Zimmerman Goes Free, Detroit Goes Under
George Zimmerman was given a pass twice, first by the police, then by a jury, for the coldblooded murder of Trayvon Martin. With the racist vigilante again free to go about his business, protests flared up in cities across the country. It was impossible to mistake the message of the verdict in his trial: black life is as cheap as ever in capitalist America, where cops gun down youth in the streets with impunity and the vast majority are locked into the bottom rungs of the economy. This raw reality is playing out with a vengeance today in heavily black Detroit, the one-time Motor City that the auto bosses turned into a bankrupt industrial wasteland, at the cost of tens of thousands of decent-paying union jobs. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is another blow at the democratic rights that black people have wrested through struggle.
As the Spartacist League wrote in a leaflet issued following the Zimmerman verdict (reprinted on page 15): “Here was a case study in the machinery of courts, cops and prosecutors whose job is to maintain and defend a system rooted in the brutal exploitation of the many by the few—a system built on a bedrock of racial oppression, from chattel slavery to wage slavery.” The expressions of anger and anguish at Zimmerman’s acquittal compelled President Obama—the current boss of that system—to comment on the situation in a “surprise” speech on July 19.
Many black people found solace in his remarks, especially the account of his personal experiences with race prejudice before becoming a Senator and his acknowledgement of “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws.” A common refrain is that the first black president wants to do right by black people, but his “hands are tied” by hostile, mainly Republican, forces. The simple fact is that Obama has done the job that the main body of the ruling class selected him for: overseer for a capitalist profit system that criminalizes young black men and chews up the working people, spitting them out when their labor is no longer needed. Former president Bill Clinton also told black people that he felt for them as he put 100,000 more cops on the streets and ended “welfare as we know it.” This speaks to the role of the two parties of capital: While the Republicans openly declare their contempt for blacks, immigrants and the unions, the Democrats say they’re your friends…and end up doing the same thing.
Obama’s remarks came on the same day that the White House again rejected out of hand the idea that the federal government would rescue Detroit, where what remains of basic public services as well as the jobs, pensions and retiree health care benefits of city workers are on the chopping block. The Wall Street Democrat Obama—whose administration handed out trillions to the banks and tens of billions to the auto bosses—is showing an empty pocket to the city’s black masses.
“Justice” System at Work
For all his lecturing on “racial profiling,” Obama pronounced New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly “well-qualified” to run the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly is the architect of the city’s notorious stop-and-frisk program, which he designed “to instill fear” in young blacks and Latinos. He also set up the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, which has dispatched officers in the Northeast to spy on Muslims—fitting credentials for running the domestic “war on terror.”
Obama endorsed the propriety of the Zimmerman trial, throwing in a threat against protesters who might engage in “violence.” He also poured cold water on hopes about the outcome of the Justice Department’s review of the case, intoning that the legal code and law enforcement are “traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal level.” Democratic Party liberals and mainstream black leaders widely lauded Obama’s speech—as did the ever-obsequious International Socialist Organization (ISO), which wrote in “Why We’re Still Marching” (Socialist Worker, 1 August) that the imperialist Commander-in-Chief “spoke powerfully” about racism.
When PBS host Tavis Smiley broke the mold and blasted Obama’s talk as being as “weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid,” he was heaped with abuse. Radical academic Cornel West, a onetime Obama supporter, is also getting flak for a July 22 interview with Democracy Now!, in which he called the president “a global George Zimmerman” for the lethal drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that have come to symbolize his execution of the “war on terror.”
For his sharp comments, West is persona non grata for Al Sharpton and his National Action Network, the NAACP and others organizing the 50th anniversary March on Washington events this month. A key purpose for the liberal establishment that sponsored the 1963 march, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech, was to keep the lid on the mass struggles for black rights that were shaking the country and to channel them into pressure politics for the benefit of the Democratic Party (see article on page 13).
While there is a dearth of class and social struggle today, thanks in no small part to the hat-in-hand labor bureaucracy and black bourgeois politicians, the bankrupt liberal strategy remains the same: pressuring the federal government and pushing the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Even as delicate criticisms of Sharpton and the NAACP are offered, the ISO’s “Still Marching” editorial expresses delight that such “mainstream groups” are organizing the protest, not least because it “will widen the mobilization, both for the Washington march and for anti-racist demonstrations generally.” They predict, correctly, that criticism of Obama will be verboten from the platform, but that’s no matter for the ISO—it’s going to be big!
With their calls for federal civil rights charges to be brought against Zimmerman, the liberals sow illusions in the same Justice Department that serves as the top cops of a system of rampant racist police terror, frame-up trials and overflowing prisons. In fact, at a time when state prison populations have declined as a whole, mainly due to budget pressures, the federal prison system has grown by 3 percent annually. Attorney General Eric Holder may well do something to block the openly racist voter suppression measures adopted in Texas and other states in the wake of the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act. Such a step would simply be in the Democrats’ own interest. The black people, immigrants and other minorities denied the right to vote by these measures generally go Democrat.
For the Right of Armed Self-Defense
The Sanford, Florida, jury accepted George Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, which was buttressed by the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Over 20 state governments, centered on the old Confederacy, have passed similar legislation with bipartisan support in recent years. We oppose such laws, which remove the guideline that a person in danger must seek to retreat before using deadly force. These laws thus sanction vigilantism. As we observed in “Trayvon Martin: Killed for Being Black in America” (WV No. 999, 30 March 2012),
Florida’s law “allows for the use of deadly force by anyone who claims a ‘reasonable belief’ that such force is necessary, without even attempting to disengage. And in racist America, a black kid in a hoodie is enough to claim ‘reasonable belief’ of danger.”
For that matter, so is a group of black youths listening to rap music. In November 2012, four teenagers at a Florida gas station were in a parked SUV, next to the car of Michael Dunn, a white man. After complaining bitterly of the “thug music,” Dunn opened fire on the SUV, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Since his arrest, Dunn has invoked the “Stand Your Ground” defense on the basis that he believed the teens had a rifle (they did not) and were threatening to kill him.
Many liberals draw a straight line connecting opposition to “Stand Your Ground” with support for gun control. This amalgam is deadly dangerous for workers, black people and the poor. As Marxists, we support the right of armed self-defense and oppose gun control, the effect of which is to strengthen a monopoly of arms in the hands of the capitalist state—leaving guns in the hands of fascists, vigilantes and criminals as well as the cops. Working people must vigorously defend the right to bear arms, which is supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. Both Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were minors, with no right to carry a firearm. If either had been armed, he might still be alive today. Of course, in racist America, survival might well have ended in a lengthy prison term, or even a death sentence. For simply firing a warning shot into the wall of her home during an argument with her husband, Marissa Alexander, a black mother of three, was recently sentenced to 20 years in a Florida prison after a judge denied her “Stand Your Ground” defense.
The crucial importance of armed self-defense for the fight for black rights was captured in a New Yorker (29 July) article by Jelani Cobb, despite its conflation of “Stand Your Ground” with the right to bear arms. Cobb noted:
“There is a long history of African-American support for gun rights and the principle of armed self-defense. In 1957, after receiving threats of violence, Robert F. Williams armed the N.A.A.C.P. chapter that he led in Monroe, North Carolina…. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Fannie Lou Hamer spoke publicly of the loaded guns that she kept under her bed, and members of organizations like the Deacons for Defense and Justice carried weapons with the goal of protecting civil-rights workers in the South.”
Self-defense against racist terror has historically been met with state repression, including through gun control measures. In the 1960s, such laws were passed in New York and California to specifically target Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. State bans were followed by gun control laws nationwide, especially after the ghetto upheavals that broke out following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
Capitalist Profit Drive Killed Detroit
Key to bourgeois liberal mythology in America is the notion that racism boils down to bad laws and bad ideas, obscuring the truth that black oppression is materially based. As Karl Marx explained a century and a half ago in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), the “totality of relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which corresponds definite forms of social consciousness.”
The plight of Detroit throws into sharp relief the intertwining of black oppression and capitalist exploitation. When the city filed for bankruptcy on July 18, government spokesmen and the bourgeois press pointed the finger at mismanagement by city officials. This was a convenient alibi for the main perpetrators: the auto companies that first brought in waves of labor—white and black, native-born and immigrant—to slave away on the assembly line, and then mercilessly chucked them out when those plants did not produce sufficient profit. Motown was left to crumble away as the culmination of a decades-long process of deindustrialization—a series of decisions by the barons of capital to pursue profit-making elsewhere.
At its height, Detroit was the hub of the auto industry, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, forged through strike action in the 1930s, became the powerhouse of the labor movement in the U.S. But between 1947 and 1963 Detroit lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs. When profit margins increasingly narrowed in the 1970s as a result of Japanese competition, the Big Three began in earnest to carry out waves of plant closures across the Midwest, moving a good deal of production to low-wage areas in the open shop South and overseas.
Shortly after the wreckers’ ball had demolished Chrysler’s Dodge Main, and with it 30,000 jobs, the Spartacist League ran two candidates for city council in 1981 on a platform “For a Socialist Fight to Defend Labor/Black Detroit!” The campaign noted: “Here in Detroit we see the crisis of the entire capitalist system most starkly revealed, most advanced in decay, most anarchic in irrationality, most painful in social consequences. Detroit’s skilled proletariat would be the most valuable resource of a rational society—the class that can build a socialist America” (WV No. 287, 14 August 1981). Today, with only two auto factories and 27,000 manufacturing jobs remaining inside city limits, skilled and unskilled workers are trying to survive on low-wage McJobs, unemployment lines and soup kitchens.
Since 1950, Detroit’s population has gone from 1.8 million to 700,000 today, leaving an 82 percent black population that the capitalist rulers consider surplus. From the liberal Coleman Young in the 1970s to the not-so-liberal Dave Bing today, black Democratic mayors have presided over the attacks on the city’s residents. Adding insult to injury, white Republican governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, black lawyer Kevyn Orr, to conduct a fire sale of city assets and slash costs to the bone, beginning with unionized labor. Orr’s main qualification to run the city is his having been part of Chrysler’s legal team during the auto bailout.
From the outset, the massive bailout of the automakers focused on how best to gut the UAW and bring wages and benefits down to the level in non-union plants. We opposed the bailout, warning that it “will be purchased through the further destruction of the jobs and livelihoods of working people” (“Bosses Declare War on UAW Workers,” WV No. 926, 5 December 2008). Indeed, plant closures and mass layoffs followed, clearing the way for hiring new workers and temps at half the pay of senior workers when production picked up.
The UAW leadership enthusiastically agreed to these massive concessions, as well as a no-strike pledge good for six years. At the root of the labor traitors’ capitulation is their support to the capitalist profit system—in particular the fortunes of the auto companies—and the “national interests” of U.S. imperialism. As UAW head Bob King told it during the 2012 elections, Obama had saved the auto industry with the bailout. With their program of class collaboration, the union tops have acceded to the proliferation of non-union plants, especially in the South—and now even Michigan has gone “right to work” like the Southern states. A first step in rebuilding the labor movement in this country will be to organize those plants, which means fighting head-on the color bar that has long served to divide workers and weaken their struggles against the bosses.
Such necessary struggles pose the need for a new leadership in the unions that is not beholden to the political parties of the class enemy. Such a leadership would use the weapons of the class struggle, not only to fight for jobs, better pay and conditions but also to wield labor’s power in defense of the unemployed and the ghetto and barrio masses. This is a crucial part of the fight to forge a revolutionary workers party dedicated to the overthrow of the decaying capitalist order, which consigns the black masses to entrenched poverty, unemployment, rotten housing, segregated education and police terror.
A revolutionary leadership would seek to mobilize the working class, with its militant black component, to fight against every instance of racist injustice. This perspective flows from the understanding that black freedom will finally be achieved only when the capitalist exploiters are thrown from power and labor rules this society. This understanding was first imparted to the American Communist movement by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, which had succeeded in leading the working class in smashing capitalist rule in the October 1917 Russian Revolution. It is in this tradition that the Spartacist League seeks to build a workers party that emblazons on its banners the call: Black liberation through socialist revolution!