Some Labor and Socialist Commentaries on Ferguson, Missouri
by George Shriver, co-managing editor, Labor Standard
Our central theme must be “Stop the police killing of Black youth!”
We must also demand: “Stop mass incarceration of Black and Latinos/Latinas, and stop the deportations of Latin@s!”
During the past week a number of significant labor and socialist commentaries have appeared (and three are reproduced below) dealing with the police murder of an 18-year-old Black teen, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis in the metro area, St. Louis County.
This police murder is one more in a long string of such killings—ultimately tracing its roots back to the “peculiar institution” of slavery in the United States, and after it, continuing the same tradition, the lynching of Blacks under the Jim Crow system, and similar treatment of people considered “inferior” by the dominant ruling-class “white” culture, for example, Mexicans, American Indians, gays, and so on.
Some of the articles below also ask the question, What’s behind the epidemic police killing of Black and Latino youth?
Let us begin with an item posted on the Kansas City Labor website by the site’s host Bill Onasch on August 15, the day before the Ferguson police, after nearly a week’s delay, finally revealed the name of the cop who killed Michael Brown. His name is Darren Wilson.
Simultaneously with the disclosure of Darren Wilson’s name, some surprise information was brought out by the Ferguson, MO, police chief — who has been acting as virtually the only spokesperson for the town of Ferguson; civilian authorities seem to have disappeared, so that it looks like a mini-police state is running the town.
The police chief made public some video stills from a Ferguson convenience store’s surveillance camera purportedly showing someone who looks like Michael Brown taking a box of cigars worth about $50 from the store without paying for them. Later the same police chief said that the convenience store incident was “not related” to Darren Wilson’s confrontation with Michael Brown, although this incident of alleged petty theft was said to have occurred on the same day Brown was killed.
The police chief acknowledged that Michael Brown was stopped by policeman Darren Wilson because Brown was walking, with a friend, “in the street” in a paved area in an apartment complex. The cop told Brown and his friend to “get out of the street,” although it’s more of an overgrown driveway than a street—a connecting way to apartments within the complex. Brown and his friend were walking to the apartment of Brown’s grandmother a short distance further in the complex.
Moments after addressing the Black teenagers in this bossy and arrogant way, the cop had pulled his gun and shot Michael Brown, who tried to flee. The cop shot him again. Brown then turned around, put up both hands, and said something like “Don’t shoot me any more; I surrender.”
Moments after addressing the Black teenagers in this bossy and arrogant way, the cop had pulled his gun and shot Michael Brown, who tried to flee. The cop shot him again. Brown then turned around, put up both hands, and said something like “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.”
The cop then shot Brown in the face and chest multiple times, killing him.
The following account appeared on August 16 on the Huffington Post web site:
“Attorney Freeman Bosley Jr. said Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown’s, has told the FBI that Officer Darren Wilson confronted the two because they were walking in the middle of the street.
“Wilson cursed at the pair and ordered them onto the sidewalk, Bosley told The Washington Post. When they refused to comply, he said, the officer grabbed Brown’s throat through the window of his cruiser, pulled out a pistol and shot him. Wilson then chased Brown, shot him in the back and shot him five to six more times as Brown’s hands were raised, Bosley said.”
There were also reports that a passerby, a nurse, offered to give Brown first aid, but the police turned her away. They let Brown die there on the street where he had been shot. And his body lay there some four hours before the cops finally removed it.
As of the time this is being written, on August 16, a week after Michael Brown was executed in this fashion, the police still refused to release the autopsy report that would show how many bullets the cop used to kill Brown.
Brown’s family is reportedly going to have their own autopsy done. They also denounced the police chief’s revelations about the supposed convenience store theft by Michael Brown as an attempt by the police to commit character assassination on the 18-year-old after having assassinated him physically.
But let us turn now to the commentary by Bill Onasch, who likens the police assault on the Black community in Ferguson to the Israeli assault upon the Gaza Strip. Brown’s family and most of the other Black residents of “the Ferguson Strip” have refused to be silent about this police murder and have continued to protest day in and day out all week since the murder.
The Ferguson Strip
As initial false starts toward cease-fire sputtered in Gaza, we began to see scenes resembling the Israeli Defense Force at work in suburban St Louis. A Ferguson, MO police officer, whose identity remains undisclosed, shot and killed a young Black man, Michael Brown. There is no dispute about some essential facts—the victim was unarmed, was well liked and admired as a good student about to enter college, and had no arrest record. Multiple witnesses have said Michael Brown was holding his hands in the air—in a gesture of no resistance—when he was shot in cold blood.
Police killings of young Black men are not rare and seldom become national headlines. There was a recent incident in New York—captured on a cell phone video camera—where several cops wrestled an unarmed Black man to the ground, killing him with a “choke hold.” The crime of the dead man in this case had been selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk for six bits a piece without a license. The response by City Hall in the Big Apple managed to confine outrage to mostly peaceful protests.
Michael Brown’s family retained the same civil rights lawyer that took the case of the New York victim. The NAACP, and the National [Black] Bar Association got involved as well as national figures such as Al Sharpton. All called for protests to remain peaceful.
But the forces of law and order in Ferguson offered no olive branch. Beefed up with reinforcements from the St Louis County Police, they showed up as if mobilizing for war—decked out with helmets, flak jackets, and gas masks, armed with fully automatic assault rifles, accompanied by an armored truck [mounted with a machine-gun on top]. It turns out most of this was a government surplus gift of weapons and accessories left over from the Iraq war. When they ordered everyone to go home after dark this provoked a response that, whether intended or not, was certainly predictable—what the media of course called “riots.” Wednesday night another young Black man was shot and critically wounded by police. Some reporters were roughed up—by the cops, not the “rioters.”
“Riots” are not new either. In 1967, President Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, to investigate uprisings in Los Angeles (Watts) in 1965; Chicago, 1966; and Newark, 1967. (Kerner was later sent to prison on corruption charges, but that’s a different story.) Within a few weeks after they issued their findings in February 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered. More “civil disorders” erupted in many cities—including one in Kansas City provoked by KC’s Finest firing tear gas into a church where civic leaders had organized a dance to keep Black youth off the streets. More studies were soon called for. In 1992 the so-called Rodney King Riots, sparked by an acquittal of cops filmed brutally beating King, led to 53 deaths, 2,000 injuries, and many millions of dollars in property damage. The overwhelmed police had to be bailed out by the National Guard and Marines.
The Kerner Commission stated some obvious truths—”Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal”—though the “moving” modifier was certainly unneeded. Their proposal of stepping up spying on potential troublemakers was not universally approved, however. One concrete suggestion that did have some success was, “Providing employment for the swelling Negro ghetto population will require …opening suburban residential areas to Negroes and encouraging them to move closer to industrial centers.”
It worked so well in Ferguson that the formerly nearly-all-white suburb is now 63 percent Black. Of course, the suburban industrial centers of the Commission’s time have mostly either simply closed or moved along with the whites.
Some in the media have shown that the dramatic population shift has not shown up in the local government structure of Ferguson. Blacks make up 92 percent of those arrested in a town where the Mayor, Police Chief, and all but one on the City Council are still all white. That is disturbing to be sure.
But overlooked is that today the President of the United States, and the Attorney General he appointed, are African-Americans. Every major city either has or had a Black Mayor—as is the case in Kansas City, and in bankrupt Detroit today. Putting a Black person in a power structure created and controlled by rich whites has not narrowed the racial divide. By many important measures, African-Americans are worse off today than at the time of the Kerner Commission.
Capitalism did not create anti-Black racism—that was done by the class based on chattel slavery to justify their crimes against humanity. The capitalist class in fact led a bloody civil war to eliminate slavery. But they find the remaining race divide still useful. Discrimination in employment and housing can enhance profits. Racism among workers diverts our class into fighting among ourselves rather than uniting in our own interests. It is a disease more deadly to us than ebola.
Those who trash and loot stores are not driven by mindless violence or petty theft. It is a desperate form of protest against unacceptable conditions in the only way they see open to them. We have no right to denounce them without offering a viable alternative. The alternative that we have to offer in the short-term is our solidarity in the fight for racial and class justice.
There were solidarity rallies hastily pulled together in a number of cities yesterday, including hundreds at the Plaza Fountain in Kansas City. And, in the face of the outcry against police excesses, the Governor replaced the local cops with the state Highway Patrol, with a Black officer who lives in the area in charge. This gesture toward justice was rewarded with peace.
This was an important victory—but an episodic one. A revival of an ongoing mass movement on the scale of the civil rights movement of the Fifties-Sixties, supported by the labor movement, is required for more substantial victories to close the gap of the race divide.
[Here is another commentary by a Socialist Action member, as is Bill Onasch. This one is by Clay Wadena.]
All out for Michael Brown!
by Clay Wadena
Socialist Action, August 15, 2014
“I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” — Michael Brown, Rest In Power, killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer on Aug. 9. Unarmed, Michael had already been shot in the back once when—according to witnesses—he turned around, raised his arms in the air to surrender, and pleaded for his life. Brown, an African American, was then shot to death by a reportedly white police officer.
Thousands of people in over 100 communities held vigils on Thursday in remembrance of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was killed by Ferguson, Missouri, police on Aug. 9. Protesters demonstrated their solidarity with a moment of silence, told stories of police brutality, chanted demands, and raised their arms as Brown had done, among other things (use hashtag #NMOS14 to search the powerful photos). Events took place in towns and cities from London to California.
These vigils were inspired by the Ferguson community’s own mobilizations; they have courageously faced down police violence on a nightly basis since Brown’s murder. They have continually taken to the streets and demanded justice for Brown, who was “shot like an animal,” according to eyewitness and friend Dorian Johnson.
On Aug. 15, the Ferguson police chief gave in to demands of protesters that his department reveal the name of the officer who shot Brown. The officer, he said, was Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the force, but no other details were provided. Police claim that Brown had taken part in a robbery at a nearby convenience store before Wilson killed him. Benjamin L. Crump, a lawyer for the Brown family, responded, “The police are not being transparent, and they are strategically trying to justify this execution-style murder.”
Ferguson police have been deployed in military style, training sniper laser beams on protesters from atop military Hum-V trucks. They’ve shot tear gas, smoke bombs, and rubber bullets at the crowds. They’ve arrested peaceful protesters, journalists, and politicians, and even got the FAA to institute a No-Fly Zone over Ferguson until Aug. 18.
These asymmetric urban battles between military-armed police and overwhelmingly peaceful protestors are ripping the fraudulent notion of a peaceful American society into shreds. Several on-line articles noted that these scenes looked too close for comfort to battles between Palestinians and the Israeli Defense Forces.
It turns out the comparison may not be too far off. On Twitter, Gaza residents sent messages to Ferguson protesters with instructions on how handle tear-gas attacks. Across the barricades, it was revealed that the St. Louis County police chief received training in Israel.
This exposure of America’s brutal reality, this airing of America’s dirty laundry before a world audience, is too much for the powers that be. It’s bad press for the “land of the free,” and it seems that the higher authorities will now play “good cop” to the Ferguson police department’s “bad cop.”
Attorney General Eric Holder recently stated that he was “deeply concerned” that military equipment and vehicles had been deployed, adding that Ferguson police had accepted an offer from the Justice Department to “help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force.”
Governor Jay Nixon stated at a news conference, “[Ferguson] is a place where people work, go to school, raise their families and go to church. But lately it’s looked a little bit more like a war zone, and that’s unacceptable.” Nixon announced on Aug. 14 that the Missouri Highway Patrol is taking over law enforcement in Ferguson. Immediately, the Hum-Vs with sniper posts and the SWAT squads clad in heavy body armor and gas masks vanished from the streets.
Even President Obama interrupted his vacation at Martha’s Vineyard to decry the violence against protesters, right after he had made it clear that in his view, “There is never an excuse for violence against the police.” He added that “here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”
Obama’s reference was to the fact that two reporters, one from the Washington Post and the other from the Huffington Post were cuffed and detained by police while they were working on their stories inside a MacDonald’s in Ferguson. The Washington Post reporter, Wesley Lowery, was slammed against a soda machine by the cops, although he clearly identified himself as a member of the press and did not struggle or resist his arrest. At the police station, the cops refused to give the reporters their names or badge numbers.
The fact that the president of the U.S. felt compelled to state that American police “should not” be arresting journalists for doing their jobs is very revealing indeed! Here we have the governor, U.S. attorney general, and president, all acting as if they’re our allies in the struggle, all decrying the heavy-handed police response, these men who are surely taking steps to make the police response look better in the news—and yet none of them have shown that they are seriously committed to dismantling the New Jim Crow.
Their purpose, like that of the Rev. Al Sharpton (who is now in Ferguson), while somewhat validating people’s feelings of anger and disgust, ultimately is to cool down the movement and restore trust in the legal process. The way the game is played these days, it seems, is that if the people raise enough of a stink about a police brutality incident, the Justice Department opens an investigation, and everyone is supposed to go home and wait for the results.
And go home is what these leaders wish people would do. “Now is the time for healing,” President Obama said. “Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.” According to Obama, people should remember Michael Brown through “reflection and understanding.”
“We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds. Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve,” stated President Obama.
The Rev. Al Sharpton held an hours-long church service on Wednesday, which was reportedly meant to “both rally the community and get people off the night streets.” Sharpton preached, “Respect the family! They haven’t even buried their son—don’t go out there and start stuff in his name.”
He added, “To become violent in Michael Brown’s name is to betray the gentle giant that he was. Don’t be so angry that you distort the image of who his mother and father told us he was.” Sharpton and others led the crowd in prayer, songs, and chants.
Sharpton and Obama would have us believe that by protesting Michael’s death we might be disrespecting his grieving mother. There is a reason we are encouraged to pray, remain silent, and reflect, rather than hitting the streets (loud and proud) to demand justice. Authorities know the conditions exist for a Ferguson-type confrontation between the community and the police in every American city. The police violence, brutality, and racism in Ferguson are universal across America, and the situation is explosive because people have had enough.
In the face of unchanging conditions and bankrupt leaders, it is important not only to continue mobilizing in Ferguson, but also around the country. Attend whatever moments of silence, rallies, vigils, and/or protests that are being held close to you. Make your own posters and bring them.
There have been at least four unarmed Black men murdered by police in the last month across the United States—Eric Garner in New York City, John Crawford in Ohio, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, and Michael Brown.Responding to links that protesters are making between these cases and others, Mayor Sly James of Kansas City said, “To start talking about police brutality in a general raw way is simply to incite more problems. It’s not a problem solver.”
But the fact of the matter is that there is a national epidemic of police brutality, from the seemingly mild version (like verbal harassment) to execution-style murder. And it is happening all the time. It must be confronted, and those leaders who refuse to call The New Jim Crow what it is and fight against it must be tossed aside. Politicians speaking empty words about justice in the face of what amounts to genocide, apartheid, and oppression must not be supported.
The young generation watched George Zimmerman walk free after murdering Trayvon Martin in cold blood. They want more than the proverbial “band-aid on a bullet wound.” They want real results—not only justice for the individual victims and their families but also a fundamental change, a real break with the past in both policing and incarceration.
For police brutality to end, for the killings to end, for America to confront the human rights tragedy going on across the country, we must mobilize at every chance, stay in the streets, and push the agenda forward.
Right now is the moment to drive this discussion further. It is important to mobilize, organize, and fight back, or everything will continue as if the current situation is acceptable. Take to the streets, join a protest, go to a rally, attend a vigil, and be a part of the movement! End police brutality! End mass incarceration! No justice, no peace!
[The following is from the web site of Socialist Alternative, the group which gained prominence last year when its candidate for Seattle City Council, Kshama Sawant, won her election. The photo shows a demonstration of solidarity with the Ferguson Black community. This demonstration was in Times Square in New York,one of a hundred or more cities where such solidarity rallies were held on Thursday, August 14. ]
Ferguson Erupts In Rage After Police Kill Michael Brown — Spread the Protests — Unite Against Racism and Inequality
by Eljeer Hawkins, Harlem, New York
“YOU took my son away from me. YOU know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?! YOU know how many black men graduate?! NOT MANY! … cause you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like I ain’t got nothing to live for ANYWAY. They going to try to take me out ANYWAY.”
— Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother.
On August 9, an unarmed teenager and college-bound student, Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Beginning with an order from the police officer to Brown to get on the sidewalk, shortly thereafter a shot was fired. According to eyewitnesses, Brown raised his hands in the air to exhibit to police that he wasn’t a threat; yet gunfire from the officer continued, killing Brown instantly. As his body lay on the pavement, the community of Ferguson exploded in righteous indignation and anger at the naked violence of the police.
The seething rage of Ferguson’s Black community at the killing of Brown was evident Sunday night as people marched to the police station, with some engaged in looting and throwing bottles. This has been followed by mass — and overwhelmingly peaceful — protests. Several eyewitnesses have spoken out against the disputed police account that Brown was attempting to take the police officer’s gun.
These protests have been met by increased repression: a militarized police force using tear gas, rubber bullets and ongoing provocations like an officer calling the people “animals.” The police have created a virtual war zone and have increasingly attempted to shut down media coverage. Reporters have been made targets, including the arrest of two reporters from The Washington Postand Huffington Post, and the throwing of tear gas at Al Jazeera journalists. Police also shot a Ferguson protester on Wednesday.
We in Socialist Alternative demand an immediate withdrawal of police. We also demand a full and thorough investigation by independent forces, including representatives of African American organizations, trade unions and the wider community, to expose the conditions of this brutal killing as well as the repression of the protests. The entire police force must be put under public scrutiny, including the officer responsible for the shooting.
Given the government’s failure to address these problems, the only way to achieve a genuine, independent investigation and to systematically address the roots of police violence and deep racial and economic inequality is to spread the protests and demonstrations all around the country. This will require the coming together of community and workers organizations in new, grassroots organizations to build and coordinate the protest movement against racist police violence.
Daily Racism in a Deeply Divided Society
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest…”
—Ella Baker, 1964
How many more? How many more must die at the hands of police or extra-judicial violence? Michael Brown joins the long list of working-class and poor people, particularly black and brown youth, whose lives have been violently taken in this racist capitalist society that has rendered black and brown life disposable and unworthy of respect and dignity. How can we put an end to this deepen ing crisis our youth face of systemic poverty, police violence, brutal racism, and mass incarceration?
Michael Brown’s only “crime” was being black and poor as he walked to his grandmother’s home in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. Ferguson is 70% black with a predominately white police force. In a population of 21,000, a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line. In some of the surrounding areas, poverty is as high as 40%. Unemployment and low-wage work predominate. The median household income in the district that borders the scene of the crime is only $14,390/year.
A report from the Missourians to End Poverty coalition released earlier this year shows that poverty in St. Louis itself increased from 27.2% in 2011 to 29.3% in 2014. Roughly one million Missourians are impoverished, out of a total population of just over 6 million.
In Ferguson and many other cities in the U.S., for workers and people of color, the police are viewed like an occupying army, not unlike in Iraq or Gaza. For years racial tensions have been boiling over. A 2013 report by the Missouri attorney general’s office found that Ferguson police stopped and arrested black drivers nearly twice as frequently as white motorists though they were less likely to find contraband among the black drivers.
We Need to Change the System
To put an end to the crisis facing our youth who face systemic racism in this profit-driven, capitalist society, we can’t let this anger dissipate into thin air.
The FBI and Justice department have moved in swiftly to assist the local authorities and begin what they call an investigation. Democratic Party officials have attempted to tamp down the frustration of the community. Unfortunately, the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is not throwing its full weight behind spreading the protests and addressing the root cause of the problem.
These events point to the immediate need for working-class people to work together in building an independent united grassroots movement of workers, youth and people of color — to fight for living wage jobs, housing, health care, education and a living wage for all, as well as an ending police violence and establishing direct democratic community control over public safety. We need to draw the lessons from the Trayvon Martin case: the demonstrations, protest, civil disobedience and strikes need to spread to mount pressure on the police and judicial system to bring justice to the Brown family.
We need to build new mass organizations that will reject the bankrupt politics of Democratic Party, a pro-capitalist politics that accepts the status quo of systemic racism and violence.
“A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”
— Dr. W.E.B. DuBois
The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Perez Giron, John Crawford, Renisha McBride and the judicial frame-up of Marissa Alexander are just a few examples of the daily violence, humiliation and discrimination faced by working-class people, youth, and people of color. The underlying function of law enforcement and the prison system within this capitalist society is to defend and maintain massive inequality — to serve and protect the profits, property and prestige of a predominately white male ruling elite. The richest 1% maximize their profits while perpetuating endemic poverty, government neglect, blatant corruption and mass unemployment. In periods of capitalist and social crisis, law enforcement and the ruling elite ramp up their tactics of surveillance and repression to firm up their control of society, out of fear of social explosions against the conditions they’ve created.
As a historical reminder, after the Watts rebellion on August 11, 1965, it was one year later — October 1966 — that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland was born. The Panthers expressed a bold, radical and democratic socialist vision, grounded in a fight against global capitalism and institutional racism. As Malcolm X once stated:
“We declare our right on this earth…to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
- A full investigation by independent forces, including representatives of African-American organizations, trade unions and the wider community into the police shooting of Michael Brown and the repression of protests against police violence
- That the whole Ferguson police system be put under scrutiny, not only — but of course including — the specific officer responsible. All results must be made public and openly discussed
- Community controlled policing, overseen by local committees of democratically elected representatives from trade unions and community organizations
- A united struggle against racism and repression, humiliation, and exploitation of workers, youth, immigrants and people of color
- Guaranteed jobs, housing, health care, education and a living wage for all
Spread the protests nationwide! Build a unified, grassroots movement to demand transparency, accountability and an end to racist policing and police brutality.