foundation and, with the reactionary religious bigot Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority. ALEC has been the driving force behind the voter ID laws that are intended to overwhelmingly disenfranchise black people and the poor and has played a key role in expanding the burgeoning prison population, pioneering mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and “three strikes” laws.

Over 20 state governments, centered on the states of the slaveholders’ Confederacy, have passed such laws, with bipartisan support. In doing so, they certainly did not have black self-defense in mind. A case in point occurred in 2005 in Georgia, a “Stand Your Ground” state. John McNeil, a black man, was rushed in front of his home by a white man who had been threatening his family with a knife. McNeil fired a warning shot but his assailant continued toward him. McNeil fired again and killed him. Initially, he was not charged in the killing. But prosecutors went after him a year later, and now McNeil is serving a life sentence.

In Florida and other states, possessing firearms is illegal for minors as well as for adults who have been convicted on drug charges or were, as youths, judged delinquent on such charges. Under racist U.S. “law and order,” these categories are overwhelmingly applicable to black people. Since he was under 18, Trayvon Martin had no legal right to be carrying a firearm, and thus no right to use one in self-defense. If he had been armed during his encounter with George Zimmerman, he might be alive today. But in this racist society, his survival may also have been a ticket to prison and possibly death row.

Material Roots of Black Oppression

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have seized on Trayvon Martin’s killing to trot out the call for a “new civil rights movement,” towing the reformist “socialists” in their slipstream. For decades, Jackson and Sharpton have promoted themselves as spokesmen against racist abuse and police attacks in order to douse the flames of struggle and divert anger among black people into Democratic Party electoral politics and illusions in the capitalist “justice” system. And this is precisely their intention in regard to protests over the Martin killing. Jackson declared at a press conference last month, “I would hope that movement would turn into Trayvon Martin voter-registration rallies.” Sharpton chimed in by telling a convention of his National Action Network on April 11, “We must make the justice system work. Otherwise the movement is for nothing.”

Singing the same tune are the reformists of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). In an article headlined “Building a New Movement for Racial Justice” (Socialist Worker online, 18 April), the ISO calls for organizing to demand “justice and accountability when African Americans are brutalized—or worse—by police.” The hard fact is that the police are “accountable” only to the capitalist ruling class that employs them to repress the working class, black people and other minorities through organized violence.

Sharpton, Jackson and others have likened Trayvon Martin’s killing to the 1955 lynching in Mississippi of 14-year-old Emmett Till for the offense of appearing to whistle at a white woman. The lynching became a catalyst for the civil rights upheavals that rocked the Jim Crow South and reverberated throughout the U.S. As we explain in depth in the article on page 6 of this issue, the heroic struggles to break the color bar were channeled by the liberal civil rights leadership into reliance on the capitalist courts and the Democratic Party. Legalized Jim Crow was dismantled, but this development did not—and could not—address the poverty, unemployment, rotten housing, segregated education and rampant cop terror that afflict the bulk of the black population. These conditions are materially rooted in the U.S. capitalist system, in which the mass of the black population is segregated at the bottom of society.

Black oppression will be smashed only when the capitalist profit system is overthrown by the multiracial working class and replaced with a planned, socialist economy, in which the productive wealth of society will be used to satisfy human needs. Opposing this revolutionary perspective, liberals and reformists reduce the struggle against racist violence and misery to simply combating racial prejudice and stereotypes—i.e., the ideological reflections of black oppression. Thus, at an April 11 panel discussion in Chicago with Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push and others, the ISO’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor declared: “The stereotypes about Black youth that are generated from officially sanctioned racial profiling and from the overrepresentation of young Black people in the criminal justice system because of racism and corruption among police and in the courts has [sic] created the conditions under which something like the murder of Trayvon Martin and the murder of so many others happened” (Socialist Worker online, 16 April).

Such liberal notions were refuted more than half a century ago by American Trotskyist Richard Fraser. In his 1953 lectures titled “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” (printed in “In Memoriam: Richard S. Fraser,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3 [1990]), Fraser noted that for bourgeois moralists the source of the exploitation of labor was “the greed of the capitalist.” Karl Marx, he pointed out, proved that “it was not greed but property relations which make it possible for exploitation to exist.” He continued:

“When applied to the Negro question, the theory of morality means that the root of the problem of discrimination and white supremacy is prejudice. This is the reigning theory of American liberalism and is the means by which the capitalists throw the responsibility for the Jim Crow system upon the population as a whole. If people weren’t prejudiced there would be no Negro problem. This contention is fundamentally false.”

Fraser concluded: “Education against prejudice has its importance in the Negro struggle. But only the destruction of the economic and social foundation upon which prejudice is built will eliminate it. This will be accomplished only by the socialist revolution.” The Spartacist League is committed to forging the revolutionary workers party that is necessary to achieve this goal.

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