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The United Airlines scandal reveals the hand of corporate authoritarianism


The confluence of corporate demands and police violence has made extremely visible the absolute lack of rights for citizens in planes, in shopping malls, and in allegedly public spaces. Corporations are riding roughshod over consumers because of their relentless drive for cost-cutting to boost profits, driven by equity capital and aggressive hedge funds.

By now, most people have seen the videos of the violent assault on a 69-year-old physician, Dr. David Gao, as three airport police dragged him from his seat on a United Airlines flight due to depart Chicago O’Hare. He was left with a broken nose and two missing teeth, and will need reconstructive facial surgery.

The police were acting on behalf of airline staff who had failed to convince Gao to give up his fully-paid seat for a United crew member. A police spokesman made a vain attempt to blame the victim for bringing his face in violent contact with an armrest: Gao, said the spokesman, “became ‘irate’ after he was asked to disembark and that he ‘fell’ when aviation officers ‘attempted to carry the individual off the flight… His head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face’.”

United’s chief executive, Oscar Muñoz, initially joined the blame game, calling Gao “disruptive and belligerent.” As the videos of the assault went viral, and the company’s share prices plunged, he changed his tune, saying “No one should ever be mistreated this way,” and committed to make sure it never happened again. But all this amounted to was to institute a rule that aircrew had to be allocated seats at least an hour before takeoff; flying aircraft at capacity with little room for maneuver will not change, because it’s central to the company’s strategy to maximize profits.

The flight was not overbooked, as most media have wrongly reported. It had been boarded and was completely full with passengers when, according to an eyewitness, Tyler Bridges, “an airline supervisor walked onto the plane and brusquely announced: “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.”

After a young couple had left the plane, Gao was approached, but refused to move. “He says, ‘Nope. I’m not getting off the flight. I’m a doctor and have to see patients tomorrow morning,’” said Bridges. After staff attempted to argue with him, the airline called the Chicago Department of Aviation, which handles security at O’Hare International. Three officers then boarded. The videos show one of them reaching across two empty seats, yanking Gao up and pulling him into the aisle.

“The man’s face smacked an arm rest as the officer pulled him, according to witnesses and police. ‘It looked like it knocked him out,’ Bridges said. ‘His nose was bloody.’ In any case, in the video, the man goes limp after hitting the floor. Blood trickling from his mouth, his glasses nearly knocked off his face, he clutches his cellphone an officer drags him by both arms down the aisle.”

Other passengers attempted to argue with the police. Another eyewitness, a Kentucky high school teacher, wrote to the Chicago Tribune that one of the officers laughed during the incident.  “Some passengers audibly protested to the officers, some stood and removed themselves from the plane rather than continue to witness the abuse, and one father, while trying to console his 8-year-old daughter, confronted the officer saying, among other things, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’ “

Yves Smith comments that United “is getting a virtual free pass [from the press] as far as its rights to remove a paying passenger with a confirmed seat who has been seated. This seems to reflect the deep internalization in America of deference to authority in the post 9/11 world … The excuse for United’s urgency was that if these crew members didn’t get to their flight, it would create cascading delays. … The FAA tracks flight status of planes by their tail numbers in real time. If the four crew members were in a fix due to a flight delay, United should have known well before they landed and alerted the gate personnel of whatever flight it wanted to put them on as soon as the gate opened. … This in turn reveals the lack of any slack whatsoever in United’s system. Clearly the urgency was due to the four crew members somehow being late; Plan A had failed and the last-minute boarding effort was Plan B or maybe even Plan C. As one experienced passenger said, ‘They can’t come up with four crew members in one of their biggest hubs?’ ”

Wired magazine reports: “The scandal is the predictable byproduct of a relentless obsession with filling planes to absolute maximum capacity coupled with open and invidious discrimination in the treatment of customers. It is a strategy that (along with those nasty baggage and change fees) yielded almost $10 billion in profit over the last two years. …

“United’s 2010 merger with Continental marks the turning point. Before then, United had been, variously, a regulated carrier; the world’s largest firm owned by its employees; and, from 2002 to 2006, in bankruptcy. All the while, it operated in a relatively normal, if not particularly profitable, way. The merger changed that. … Among the unstated goals of the merger was the systematic reduction of capacity, to ensure the major airlines’ flights would always be full, or, better yet, overfilled. … United and Continental had been competitors along many routes, especially out of New York. The merger let them decrease supply so that there would be fewer seats to sell, making possible higher prices and fewer money-losing empty spaces.”

Although over a billion dollars were wiped off its share value when the news broke, United regained its trading position the next day. The Washington Post explained: “The reason is the same for why any of our country’s other oligopolistic powerhouses can treat their fellow Americans with such crass indifference: Shareholders don’t really care about consumer opinion or even a company’s larger public image. They care about profits. If there is no competitor to whom consumers can turn, who really cares what they think? The 2013 merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways — the biggest and last in a series of dramatic consolidations that federal regulators did little to stop — left the United States with only four major airlines.”

It’s this kind of aggressive industrial consolidation, driven by predatory finance and accompanied by outsourcing of jobs and attacks on pensions, that created the authoritarian social climate behind Trump’s administration – more obvious now that he has ditched the pseudo-populism that won him presidential votes.

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Brexit and the Miners’ Strike, Part Two: Thatcher’s political war for neoliberalism


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’ victory in 1974 had won them the promise of an assured future for the industry, formalized in Labour’s “Plan for Coal.” It had also won them the enmity of the new Tory party leadership, Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, who were determined to prevent the recurrence of a government defeat.

Their rise to power in the Tory party had come out of a revolt of the grassroots against patriarchal leaders like Heath and Macmillan who were identified with a Keynesian corporatist approach to government. Thatcher’s small-minded hatred of organized labour would have ended in political isolation if it had not aligned with the interests of US big business and the US Treasury. While it was relentless US pressure that forced Callaghan to embark on austerity measures, Thatcher was a willing accomplice, whose outlook merged the mentality of small business anti-union and anti-social democratic attitudes with monetarist ideologies geared to “liberating” national economies from restrictions on the circulation of international capital.

Although Thatcher cultivated her “iron lady” image, she hardly stood alone. Her determination to take on the unions was shored up not only by monetarist economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, but also by the entrenched resistance to social democratic policies from the financiers of the City of London. Like the banks, Thatcher accepted that “Keynesianism had to be abandoned and that monetarist ‘supply-side’ solutions were essential to cure the stagflation that had characterized the British economy during the 1970s. She recognized that this meant nothing short of a revolution in fiscal and social policies, and immediately signalled a fierce determination to have done with the institutions and political ways of the social democratic state that had been consolidated in Britain after 1945.” [Harvey, 22] Thatcher’s determination to defeat the miners didn’t just stem from her visceral hatred of unions but also from her ideological commitment to destroy obstacles to capital accumulation.

The international sources of Thatcher’s resolve

What monetarist economics meant in practice became clear when the US Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker raised interest rates sharply in June 1981. Over the next three years, unemployment soared, the construction and auto industries plunged into depression, and the American Midwest became known as the “rust belt” with much of the steel industry shut down; internationally, whole countries, like Mexico, that had borrowed from US banks to overcome the 1970s recession were bankrupted. The US government had abandoned Roosevelt’s New Deal promise of full employment and promoted the reduction of inflation to save confidence in the dollar. Soon after, newly-elected president Reagan faced off the PATCO air traffic controllers’ union in a long and bitter strike and fired them all when they refused to return to work. [Harvey, 23-5]

After winning power in 1979, Thatcher’s first actions were to remove constraints on capital circulation. The government’s 1981 budget, like the “Volcker shock,” focused on deflating the economy and had the effect of accelerating the decline of manufacturing. “For the nation as a whole, the visible effect was a huge rise in unemployment and a vast drop in the gross domestic product, with factories, mills, and pits closing down all over the country. In 1979-81, while other nations saw their GDP rise by 5.3 per cent, Britain’s fell by 2.5 per cent. Unemployment rose to 13.3 per cent, the highest in Western Europe.” [Morgan, 446]

Deindustrialization was a feature, not a bug. It was driven by the government’s need to enforce discipline on the working class; high interest rates attracted capital that the City diverted into low-wage economies in third world countries, shifting manufacturing offshore. “The Prime Minister, urged on by her newest economic adviser, Professor Alan Walters, forced through the most resolutely anti-Keynesian budget of modern times. It imposed Britain’s biggest-ever tax increases … A total of £3,500 million was taken out of the public sector borrowing requirement. Never before had there been so savage a fiscal squeeze; not since the thirties had there been a comparable increase in unemployment, now approaching 3 million.” [Morgan, 446-7]

But this was just the first step in imposing a neoliberal agenda on Britain. The other necessary condition was to defeat the most militant and organized section of the working class. As part of the fiscal squeeze, the external financial limits (EFLs) on the National Coal Board inherited from the Callaghan government were constricted, abandoning the production targets of the 1974 Plan for Coal. “The recession – and particularly the decline of large-scale energy users – reduced demand further, thereby increasing the stranglehold of the EFLs. … [The NCB] therefore decided in February 1981 that it would be necessary to accelerate the rate of colliery closures. The NUM responded by threatening to call a strike ballot, and the miners in South Wales jumped the gun and went on strike.”  [Helm, 74]

Thatcher had learned from the success of Reagan’s gamble with PATCO that governments could gain politically from a dramatic confrontation with unions. The Tories’ 1980 Employment Act virtually replicated US labour laws to prohibit secondary picketing and remove unions’ legal immunity. However, Thatcher was not politically ready for a confrontation with the miners at this stage; her cabinet was still dominated by Tory “wets”, and the government did not have the full support of its middle-class base. Above all, she wanted to avoid Heath’s fate. So she ordered the NCB to back down, while continuing to implement strategic preparations for a strike.

The monetarist economist Friedrich Hayek urged Thatcher to implement yet more drastic increases in interest rates, citing the example of Chile. Thatcher replied: “I was aware of the remarkable success of the Chilean economy in reducing the share of Government expenditure substantially over the decade of the 70s. The progression from Allende’s Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons. However, I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution.”

The subtext of Thatcher’s reply bears analysis. She did not disagree with Hayek’s lionization of Pinochet’s “remarkable success” in achieving economic “reform,” despite her distaste for mass killings of trade unionists. But she was able to create within British institutions – Parliament, the police, the judiciary – the consent for shock tactics of a different kind in order to restructure the economy.

At the end of 1981 the government was at its lowest ebb. Riots in the inner cities broke out against unemployment. But in March 1982 Argentina occupied the Malvinas islands, known to the British as the Falklands, and Thatcher made a strategic gamble that her ideological kinship with Reagan would result in American assistance for a British military response, succeeding in getting the use of a US airbase on Ascension Island, advanced weapons technology, and intelligence help. Her sympathies for Pinochet were also returned: the Chileans installed a long-range military radar opposite Argentina’s main air base that supplied early warnings of Argentine air attacks to the British invasion fleet. When the radar had to be switched off for maintenance one day in June, the Argentinians were able to launch a surprise attack and sink two troopships.

Although demonstrating Britain’s political and economic dependence on the US, the war’s success changed the political climate to one of belligerent chauvinism, and within the government Thatcher was able to centralize cabinet decision-making in her own hands, bypassing the “wets” in the cabinet. She worked to dissolve the collectivist spirit of the country into the responsibilities of individuals, an ideological message aimed at the aspirational middle class and skilled working class, that lay behind the selloff of council housing to more prosperous tenants. In late 1984 the privatization of British Telecom “made privatization part of a wider cultural shift among the British people, including wide swathes of the working class. Many hundreds of thousands of trade unionists were among those who became shareholders for the first time. … There followed the privatization of British Aerospace and Britoil, and finally the huge sale of British Gas for £5.434 million in December 1986.” [Morgan, 469]

The real beneficiaries of the selloffs were the financiers in the City of London whose central role in mobilizing capital for the privatizations did not mean the strengthening of nationally-based capital, but enhanced its power as a key conduit for the circulation of global finance. The pressures for privatization did not originate within the nation-state but were imposed on it by international capital.

The Thatcher government won re-election in 1983 with renewed political confidence and the results of four years of preparations to take on the miners. The coal industry represented capital locked up in a nationally-circumscribed economy, tightly linked to the electricity industry, and as such was a barrier to the circulation of international capital. But the global economy had already undermined these national arrangements: “The real underpinning of the coal industry lay in the demand for electricity. The 1980-82 recession decimated heavy industry, and, thereafter, the structure of the economy changed to one in which economic growth no longer needed ever more electricity generated.” [Helm, 81]

While in opposition, the Tories had prepared a report on nationalized industries that called for: (a) the building up of maximum coal stocks, particularly at the power stations; (b) contingency plans for the import of coal; (c) the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary; (d) introduction of dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible. There should also be “a large, mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketing. ‘Good nonunion drivers’ should be recruited to cross picket lines with police protection.” [Saville, 296]

The government’s tactical retreat in 1981 meant that surplus coal was being produced and coal stocks built up at the power stations. The closures of Cortonwood and Polmaise, two of the left’s traditional strongholds, made a strike inevitable, despite the tactical disadvantages of starting a strike in the spring. “[T]he stark choice [for the NUM leadership], faced with MacGregor’s closure programme, was either to capitulate and accept what the NUM had resolutely opposed since the late 1970s, or to fight as best they could … The EFLs were tightened, and hence the Treasury squeeze could only force closures. … Without the new labour laws, without the stocking policies, without the more gentle treatment of what became UDM areas… and without the generous redundancy packages, it would have been more close-run.” [Helm, 87]

During the strike the miners were consistently portrayed as violent, when large numbers of police escorted a very small number of “working miners” into pits. While the violence against pickets was unprecedented in British terms, by international standards it was mild: the police were armed with riot shields, helmets and batons, and nobody got shot, unlike miners in South Africa or South America. Public opinion about the rules of engagement still mattered, but the government were able to prejudice this opinion through its control of the media message. In the course of the strike paramilitary techniques developed in Northern Ireland were refined and the police were “in effect allowed by the courts to re-write the law.” [Saville, 326]

What a focus on the violence of the police against pickets obscures, however, is that Thatcher was carrying out a political war against the miners, that involved an all-round ideological campaign to manufacture consent for her government. The police, as well as being a physical force, were also a means to an ideological end. Her rhetoric of the “enemy within” framed the strike struggle as a conflict contained within national borders; the more she channeled the interests of international capital by harnessing the state to neutralize trade union militancy, the more she appealed to national chauvinism to bolster the legitimacy of the state’s violence against its own citizens.

Her hectoring bombast targeted the social democratic institutions of the postwar consensus; she invested the ideas of “democracy,” “liberty” and the “rule of law” with the content of “obeying orders from superiors,” framing the strike as one that challenged the rule of an elected government and democracy in general. When she said there was “no alternative,” she was able to do so unchallenged because the Labour party elite had already conceded the necessity for austerity in the course of the IMF crisis.

What Thatcher actually achieved through the defeat of the miners was to remove the most important political obstacle to a transition from an economy embodying barriers to global production and exchange in the form of the nationalized industries, to one open to international capital circulation. For this she won the applause of global corporations and their shareholders.

Next: the left fails to acknowledge the international dimension of the strike

Works cited

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford, 2005

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

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

John Saville, “An Open Conspiracy: Conservative Politics and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,” The Socialist Register, 1985-86

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Filed under Arthur Scargill, Brexit, Britain, British Labour party, Miners Strike, Thatcher, Uncategorized

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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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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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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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, black bloc, Eric Garner, Ferguson, Mike Brown, New York City protests, Obama, police violence