Fifty Years after Selma: The Rebirth of the Radical Martin Luther King


This year, on Martin Luther King day, young activists challenged the political establishment’s sanitization and beatification of the Civil Rights leader so that they could recover the radical side of his heritage, using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK to coordinate protests across America.

Fifty years after the struggle King led, the black upper middle class has been integrated into the corporate world and the political establishment. But deindustrialization has created endemic poverty in many African American and Latino communities, and has led to the demonization and racial identification of minority youth with poverty and criminality. Civil Rights legislation has not prevented Black and Latino youth from facing police violence as a fact of everyday life.

At the same time, continuous reduction in the taxes paid by the wealthy has left state bureaucracies largely unfunded. Besides other social ills, racial profiling conceals an economic imperative to raise funds from fines generated by zealous policing of minor infractions – large numbers of citations represent a way to impose extra taxes on the poor while avoiding political fallout.

The new young leadership of the protests against police violence has undergone a rapid political development, coming into conflict with older activists who focus on organizing peaceful marches rather than the more confrontational civil disobedience actions favored by the youth. These new leaders have turned to King’s more radical speeches as justification for their tactics and to deconstruct the ideological narrative of a “post-racial” America.

The group Ferguson Action said in a statement: “We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless members of our community into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits.” Dante Berry, director of the New York-based Million Hoodies Movement, told the Washington Post: “MLK was a radical, very strategic and uncompromising in his strive for justice. It’s reclaiming our own history in a way that is truthful.”

The New York Times reported on Martin Luther King day protests in Atlanta, St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia and Boston: “The [Atlanta] protesters argued that the holiday had become corrupted by corporate involvement, diluting Dr. King’s ideas about economics as well as race. With signs, slogans and shouts, they inserted themselves into the annual parade as it made its way down Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s downtown thoroughfare. … ‘We’re going to reclaim M.L.K.’s holiday!’ Aurielle Marie, 20, an activist and author, yelled at the Atlanta protest. … Similar events unfolded in St. Louis, where several thousand people marched from the city’s Old Courthouse, where enslaved blacks were once sold as property, to Harris-Stowe State University, where the marchers joined a packed auditorium for an interfaith service.”

About two dozen protesters disrupted the St. Louis service, taking the stage and seizing the microphone, chanting “No justice, no peace.” Harris-Stowe student Tory Russell told St. Louis Today: “This program is more of the same,” and accused the university of representing “the politics of respectability.”

The protesters identify with the radical nature of Martin Luther King’s struggle, firstly because he recognized that desegregation in itself would not settle the question of social and economic equality for African Americans; and secondly because he saw behind the imposition of Jim Crow segregation the workings of an imperialist state he called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King’s genius lay not only in his profound understanding of the political moment, but also in his articulation of the way institutional racism was connected to poverty, corporate exploitation, and imperialist war.

Even though there are many more nonwhite police officers than in King’s time, the structural role of police in suppressing the poor has not changed. While the most publicized shootings of young unarmed black men generally involve white officers, the racial dynamic is more complex. After a major corruption scandal and subsequent reform of the Los Angeles police department in the 1990s, it is today majority nonwhite. But the victims of police killings still tend to be overwhelmingly black or brown. Connie Rice, an attorney who heads a national criminal justice reform organization and was a leader in the LAPD reform, said she found that police officers are more apt to shoot in poor and violent areas. “The biggest common denominator [in police shootings] is [neighborhood] income and class,” she said. “It is compounded by race.”

Matt Taibbi comments that the recent police slowdown in New York that led to a 94 percent drop in arrests for minor offenses unwittingly revealed the economic underside of the de Blasio administration’s “broken windows” policing. “First, it shines a light on the use of police officers to make up for tax shortfalls using ticket and citation revenue. Then there’s the related (and significantly more important) issue of forcing police to make thousands of arrests and issue hundreds of thousands of summonses when they don’t ‘have to.’… Both policies make people pissed off at police for the most basic and understandable of reasons: if you’re running into one, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to end up opening your wallet. Your average summons for a [quality of life] offense costs more than an ordinary working person makes in a day driving a bus, waiting tables, or sweeping floors.”

Politico reports: “‘The primary premise [of broken windows], whether spoken or unspoken, is about policing the poor,’ said Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. ‘The people who live in a neighborhood with a broken window and can’t afford to fix that window.’ In other words, if the NYPD is policing crimes that might have more to do with circumstance than malintent – selling weed because it’s a way to make money in an unfair economy, squeegeeing windows to afford a meal – then the agency is essentially criminalizing the behavior of New York’s most marginalized and disadvantaged communities.”

The visibility of the militarized police after Ferguson has created a crisis of legitimacy for the police and state forces. Frank Serpico, who was almost killed for exposing police corruption in the 1970s, commented: “citizens across the country are losing faith in our justice system, with brazen acts of police brutality frequently captured on cellphone videos; the militarization of police forces through the acquisition of war-machine surplus; continuing racial tensions coupled with a lack of initiative for community policing; and the sentencing of minor offenders to long terms in for-profit prisons, where they essentially become indentured servants.”

The reforms proposed by liberals after Ferguson are unlikely to change this situation. It’s structurally created by unemployment and the legacy of past discrimination. Institutionalized racism, as Martin Luther King perceived, is bound up with the economic and social oppression of the working class and poor in America. Even though there is now an African American president and attorney-general, police who kill unarmed black youth are still not prosecuted.

The continuing struggle against police violence and for a higher minimum wage is King’s true legacy, and the new, younger, leadership of Black Lives Matter is rapidly developing a political perspective that conflicts with that of the old guard of civil rights leaders. Obama cannot coopt the rhetoric of this new leadership in the way he did the Occupy critique of the plutocracy because the criminalization of poor African Americans and Latinos is at the heart of U.S. domestic rule. Whether the state adopts suppression or liberalization, the protests are not going to stop until minority youth stop getting shot.

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Turning Their Back on Americans: Police Unions Disrespect the Citizens They Serve and Protect


Leaders of the protests against the lack of justice and accountability for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner face a highly-charged political situation after the close-range shooting of two patrolmen in Brooklyn by a deranged and suicidal individual, who had no connection with the protest movement.

Saturday’s funeral of one of the patrolmen, Rafael Ramos, became a police “counterprotest” to the movement, as over 20,000 policemen from around the U.S. converged on the Christ Tabernacle Church in Brooklyn. The solemn event was turned into a different kind of spectacle as dozens of officers turned their backs on New York mayor Bill de Blasio when he gave his eulogy of the slain policeman. This piece of political theater was the latest attempt by the police union and its supporters to stir up hostility to de Blasio’s administration and pressure it into withdrawing support for the demonstrators’ exercise of their constitutional rights.

While the funeral of the two policemen received headline treatment in the media, very little attention was paid to a march of 200 people on the same afternoon in the same New York borough to protest the death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed young black man and father who was fatally shot last month by a police officer in a public-housing project stairwell, or to the ongoing protests in St. Louis against the police killing of another black teenager on Christmas Eve, who allegedly pointed a gun at an officer before he was shot. There is nothing new about the police killings of young black men. But the protests manifest a social change in the African American community, a movement that began with the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. The community will not tolerate more of these shootings, and all Americans are now sensitized to the issue because of the protests that began in Ferguson.

The contrast in the reception of these events corresponds to a political divide among Americans that relates in a complex way to racial tensions. The Washington Post reported that “many black and Latino New Yorkers remained hostile to the police despite the shootings [of Liu and Ramos] … At the same time, though, many New Yorkers embraced the police, rushing to the defense of a department they view as doing the difficult and often thankless job of maintaining order in the nation’s largest city.” The polarization of opinion was displayed at a pro-police rally at New York’s City Hall the Friday before the patrolmen’s deaths: Guardian correspondent Steven Thrasher noted, “There were not many people on the pro-police side, but they were extremely vitriolic, invoking a lot of military imagery and 9/11 imagery and talking about the people who are protesting police brutality as if they were enemy combatants.”

Police supporters are vociferous and inflammatory in their attempts to influence public opinion. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani blamed both de Blasio and Obama for fomenting anti-police sentiment: “We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” he said. “I don’t care how you want to describe it: That’s what those protests are all about.” But it was left to disgraced former New York police commissioner and convicted felon Bernard Kerik to spell out the full implications of this narrative: “NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were assassinated over the weekend because their assassin believed the lies perpetrated by de Blasio, Sharpton and others.”

The Washington Post reported that Patrick Lynch, president of the largest police union, said: “There’s blood on many hands tonight … Those that incited violence on the street in the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. … That blood on the hands starts at the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor. When these funerals are over, those responsible will be called on the carpet and held accountable.” Lynch had already made thinly-veiled threats of police insubordination to mayoral control, telling officers to slow-roll their work because of a lack of political support and that the department was on a “wartime” footing.

The police spokesmen are demanding the unconditional backing of the political establishment for aggressive policing in minority communities. They perceive their legitimacy as threatened by even the mildest criticism. So despite de Blasio’s numerous statements of support for the police, when in a television interview he described warning his mixed-race son, Dante, not to make sudden movements or reach for his cellphone in an encounter with an officer, it was interpreted as “throwing the police under the bus.”

Josh Marshall comments: “the leadership of the city’s police unions operates on the assumption that the Mayor or the city’s political leaders in general need to show reflexive support and defense of the police department or else they go to war with them. … The protestors who swelled around the city weren’t some kind of alien army. They’re New Yorkers. And the feeling that something deeply wrong happened in the death of Eric Garner was widespread in the city. … As a political reality, no Mayor can ignore that kind of public sentiment. But … these are the people who employ the NYPD, the people the NYPD is sworn to serve and protect.” When de Blasio ran for election on a platform of reforming the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” strategy, he achieved a 72% majority, and Marshall adds that hostility to de Blasio comes from a demographic (whites, Staten Islanders and Republicans) that makes up only a minority of New Yorkers.

However, Corey Robin points out: “The entire New York City establishment—not just De Blasio, but political, cultural, and economic elites—is terrified (or in support) of the cops. … not one of these figures has spoken out against the Freikorps-ish rhetoric emanating from the NYPD. … They’re politically frightened… because they have no sense of an alternative base or source of power.”

There is an alternative source of power in the determination of the African American community to end acceptance of the daily killings of its young men, that insists black lives do matter, and that has gained support among most young Americans of all ethnicities. The group Ferguson Action pushed back immediately against what it described as “cheap political punditry,” and #BlackLivesMatter added: “we are rooted in the belief that Black people in the U.S. must reassert our right to live be well in a country where our lives have been deemed valueless.” The day before Christmas Eve, about 700 demonstrators defied de Blasio’s call to pause protests until after the funerals of the two officers and converged on Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic. Protester Argenys Tavaras told the Gothamist: “Mayor de Blasio didn’t start the protest, and he doesn’t tell us when to finish.” Joo-Hyun Kang, of Communities United for Police Reform, said “Silencing the countless voices of New Yorkers who are seeking justice, dignity and respect for all, is a mistake.”

It remains to be seen whether de Blasio will turn to this social reality for support against the voices calling for the suppression of protests, but the resistance to police killings is going to intensify and the protest leadership will not back down.

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Out of the ‘Minority Issues Box’: Americans Defend Rights of All Citizens against Police Violence


Across the US on Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters marched against the legal sanctioning of police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed young black men. In New York, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and Oakland people of all races and ages marched under the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”

The ongoing protests have drawn in wide layers of society – especially youth from the millennial generation, together with privileged Yale law students and high school student groups. They have been protesting as citizens, not just in defense of the rights of African-Americans, but against the unjustified use of lethal force by increasingly militarized local police.

The Guardian’s Steven Thrasher described the scene in Manhattan as some 40,000 protesters flooded the streets: “The march was supposed to end at One Police Plaza but Foley Square, in front of it, was jam-packed – far more so than it was at the protest the night after the Garner non-indictment was announced. … Noticeable in the march was the presence of young people, from many infants to young white boys chanting, to young teenagers singing. … Noticeable too was a protest contingent as diverse as the city itself, with Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white, Hispanic, Native American and Asian New Yorkers out in large numbers. This, too, was very different from Occupy Wall Street.

At the 10,000-strong “Justice for All” march in Washington, led by Al Sharpton and civil rights organizations in the National Action Network, “before the procession left its gathering place at Freedom Plaza … a group of young demonstrators mostly from Ferguson seized the stage. Opposed to Sharpton, who they view as a celebrity activist seeking to take over a movement they started, they said young advocates who did the heavy lifting should be at the forefront of the march.” However, they were excluded from the platform, where relatives of African-Americans killed by police called on Congress to reform the criminal justice system.

UPDATE: Alternet reports that when organizers at the Washington march tried to get the Ferguson protesters offstage, they were met with loud chants of “Let them speak!”  “Ultimately, they allowed Johnetta Elzie of St. Louis to speak. Elzie, who protested in Ferguson for more than 100 days, explained that young people started the movement and it needs to continue that way. She later told the press: ‘I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show’.”

The protests have created new leadership groups who have quickly developed tactics to control demonstrations. The day after the announcement that there would be no charges against the officer who killed Eric Garner with a choke-hold, protesters “had seemed to roam the streets, intermittently splitting apart and converging to shut down traffic on several important highways and bridges around the traffic-heavy island of Manhattan,” reported the Guardian. But the following night, December 4, brought out many younger protesters who were far more organized: “a coalition of groups led demonstrators. On the Brooklyn Bridge some organizers wore headsets and stopped marchers for photographers.”

They have developed the moral authority to challenge “black bloc” groups trying to hijack demonstrations in Berkeley and in New York. According to the Gothamist, as the December 4 march wound into Tribeca, “some black-clad protesters turned over trash cans and dragged bags of garbage into the street, before protester Steve Saporito chased them away. … ‘I don’t want upper-middle class white kids coming down here and causing mischief so their rich parents can come bail them out, and fuck up what’s going on here,’ Saporito explained.”

But leaders of left groups in California are reluctant to criticize the smashing of windows and looting of stores during marches in Berkeley over last weekend. Alternet reports: “On Saturday [December 6], Berkeley police rioted first, viciously attacking protesters. Some protesters, young men, then vandalized chain stores. A day later, hours after a protest began where hundreds of people marched peacefully, a dozen or so young white men led a second vandalism spree. Before the next night’s march, organizer Yvette Felarca [of the group ‘By Any Means Necessary’] defended their reactions as a legitimate expression of rage. ‘You can never replace the life of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but windows can always be replaced,’ she said, using a megaphone to address a campus plaza filled with marchers.”

However, “moments later, a young African-American woman [a student at U.C. Berkeley] took the megaphone to made the opposite point. ‘I want to say that this is a nonviolent protest. It is a peaceful protest,’ she said, also prompting cheers. ‘I was beaten on Saturday night and please respect that… If you see any agitators, if you see any anarchists wearing black masks, please pay attention to them and call them out. Because they will try to incite a riot’.”

Long-time Berkeley resident and activist Cynthia Morse, who is white, described the vandals as “skinny white kids … coming from all over the country; homeless; need something to do. They start to show up. And then there’s homegrown people who want to attack capitalism this way,” Morse said. “There’s also the very valid point that without the cops behaving the way they do, there probably would be very little of that. Nobody would come here to fight the cops if the cops weren’t attacking.”

Felarca appeared to equate vandalism in Berkeley with the riots in Ferguson. But there is a difference: in Ferguson rioting was a spontaneous outpouring of rage within the community, while in Berkeley it was planned destruction under the cover of other nonviolent demonstrators which attempted to substitute personal anger for the movement of the community. Black bloc tactics in effect only provide the police with a convenient cover for military-style suppression of protests, stifling the perception that they are attacking citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

Obama’s tepid response to the grand jury decisions has frustrated protest leaders, particularly the claim he made that he’s “never seen a civil-rights law or a healthcare bill or an immigration bill result because a car got burned.” At a town hall meeting in Washington, activist and hip-hop artist Jasiri X said: “Guess what, President Obama? It was over 100 days of peaceful protest, but we didn’t get a meeting with you then. But now, when Ferguson burns, when protests are happening all over the country, now all of a sudden we can get your attention. Now when it burns down you want to have a conversation about putting cameras on police. Well, guess what—it was a video camera that showed Eric Garner being choked by NYPD.”

While Obama was able to co-opt some of the populist rhetoric of OWS, he can only make anodyne statements about police violence because, as an “earnest moderate,” in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, he is unable to defy state forces that maintain order, any more than he can prosecute CIA torturers. “Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land,” Coates argues. There are things that cannot be said in public discourse, he explains, such as: “America does not really believe in nonviolence … so much as it believes in order. What cannot be said is that there are very convincing reasons for black people in Ferguson to be nonviolent. But those reasons emanate from an intelligent fear of the law, not a benevolent respect for the law. … the death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself.”

While there is a lot of truth in what he says, particularly in relation to institutional racism, the protests this weekend are a sign of how American society is changing. As the population becomes increasingly nonwhite and more white people acquire minority relatives through marriage, they become aware of how racism affects people they care about. A commentator in Talking Points Memo, who is white, writes about how his Latino cousin was killed by police. He says that the way the Ferguson community mobilized and the video of Eric Garner’s death “are searing these facts of injustice into the minds of a broad swath of people for the first time, much like my cousin’s murder did for me. These issues have broken out of the ‘minority issues’ box.”

There is a perceptible difference between these protests and Occupy Wall Street. While OWS was equally pluralistic and imaginative in its tactics, it was a more abstract campaign against the power of the financial oligarchy, and could only mobilize those who could afford to camp out and get arrested (thus excluding many people of color who couldn’t take such a risk). Today’s movement is more diverse, inclusive and is defending the rights of all citizens against uncontrolled state violence.

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After Ferguson, New York City: the End of the Age of Obama


Angry demonstrations erupted in New York and at least seven other US cities on Wednesday against a Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner by holding him in a chokehold last July. They joined the groundswell of protest against the exoneration of Darren Wilson, who shot dead unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson. Uncontrolled and unpunished police violence against people in black communities is a raw nerve that runs through American society, and stems from the strategy of aggressive policing of mostly minority victims of globalization who have been segregated from middle-class suburban areas. As Wilson said in his testimony to the St. Louis grand jury, poor black communities are regarded as hostile territory and their inhabitants are the enemy.

The New York Times reported that many protesters in Manhattan “expressed their outrage with some of the last words Mr. Garner uttered before being wrestled to the ground: ‘This stops today,’ people chanted. ‘I can’t breathe,’ others shouted.” According to the Associated Press, “Hundreds converged on the heavily secured area around the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting with a combination of professional-looking signs and hand-scrawled placards reading, ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘Fellow white people, wake up’.” The Washington Post reported “They shut down the Lincoln Tunnel. They shut down the West Side Highway. They shut down the Brooklyn Bridge, where officers threatened them with arrest if they did not move as a helicopter hovered above. … In Philadelphia … protesters disrupted the city’s Christmas tree lighting, shouting ‘No justice — no Christmas!’ ”

This followed a week of protests against Michael Brown’s killing, which reached into shopping malls on Black Friday, and student actions on campuses nationwide under the slogan “black lives matter” on Monday. Hundreds of St. Louis schoolchildren joined the campaign on Tuesday, for them the first day back at school after the grand jury’s decision. At the start of their game on Sunday, five St. Louis Rams footballers displayed the “hands-up, don’t shoot” gesture in solidarity with the protesters.

The Guardian published an eye-witness report of the Black Friday demonstration at St. Louis’ Galleria Mall. “Within one hour of kicking off marches through the packed-with-shoppers mall and staging a series of actions, including one where dozens of protestors lay down on the ground … the entire shopping mall was shut down. … Two black female Macy’s employees enthusiastically burst from the department store and joined in on the march, shouting ‘Fuck it, shut this shit down’ to the wild cheers of encouragement from protesters, who in turn echoed their cries.”

In Oakland, California, protesters shut down the subway system for two hours by chaining themselves to a train. In New York, Dante Barry, an organizer at Center for Media Justice & Million Hoodies, told Democracy Now: “a group of organizations, Million Hoodies, Rockaway Youth Task Force, some students from Columbia University and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, put together a protest … called Blackout Black Friday. We’re targeting Macy’s, the largest shopping center in New York City and also has a history of racial profiling around black people. We were targeting and we shut down Harold Square, Times Square, had about 1500 folks that turned out just for this one action at 1:00 p.m. About seven arrests.”

Nationwide demonstrations on Monday maintained the momentum of the protests. The New York Times reported: “people walked out of their jobs and classrooms with their hands raised, the gesture that has become a symbol for the death of Michael Brown. … In New York City, the police made several arrests as demonstrators undertook a meandering march from Union Square to Times Square. Demonstrators blocked streets in other cities. In Washington, protesters closed the 14th Street Bridge and lay down in front of the Justice Department. At Harvard Law School, some 300 people gathered and chanted, ‘No justice, no peace,’ and hoisted a banner reading, ‘Your peace is violence’.”

The renewed focus on police killings of unarmed people has made the public acutely aware of police abuses of power, which jeopardize the social consensus that gives police their authority and government its legitimacy. It brings home starkly the fact that citizens are not equal under the law. Police violence against African-Americans is not new, but Ferguson shocked Americans not only because of the killing of an unarmed man, but also because of the scenes of defiant protesters facing police using military weaponry and armored vehicles that were reminiscent of military clashes in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Eugene Robinson notes that “misuse of this power [to take life] is at odds with any notion of limited government. … it is hard to escape the conclusion that police in this country are much too quick to shoot. … The Michael Brown case presents issues that go beyond race.” Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, expressed a similar view. He said: “The underlying issues here are broader than just race. This goes to the foundational relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities that they’re sworn to serve and to protect.”

Despite the crisis in this foundational relationship, the right wants to double down on police repression. A spokesman for the Ferguson police union, Jeff Roorda, voiced police fury at the St. Louis Rams players’ show of support, demanding they be disciplined (which was refused). “Cops have first amendment rights too,” he said. “As the players and their fans sit safely in their dome under the watchful protection of St. Louis’s finest, they take to the turf to call a now-exonerated officer a murderer, and that is way out of bounds.” Columnist Sally Jenkins commented: “The implication was clear, that only police protection keeps the mob at bay, and if that protection was withdrawn, well, who knows what could happen.”

The threat of chaos if state forces are restrained from using lethal force in black communities is a narrative quickly taken up by politicians such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. While in the rest of the world crime is understood to be correlated with poverty, Giuliani informed Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who is black, that “black-on-black crime” was “the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community. White police officers won’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 percent of the time.” Giuliani was responsible for the introduction of “broken windows’ policing in minority neighborhoods, aggressively prosecuting low-level offences, a philosophy responsible for many of the fatal encounters with police.

Obama has not challenged this identification of blackness with criminality. His diffidence signals an acceptance of this narrative; while his administration perceives a threat to the social consensus, Obama, like Hamlet, cannot act. He is constrained not just by his nature, but also by his ideological ties to the militarized security state. The Guardian reported “In brief remarks on Thursday, Obama said he had spoken with De Blasio about the Garner case and added: ‘Too many Americans feel a deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis’.” But aside from the creation of yet another task force, he has not implemented any concrete proposals to make police accountable for unjustified deaths.

While the protests forced the president to bring carefully selected movement leaders and law enforcement to a dialogue at the White House on Monday, the New York Times reported: “Obama stopped short of curtailing the transfer of military-grade gear to local law enforcement authorities and continued to put off a visit to Ferguson. Instead, the White House tried to channel the rage over the fatal police shooting of a black teenager there into a national debate about how to restore trust between the police and the public. … The limited nature of the White House response also reflects the reality that transferring military-style surplus gear to police departments remains politically popular in Congress and in the municipalities. … The militarization of police has been part of a broader counterterrorism strategy of fortifying American cities, which took root after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has become a reliable source of federal largess for local authorities.”

In a CNN interview, Princeton professor Cornel West concluded: “I think Ferguson signifies the end of the age of Obama. It’s a very sad end. We began with tremendous hope and we end with great despair … because we have a Jim Crow criminal-justice system that does not deliver justice for black and brown people, and especially black and brown poor people.” He added that there had been a kind of class war and a kind of racial war against black and brown youth. “The sad thing is,” he continued, “we have a black president and a black attorney general, we have a black head of Homeland Security, but not one federal prosecution of a case against a policeman killing a black youth under the five-and-a-half years where we’ve had all black folk in place.” Racial progress “has affected primarily a black upper middle class and above, but the black working class has been devastated, the black poor has been rendered more and more demonized … so the issues of economic status and class are fundamental here.”

These issues are why local protests against police use of lethal force, such as the shooting of 12-year-old African American Tamir Rice last month in Cleveland, have found a national focus in the campaign for justice for Mike Brown and have merged with movements for a living wage and worker rights. Many of the protests are multiracial and are creating new leaderships that go beyond existing leaders who generally have ties to the Democratic party and Obama. It heralds the creation of a new politics of resistance to state surveillance and state violence that is inclusive and pluralistic.

UPDATE: And the protests continue to grow. Thousands of people rallied Thursday in Foley Square in Manhattan, and headed for the Brooklyn Bridge before splitting up into a number of groups and spreading out.

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‘No justice, no peace’: Ferguson a microcosm of America’s alienation from government


The city of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in anger on Monday after the grand jury’s decision that there were no grounds for indicting Michael Brown’s killer Darren Wilson. The verdict was widely anticipated, but the release of the evidence shows the way St. Louis prosecutors enabled Wilson to pose in front of the jury as the victim – allowing him to describe Brown in a four-hour testimony as a “demon” and that “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots.” As Josh Marshall notes, “Wilson portrays himself as almost literally in the hands of a monster and in a fight for his life.”

Wilson’s defense was based on the racist stereotype of African-American men as violent thugs terrorizing innocent suburbanites. It was in line with the earlier police release of video of Brown taking a pack of cigars from a shop, setting him up as a criminal to imply he deserved his violent end. This strategy “has not only persisted; it’s been extended to the protesters now taking to the streets of Ferguson.”

Washington Post correspondent Dana Milbank pointed out: “[St. Louis prosecutor Robert] McCulloch essentially acknowledged that his team was serving as Wilson’s defense lawyers, noting that prosecutors ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ witnesses by pointing out previous statements and evidence that discredited their accounts,” while passing over inconsistencies in Wilson’s own statements and his supporting witnesses.

Brown had become the symbol of aggressive police repression of black youth across America, and in refusing to indict Wilson the St. Louis prosecutors gave notice that the federal “ghetto” strategy of military containment of minority communities would be continued and intensified. But now more people facing unemployment and house repossession are being drawn into struggle and will face the same tactics.

Nowhere was the disconnect between the political elite and reality more apparent than Obama’s talk of “enormous progress in race relations,” shown on TV news in a split screen with live images of teenagers in Ferguson trying to overturn a police car. In this sense, Ferguson is America. It is a microcosm of America’s alienation from government.

The demonizing of protesters as rioters has been recast as the official justification of militarized policing. The roles of police and military have been conflated: The Guardian reported that National Guardsmen took at least one demonstrator into custody on Monday night. The legal system has reinforced the ideological justification for unpunished police killings in defiance of public sentiment.

In a typically insightful comment, Gary Younge writes: “when it comes to the lethal use of force the police do not just constitute a special category, but a protected and elevated one … police power and black life [are set] at opposite ends of a value system which is not only morally indefensible but, ultimately, socially unsustainable. … [Wilson operates] in a culture where armed white men can cite their fear of unarmed black men as a defence. A fear so intense that they have to shoot them.”

The confrontational fury released by the decision was heightened by the hope that had been sustained over the past 100 days that the legal system would give some modicum of justice over the killing of an unarmed black teenager. Those hopes were dashed and the message rubbed in by the lead prosecutor. Director of Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut Jelani Cobb told Democracy Now, over the past few months “There was some small scale skirmishes, but largely, people kind of withheld their anger in hopes that the actual system of legal recourse would grant them some relief in a situation of Michael Brown’s death. That did not happen.”

The protests in Ferguson itself and in most major cities across the country and abroad were multiracial and political in nature, and the preparations of the authorities in Ferguson no less political. Black-owned business areas were left unguarded while white areas were swamped with aggressive police. Tory Russell, one of the founders of the group Hands Up United and a member of the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle, commented: “That lets you know not only does this country value property over people, they even put a special caveat on whose property. If you go to Clayton, you go to Kirkwood, you go to some of these affluent places in the city, National Guard … are already there, they’re stationed. You go to the black communities, you go on West Florissant, or the most black small businesses … Their dreams weren’t being protected. Meanwhile on South Florissant where the white property is, their dream was protected.”

The ongoing experiences of the protests and police reaction crystallized a political development among protesters, latent in a social movement that had had already been apparent in the responses to Trayvon Martin’s shooting and Zimmerman’s acquittal. At the same time that the Supreme Court and the right is chipping away at the civil rights won in the 1960s, African American youth want more than those achievements. With political and supposedly legal equality, they perceive the system denying their worth as human beings.

The Nation explained: “This new generation of protesters represents a marked break with the older generations of black leaders in the city. They disagreed with the tactics of the civic leaders and clergy members who, for example, urged protesters to obey police curfews widely viewed by the young people as disrespectful of the community’s legitimate outrage. Most of these older leaders already had a stake in the political process in St. Louis through nonprofits or as politicians.”

The Guardian reported on the broadening of the campaign: “A group of ad hoc organisations born out of alliances formed on the streets … used unrelenting, sometimes in-your-face protests to keep alive demands that the officer who shot the unarmed teenager, Darren Wilson, be put on trial. But as the campaign grew and gained momentum it shifted to a broader focus on racial profiling and the use of force by the police in Ferguson, St Louis and beyond. … [Ashley] Yates and other leading activists regard the tactics of an earlier generation as dated. She says what was right in pressing for specific goals such as ending segregation on buses or the right to vote is different from attempts to confront what she describes as a state of mind among many Americans that views black people ‘as a threat and savages’.”

St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe wrote in Time magazine of his disenchantment with Barack Obama’s disengagement from their fight: “We assumed that our beloved, black president would come to our defense and speak about the perils of police brutality, racial profiling, and Mike Brown’s unfortunate demise. Instead we felt as if he co-signed this unfair treatment and endorsed the brutal show of force the police displayed towards us. … The city is overflowing with civil unrest and we simply want answers for the many wrongdoings that have been committed against us. The officers of the Ferguson Police Department continue to stand in solidarity with their brother Darren Wilson. The entire system is corrupt from top to bottom.”

Obama’s presidency, despite his executive actions on immigration, is a spent force. In the midterm elections, when they were unable to mobilize their supporters to vote, Democrats proved themselves unable to answer voters’ sense of the political system’s corruption. A new politics is being born in the fight for justice and a living wage that will sweep aside politicians tied to corporate interests and Wall Street money.

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Scotland: fight against austerity, against established politics


Originally posted on People and Nature:

People in Scotland need to organise themselves on social issues and transcend the political status quo – not join the SNP – argues CATHERINE MILLIGAN, a socialist and community activist on the Castlemilk housing scheme in Glasgow.

Where do we go from here, after the Scottish independence referendum? The essence of the “Yes” campaign, for independence, was a drive against the

demo against bedroom tax Demonstrating against the bedroom tax, Glasgow, September 2013

status quo, against established politics. It was a fight against unfairness, inequality and poverty.

It brought to light the very undemocratic way our country is run. It created a vehicle, via the referendum, for ideas on how to change it – ideas such as the nationalisation of the banks and oil industry; the promotion of renewable energy, with wealth redistributed by the creation of jobs, for example by reinvesting into the building of houses; support for the NHS; and fairer representation…

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Eric Holder’s Legacy – Justice For All Except For Bankers


Eric Holder announced Thursday his decision to resign as Attorney General of Obama’s administration. His tenure has left a contradictory legacy, which in many ways mirrors that of Obama’s presidency. Both men believe in a strong federal state that will enforce civil rights. However, the corollary of this belief is that the state has to be kept strong by purging dissidents – whistleblowers like Edward Snowden from within and “terrorists” from without.

After Holder’s announcement, the NAACP called him “one of the finest attorneys general in the nation’s history,” while the ACLU on the other hand cited his record of approving the legality of drone killings of US citizens, approving the NSA’s mass surveillance program, failing to prosecute any Bush administration officials for torture, instead prosecuting whistleblowers and journalists.

His main achievements have been in the field of criminal justice policy: reforming federal drug law sentencing minimums, which disproportionately impacted African Americans, finding ways to sue states for passing discriminatory voter-ID laws even after the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, and criticizing “stand your ground” laws after Trayvon Martin’s killing. He met personally with Ferguson residents and activists to talk about racial profiling, and pressured the police department to stop officers wearing bracelets bearing the message “I am Darren Wilson,” the officer who shot Michael Brown.

Holder earned the enmity of Republican politicians for reinvigorating the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. He challenged them soon after Obama’s inauguration: “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” he said. His bête noire, Republican congressman Darrell Issa, who had Congress declare him to be in contempt over the ill-fated “Operation Fast and Furious,” described Holder as the “most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history … needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement.” Surely there must be a market for t-shirts with the slogan: “I am in contempt of Darell Issa.”

The two radically different sides of his record were discussed in an important debate on Democracy Now: Robert Weissman of Public Citizen criticized his failure to prosecute any of the Wall Street executives responsible for the banking crash of 2008 and subsequent recession. The Justice Department “decided not to criminally prosecute them, on the grounds that they were too big to fail, or, as it became known, too big to jail. Essentially, a decision was taken that if you are a financial institution and you become big enough and powerful enough, you are above the criminal law.”

Sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson responded that Holder’s reforms of the justice system far outweighed his failure to prosecute bank criminals, because of the disproportionate imprisonment of the poor and minorities. He accused the left of neglecting “what is important to the masses and millions of people who were never under the purview even of the white left to be concerned about some of the issues that African-American people and Latino people … have been concerned about.”

Dyson argued that the left also underestimated the importance of racial politics in impeding black people in government taking an aggressive posture toward the banks. Since there had been uproar when Obama mildly criticized police who arrested Harvard professor Skip Gates, “in its real political context,” he said, “what do you think will happen then if Eric Holder, as the first African-American attorney general, is seen to be going after mostly white CEOs and other corporate titans within the economic infrastructure? … To ask him to … overcome an entire history of structural and perceptual inequalities that exist, I think is just asking too much.”

The flaw in Dyson’s argument is that he, like Obama and Holden, identifies power with the political establishment and not popular sovereignty. The uproar over the Skip Gates affair came entirely from within this establishment and its attendant media, not from the social movement that elected Obama precisely in order to settle accounts with the banks that defunded thousands of minority communities with subprime loans. It was Obama’s belief that banks are the “lifeblood of the economy” that led him to support the bank bailout, not his aversion to the headline “Nation’s First Black President Allows Financial Institutions to Fail.” Both he and Holder share an ideology that holds the rich must be allowed to continue enriching themselves for the poor to have equal rights – if not equal wealth.

The Occupy movement was in many ways a continuation of the movement that elected Obama, and far from having vanished, has splintered into a thousand community-based activist groups which are actively fighting on issues of concern to African Americans and Latinos, from housing to cancellation of subprime loans to low wages and lack of jobs.

Holder oversaw and encouraged the militarization of the nation’s police forces, which became concrete and visible in Ferguson. Security and constitutional rights issues may seem removed from the daily problems of the poor and minorities, but the build-up of resources in the name of Homeland Security is creating a force to suppress domestic resistance and preventing it from getting traction in poor communities.

Holder’s role model as Attorney General was Robert Kennedy – and in this lies the key to the contradictions in his record. He sees civil rights as something administered to the poor by an enlightened elite, relying on the federal state rather than social movements to enforce rights and ameliorate the excesses of a capitalist economy. But to be able to successfully do that, from this point of view, the elite and state must be protected by suppressing opponents and whistleblowers who could uncover the inner deliberations of the political class.

It was the determined protests by Ferguson residents that brought Holder to the city and made him push for federal intervention to reform the police department. That fight is by no means over, and looks set to continue until officer Darren Wilson is charged with Michael Brown’s killing. Justice under the law is one thing, but real social justice needs a much bigger movement to achieve it. The good news is that signs of such an inclusive and pluralist movement are present in the Fight for 15 and other struggles in America today.

[UPDATE] Anticipating Holder’s retirement, Cornel West told Salon in August that Obama sent Holder to Ferguson because he was “on his way out.” “He’s concerned about his legacy as if he’s somehow been swinging for black folk ever since he’s been in there,” he said. “That’s a lie … He’s made a couple of gestures in regards to the New Jim Crow and the prison-industrial complex, but that’s just lately, on his way out. He was there for six years and didn’t do nothing.” When Ferguson residents reacted to arbitrary police power, “what happens is you got Eric Holder going in trying to create the calm. But you also got Al Sharpton. And when you say the name Al Sharpton, the word integrity does not come to mind. So you got low-quality black leadership. Al Sharpton is who? He’s a cheerleader for Obama.”

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