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Brexit and the Miners Strike, Part Three: The Disorientation of the Left


As the consequences of the Brexit vote begin to sink in, the British political class are reeling in shock. Most commentators and even some politicians have realized that the vote reflects a catastrophic failure of government over many years to satisfy basic social and economic needs in former industrial areas – housing, jobs, decent wages, hope for future improvement – that has been distorted through the campaign rhetoric of immigration control.

The Guardian’s John Harris writes: “Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline.” But Harris’s memory is faulty. There was no bargain struck with the public: it was imposed on the country by the Thatcher government acting as an agent for international corporate and financial elites. It is important therefore to reassess the historically defining moment of the establishment of a neoliberal economy in Britain – the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

The miners and their leaders had not expected the kind of all-out political fight Thatcher was waging, but once the strike began, it generated an intense loyalty to the union, involving communities in a fight for their survival. Although mining was a completely male-dominated industry, women from mining areas mobilized to take the struggle into other sections of the working and middle class while the government cut benefits for strikers’ families. The miners’ moral economy expanded to include collaboration with other communities defending themselves against state attacks.

The Tories’ 1980 Coal Act mandated an end to subsidies by 1984 and this empowered NCB management to aggressively confront miners, provoking a large number of separate pit-level disputes that came together after the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood, when, despite the pleas of Yorkshire area officials, rank-and-file miners streamed into Lancashire and Nottinghamshire to picket out those areas. The strike had not been officially called by the NUM national leadership, who in fact merely recognized a struggle that had already started, driven by the militancy and anger among younger miners. [Richards, 100]

They were the first in the industrial world, after PATCO, to experience the assault of international capital against the concessions they had fought for and won from a national capitalist class over many years. However, the left had not grasped the nature of the changes that had taken place during the 1970s. Its theoretical outlook was guided by Leninist categories that were premised on the national state conceived as a monolithic entity, a “body of armed men” arrayed against a homogeneous working class. The picket-line battles between miners and police appeared to fall into that schema.

The left fails to acknowledge the international dimension of the strike

After the start of the strike, the sloganizing of left groups for better organized picketing, for a one-day general strike, even for an all-out general strike called by the TUC, embodied the assumption that the miners were battling a nationally-based capitalist class with which there was the possibility of a political compromise after a change of government. To acknowledge that the strike had connotations that stretched outside of a nationally-based economy would have meant breaking from the illusion that the miners could have won a victory like that of 1972.

A general strike, even if one could have been achieved in the circumstances, posed the same question that it did in 1926: who would rule? The miners and the left assumed that it would be a Bennite government that would restore the social consensus and, like the 1970s Wilberforce inquiry, consider the miners to be a “special case” whose jobs should be protected. However, the Labour party was in disarray and its leadership had already capitulated to the pressure for austerity. While left MPs headed by Benn supported the miners, party leader Neil Kinnock vehemently condemned picket-line violence, and, like Callaghan, attacked Scargill for not calling a strike ballot. When New Labour gained power in the 1990s they signally refused to return to a policy of state subsidies to industry.

While the left in general had little influence within the NUM, the British Communist party had a close historical connection with the union, but by the 1980s the party was divided between a faction that based itself on the tradition of industrial militancy and support for the Soviet Union, grouped around the daily Morning Star, and a “eurocommunist” tendency that advocated a “new realism” of adapting to the changes that were taking place within capitalism. The strike and its outcome destabilized their uneasy alliance, leading to a split and the party’s eventual dissolution.

The failures of the Communist party during the 1970s in relation to mass student protests and the women’s movement, together with opposition to the Soviet military response to demands for Czechoslovak autonomy, had encouraged the eurocommunists’ criticism of the lack of internal party democracy and a focus on the industrial working class. Influenced by postmodernism, they perceived class based politics as obsolete because of the transition from manufacturing in large factories employing thousands of workers to a “post-Fordist” form of production based on small, flexible units of capital. The rise of Thatcher was analyzed by this tendency in the party’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today, as a new and powerful form of populism, conceptualizing her government as the authoritarianism of a national capitalist class which needed to be countered by a popular front alliance of progressive forces.

Scargill was close to the “traditionalist” faction, although not a member of the party, but he represented the thinking of the young, militant activists who had mythologized the 1970s strikes and the mass picket of Saltley coke depot. What united them was a syndicalist and industry-centric orientation that thought the miners could defeat the government on their own, as they believed they had in 1972.

NUM officials influenced by the eurocommunists advocated a cautious and moderate response to pit closures, which brought them into conflict with the miners’ growing militancy. In Scotland, calls for strike action against the especially provocative NCB management team there “originated from the rank-and-file in comparatively democratic forums, including mass meetings and area delegate conferences. These calls were never opposed by the two foremost national NUM leaders, Arthur Scargill and National Secretary, Peter Heathfield, but they brought those who made them into collision with bureaucratic structures in the NUM, in particular with the NUM Scottish Executive led by Mick McGahey and George Bolton” who were both associated with the eurocommunist trend. [Brotherstone, 106]

Even today, over 30 years later, the left clings to the conception that a wider strike struggle could have won a victory. Its analysis selectively omits the impact of the global recession that had shut down much of the country’s industrial base. However, Thatcher had mobilized a much-publicized ideological attack, middle class support for her anti-union plans, control of government committees, interest rates, union leaders in key industries, as well as the physical stockpiling of coal, in support of her strategic aims.

Seumas Milne’s book, The Enemy Within, is a devastating exposé of Thatcher’s use of the deep state to spy on the NUM leadership and target Scargill individually as an instigator of the miners’ militant resistance to the restructuring of the industry. In the introduction to the fourth edition, he writes: “Success for the miners in 1984-5 could not, of course, have turned the neoliberal tide by itself. That was a global phenomenon … But it would have at least seriously weakened Thatcher, reined in her government’s worst excess and put a brake on Labour’s headlong rush for the ‘third way’ – which would eventually turn into New Labour and its embrace of the core Thatcher settlement.” [xi]

Although Milne refers in passing to the global nature of neoliberalism, he explains the motive for the covert operations he uncovered as the Tory party’s determination to avenge its humiliation in 1972, an explanation that confines his account within a national context. Thatcher’s monetarist budgets had already crashed manufacturing and boosted the City of London’s international financial role. What her government did in order to usher in the neoliberal model was to build on this induced recession with a political assault on the miners’ union to break organized resistance to privatization. Thatcher couldn’t have done this so effectively if the Callaghan government had not already initiated monetarist controls on the nationalized industries; moreover, political pressure from the City and the US Treasury makes it clear that neoliberalism was not Thatcher’s personal legacy but that she acted in line with an international reorientation of capital circulation.

The Mitterand government in France, for example, quickly followed the UK and US in restructuring its economy on neoliberal lines: “what above all determined the French Socialist government’s U-turn on economic policy was the severe market pressure on the franc in the context of the high-interest-rate and austerity policies being pursued by the US, the UK, and particularly Germany. … in June 1982 … the franc was devalued alongside the revaluation of the mark, in an agreement with the Germans that was conditional on the French Socialist government’s promise … to bring its fiscal deficit below 3 percent of GDP. … It did not take long before the French Socialist Party leaders even supported the privatization of the firms they had earlier nationalized.” [Panitch, 197]

After the strike the “traditionalist” faction in the Communist party was expelled as the leadership moved closer to the eurocommunist wing.  “The strike, and its eventual defeat were to accelerate the push towards the modernisers’ agenda within the party. Although many Communists from both wings of the party were pulled into the organisation of a solidarity which mushroomed from the late summer of 1984, attitudes to the strike and to the tactics of NUM president Arthur Scargill, were to lead to further bitter divisions. … The criticisms of ‘Scargillism’, which had been relatively muted and coded during the dispute, came out into the open in 1985 as the party, by now rid of the Chater [Morning Star] group carried out a post mortem. The lessons drawn from the defeat of the miners appeared to reinforce all of the key assumptions of Eurocommunism; the economism and narrowness of the trade unions epitomised by Scargill, the authoritarianism of the state shown in the hostile press coverage and the harsh policing tactics and hence the need for ‘broad democratic alliances’ rather than class politics.” [Eaden, 176]

The CP’s political disorientation after the 1970s was also reflected in the left generally. “The way in which the miners’ strike intensified the crisis in the CP was part of the more general theoretical crisis, and, in some cases, practical implosion on the left. The heroic militancy of the miners’ strike exposed, in a most necessary way, the inability of the then dominant leftwing thinking as a whole (notwithstanding the disputatious variety within it) to meet the theoretical needs of labour. In the new situation, the pressure of militant trade unionism to secure, from capital and its servant state, measures of reform and progressive change, was no longer an historically viable strategy.” [Brotherstone, 120]

Conclusion

The miners’ moral economy considered the blood, sweat, and lives expended down the pits to have given them a form of ownership, and that nationalization had made the mines a community resource that the government was wilfully breaking up with unnecessary closures. “We are protecting the people’s coal,” wrote Mick McGahey in April 1984.  “They are weak because they are nothing but industrial vandals and bully boys.” [qutd Phillips, 110]

Although the miners’ defeat was not inevitable – there were moments when the government could have been forced to retreat – its Thatcherite leadership had been quick to respond to the industrial crisis and the increased specific weight of the City of London in the economy. It did not act merely as the agent of Tory revenge, but also as the personification of the drive of international capital to break up national accommodations with the working class and to bring nationalized industries back into the orbit of circulation through the dispossession of public capital. “The deliberate destabilization of industrial employment and occupational communities was, to be blunt, a consciously constructed and carefully executed assault on the collective culture and material position of the working class.” [Phillips, 175]

Despite the way nationalization was carried out after 1945, creating state-owned enterprises with no change in management, it still embodied meaningful egalitarian and collectivist principles. For the mining industry, starved of capital when in private hands, “Nationalization was as much about workers’ rights [as economic efficiency] in the land fit for heroes returning from the war. The bitter industrial relations battles of the 1930s in the mines were to be solved by internalizing them within the new industrial structures.” [Helm, 30]

While enabling the government’s Keynesian economic planning, nationalization also had a great social significance. Capacity in the nationalized electricity supply industry, for example, was substantially increased through the creation of a national grid that allowed technical improvements like higher voltages, but it also facilitated social integration in a way that a market-based industry could not. “A cohesive society provided the basic social primary goods not only regardless of the ability to pay, but also regardless of location. To the extent that rural customers were too expensive to justify connection, they were to be paid for by the urban masses. Connecting up the Scottish Highlands, rural Wales and other upland areas was subsidized by revenues from central locations, and, perhaps more significantly, transmission and distribution charges tended to be averaged.” [Helm, 31]

The dissolution of nationalized industries and subsequent privatizations by the Thatcher government and its successors has led to the breaking down of essential services and intensive rent extraction by capital. It is not surprising, then, that there is popular support today for the re-nationalization of certain industries, like the railways, where privatization has brought chaos. After the economic meltdown of 2008, political opposition to neoliberalism has begun to strengthen.

But with an economy dominated by international finance, how can austerity be resisted? Global capital still needs nation-states to maintain the social discipline necessary for its circulation. The orientation of the state is an important factor: even a small country like Malaysia was able to resist the IMF and US government and impose capital controls after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. “The more important effect of globalization has been on the political will to undertake state regulation, rather than on the technical feasibility of doing so.” [Kotz]

The left has to re-think the nature of the many partial movements against austerity and the relation of international capital to state power. The class struggle is fought out on many levels, inside and outside of political parties, within state institutions and regulatory bodies as well as on picket lines. If state power was not important, then the plutocracy would not spend so much effort on gaining control of it. What should the left be doing to guide the fight back?

Works cited

Terry Brotherstone & Simon Pirani, “Were There Alternatives? Movements From Below In The Scottish Coalfield, The Communist Party, And Thatcherism, 1981–1985,” Critique, 33:1, 99-124 (2005)

James Eaden and David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, Palgrave, 2002

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

David M. Kotz, “Globalization and Neoliberalism”, Rethinking Marxism vol 12 #2, Summer 2002:64-79

Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within, Verso, Fourth edition, 2014

Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)

Andrew J. Richards, Miners on Strike: Class Solidarity and Division in Britain, Berg, Oxford, 1996

Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso, 2012

Jim Phillips, Collieries, communities and the miners’ strike in Scotland, 1984-85, Manchester UP, 2012

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Filed under Arthur Scargill, Brexit, British Labour party, deindustrialization, finance capital, Jeremy Corbyn, militarized police, Miners Strike, Neoliberalism, NUM, police violence, Thatcher, Trotskyism, Uncategorized

Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter Trump the Billionaires


The Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders has been drawing huge crowds wherever he goes – more than 100,000 people in recent weeks – and is tapping into Democrats’ frustration with the Obama presidency and the corporate control of government. Sanders is campaigning on issues that actually affect most Americans, such as defending social security, ending student debt, and restoring regulations on bankers.

This is a much more important phenomenon than Donald Trump’s standing in the Republican primaries, something that obsesses the mainstream media. Trump’s success is due entirely to the fact that he knows how to speak directly to the Republican base that is cheering on his unabashedly xenophobic billionaire egotism. His open contempt for the broken political system resonates with their feelings of resentment.

What is more important than the personal attributes of either man is the social movements they are energizing. Sanders’ supporters are in the main white liberals, and his presidential campaign has collided on a number of occasions with Black Lives Matter activists demanding recognition of the issue of police violence. After his speech at Networks Nation was interrupted, another speech of his was shut down at a rally in Seattle. While Sanders himself, to his credit, has taken on board many of the activists’ criticisms, his Seattle audience was not as receptive to their message. They attempted to drown out the activists with chants of “All lives matter,” “We stand together” and “Which side are you on?” As well as their discomfort at Sanders’ speech being curtailed, their rejection embodies a long-held social-democratic view that economic issues are more essential than the fight against racism.

According to the Seattle Times: “Some in the largely white audience booed and chanted for protesters to let the senator talk. A few yelled for police to make arrests. Marissa Johnson, one of the protesters, shot back, ‘I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you did it for me,’ accusing the audience of ‘white supremacist liberalism’.” The Stranger blog continued the story: “More vocal members of the crowd began booing in response to Johnson. Johnson spoke through the heckling, welcoming Bernie to the town of Seattle, where ‘white supremacist liberalism’ prevails. She called for four-and-a-half minutes of silence in honor of Michael Brown. … After some more booing, the crowd again silenced itself. During the silence, people screamed ‘Bernie matters,’ and ‘all lives matter’.”

Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle NAACP, said he was surprised at how hostile some in the liberal crowd were to the protesters. “I know they were there to hear Bernie, but what was missed was the message of these two women,” he said. “I would have loved to have seen Bernie respond to what they wanted.”

After the event, Sanders said he was “disappointed” at the disruption, but at a later rally that day announced the hiring of a new press secretary, Symone Sanders, a Black Lives Matter supporter. She said they had discussed the issue of racial inequality and she suggested to him “racial inequality and economic inequality are parallel issues,” a theme he took up in later press statements and a racial justice manifesto.

Brooklyn-based writer Syreeta McFadden commented in the Guardian: “Arguably, Sanders was less of the target of the message from the Netroots and Seattle Black Lives Matter protesters than were his supporters and their professed allyship. Those Seattle supporters, for instance, proceeded to prove the protesters’ point when they produced a counter chant to drown out the message from possible and probable future BLM protests at Sanders rallies.”

Jennifer Roesch, an activist with the International Socialist Organization, has made a serious attempt at a Marxist analysis of the way race and class intersect. She writes that the idea that racial inequality is a symptom of economic equality “fails to capture the dynamics by which capitalism was established in the United States and by which it is sustained. … Racism and capitalism grew up together in America [on the foundation of slavery] and cannot be separated from one another. Racism is not merely a product of economic inequality, but also part of how that inequality is produced and maintained.”

“Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform,” she continues. “Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities, and have to be understood as a corollary to a ruling-class program of austerity designed to permanently lower the standard of living in this country. But to analyze this relationship merely as cause (austerity) and symptom (racism and police violence) is to miss the ways in which racism and repression are indispensable parts of the ruling-class project.”

White leftists have a clear responsibility to engage with the issues that black activists raise, rather than rejecting them as disrupters. At the same time, there is a danger of making the campaign for social and economic justice a black-white issue. Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, told Al-Jazeera: “No matter how much people talk about how multicultural things are and how diverse they are, it seems to revert to black and white … How the hell do you break through that black-white way of looking at policy issues?”

The extension of police powers after 9/11 has empowered local forces to follow militaristic strategies of containing protest, encouraged by the open perversions of the rule of law perpetrated by the Bush administration. This is something that imperils all citizens. The Latino community in California, for example, also faces militarized policing. In Anaheim, “there were at least seven killings (by police) between 2011 and 2012,” said Gabriel San Roman, a writer for OC Weekly. Five were Latinos. On the three-year anniversary of the riots following the police shootings of two young Latino men in the town, unlike the large protests in Ferguson on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, politicians and protest groups have ignored the community.

Roesch argues: “For socialists, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most important developments in recent years. It has exposed the depths of racism in this country, has brought tens of thousands of people — mainly black, but also white — into the streets, and has politicized millions more.”

She points out the challenges this poses for activists, stressing the need to find ways “to bring these struggles together with the social power of the working class.” However, the working class’s social power has been reduced considerably with the decline of the organized labor movement. What is needed today is the building of a pluralist and inclusive movement that confronts the reality of the racial hierarchy underpinning corporatized state power, while recognizing the right of minority groups to organize in their own way.

As I maintained in a previous post, “there is a connection between the fight for a living wage, the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights: new coalitions of people and new forms of resistance are possible at their intersection.”

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Filed under African Americans, anaheim protests, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, death of sandra bland, Fight for 15, militarized police

Baltimore: A Turning Point for Police Accountability


Protesters in Baltimore celebrated a victory last week after Friday’s dramatic announcement of indictments against six police involved in the death of Freddie Gray. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, acknowledging public demands for justice, stated that officers illegally arrested Gray without probable cause, and then ignored his pleas for medical help.

Paul Jay of Baltimore-based The Real News commented that the false imprisonment charges she announced have major implications for legally-acceptable probable cause: “They’re saying that that’s illegal to just grab somebody because they run and throw them into a van … in the context of Baltimore it’s quite a remarkable step. … It’s the beginning of some accountability, and that’s a big step compared to impunity.”

As well as the Baltimore protests, national attention on police shootings of unarmed young black men has changed the political landscape. Video footage of police violence has subverted the ideological narrative portraying African Americans as criminals, a narrative that shored up white support for police. The political elite now fears the erosion of state legitimacy, not only in African American communities, but among whites as well.

Tensions continue despite the indictments because citizens don’t trust the justice system to convict the officers, and have little confidence their political leaders can address the community’s larger problems. A massive multiracial celebratory march filled Baltimore’s streets after the announcement, but the Washington Post reported: “Residents also expressed concern over whether, in the long run, conditions would improve in the impoverished Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where about half of working-age adults are unemployed.” The New York Times noted: “Amid the celebration, there was an undercurrent of anger, not only over police treatment of black men, but over the lack of jobs and recreation centers, as well as dilapidated housing for Baltimore’s poor.”

The huge class divisions in Baltimore have come forcibly to national attention. The city, which once supported a million people working in shipyards and the steel industry, suffered industrial devastation and massive depopulation after the relocation of manufacturing industries beginning in the 1970s. This led to grinding poverty, unemployment and drugs concentrated in African American communities on the east and west sides. Successive politicians have attempted to put the lid on social problems with aggressive broken windows/zero-tolerance policing of black communities, building up intense hostility to the militarized police. More recently, money has been poured in to revitalize the downtown Inner Harbor area for tourism and affluent whites, adding to resentment of black political leaders for not addressing the problems of unemployment and housing.

Paul Jay pointed out that the city’s elite has ignored chronic poverty and boarded-up housing in African American communities because “they want poor black people to get the hell out of the city. It’s a form of ethnic cleansing. … The driving factor is real estate speculation. There are thousands of houses that people are sitting on. The city’s sitting on them, [Johns] Hopkins is sitting on them, and the only thing that’s really stopping gentrification right now … is the school system is so bad you can’t get people to move into the city.” They want instead people “who will then come and pay a lot of money for renovated housing.”

The course of events shows clearly how these antagonisms were sparked into riots. Overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations all the previous week calling for justice for Freddie Gray – with little or no coverage in the media – ended in fighting on Saturday April 25 after drunken baseball fans’ racist provocations enraged a group of protesters outside Camden Yards, where they had gathered ahead of a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. A phalanx of police swept down to clear the street, leading to clashes with the remaining demonstrators, some of whom used a metal barrier to smash the windows of police cruisers.

The following Monday, the day of Gray’s funeral, police claimed there were threats of gang members targeting police and cancelled school buses, leaving students no way to get home. Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther leader in Baltimore, explained: “They [the police] closed the [Mondawmin] shopping center down, then … they let a high school out, then they closed down public transportation. So the students were released from school but they could not get on the metro system to go home or to leave the area. So they were stuck in that area and then massive police presence pushed them down to another area.” That is when the CVS got looted and burned – because of the intense anger of the youth being coralled by riot police and armored vehicles. “People are getting revenge, and they are just getting started,” Quatiarra Bonaparte, a 14-year-old schoolmate of some of those involved, told the Guardian.

It was in response to the chaotic violence on Monday night that gang members from the rival Crips and Bloods decided to join forces to defend the community, using their authority with the youth to protect them from police and keep others from rioting. According to the Guardian, as protesters prepared to defy the curfew on Tuesday, a confrontation was averted “only thanks to members of the notorious Bloods and Crips gangs, who teamed with community activists to push hundreds more protesters, who had demonstrated late into the evening, back to their homes as the curfew loomed. ‘It ain’t about me being a Crip,’ said Sin, 15, who wore lipstick and hair braids in the gang’s distinctive blue. ‘It’s about us coming together and making our community better’.” Another gang member told the Real News: “This is about people in poverty and people that are oppressed, regardless of what color you are. We have white Bloods. We have white Crips. It’s not about color. It’s not about race.”

This awareness of the need to come together to safeguard local communities is part of a national shift in consciousness: black lives matter, and protesters are asserting they need their own resources, not state forces, to safeguard them. DeRay McKesson, a leader in the movement for police accountability in Ferguson, told the Baltimore City Paper: “It’s this idea that protest is disruption, that protest is confrontation, but it’s also community. What happens is that you see people come together who never would have come together otherwise.”

Washington Post commentator Eugene Robinson looks to the state and federal government to fund the bulldozing of decayed housing to help inner-city Baltimore escape its poverty, social despair and dysfunction. But rather than top-down state intervention, the reconstruction of Baltimore neighborhoods must be the work of the community itself. The danger is that simply demolishing the run-down housing will lead to the black community being forced out and dispersed, as happened in New Orleans after Katrina, for the benefit of real estate interests who will construct high-rent luxury apartments.

That’s why the initiative by the One Baltimore United coalition should be supported. Spokesperson Todd Cherkis explained the project to In These Times: “We estimate that there are 40,000 vacant housing units in the city,” he said, pointing out that many of them are abandoned buildings now controlled by municipal agencies. Using local labor to rehabilitate these buildings could make a big dent in unemployment and the shortage of affordable housing. Neighborhoods need to be rebuilt by members of their own community, so as to raise their self-confidence and defeat the sense of hopelessness.

What the protests have achieved, above all, is to make Baltimore a beacon in the fight for police accountability, making the use of police to suppress social problems an issue for all Americans and not just the African American community. The court cases, however they go, will be held before a jury and everyone will see and hear the evidence. This gives the public transparency and marks a turning point in the struggle.

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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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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, De Blasio, Eric Garner, Ferguson protests, George Zimmerman, Mike Brown, militarized police, New York City protests, police violence

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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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, broken windows, Eric Garner, Ferguson protests, militarized police, New York City protests