Ferguson, USA: An episode in the class war
(«Proletarian»;Nr. 11; Winter-Spring 2015)
On 17 November, a week before a Grand Jury officially make its decision on whether or not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, the Governor of Missouri decreed a state of emergency throughout the state for a period of 30 days. More than 2,000 National Guard soldiers were mobilized, and a unified command of the security forces for the Greater St. Louis area was established. For days and days media broadcasts created a climate of fear and intimidation in Ferguson and the region, so that arms sales to individuals have increased and local merchants have formed armed groups to defend their stores.
The jury’s decision not to indict the police officer has incensed not only Ferguson, but this anger has spread throughout the country and beyond: demonstrations, sometimes spontaneous, took place in hundreds of US cities and hundreds of protesters were arrested by the police.
In Ferguson, despite the massive deployment of police and military, despite calls for calm and «prayers for peace» by liberals and priests, since the announcement of this decision, violent demonstrations have taken place with the slogan «No. justice, no peace!». But to bring justice, we will have to tear down the system of exploitation and oppression by means of the class war: under capitalism there can be no peace between classes!
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On August 9 in Ferguson, a small suburb of St. Louis, a cop killed Michael Brown firing 6 bullets into him: this young black man, unarmed, with his arms raised in the air, had made the mistake of not responding to his order to walk on the sidewalk. Michael Brown was left like a dog in the street for several hours without even his parents allowed to come close to his body.
There was generalized outrage at this crime among the population and successive violent protests for ten days. Local authorities replied with the deployment of heavily armed police, through the imposition of a curfew and even by sending in the National Guard – a military body composed of reservists – just like during the tumultuous riots of the sixties; national and local religious figures (Jesse Jackson, etc. ...), volunteer «peacekeepers» (clergy, community leaders, etc., collaborating with the police) and the new black police chief (whoparticipated in a peaceful commemorative demonstration organized by the churches) had failed to calm the population. Ferguson police and the «peacekeepers» (who approved the curfew) accused outside «criminal elements» of being responsible for the riots: the classic reaction in such cases, contradicted by the fact that the hundreds of protesters arrested were overwhelmingly the inhabitants of the city and its surroundings.
Thousands of people attended the funeral of Michael Brown, after which a relative of the victim called on the local population to register for the upcoming elections in November (1), a call relayed by the peacekeepers and local Democrats; we must bear in mind that the electoral turnout is usually very low among blacks and the poor, and that the next elections will be decisive for the Obama administration.
The liberals, religious leaders and so-called community leaders tried to defuse the persistent anger by organizing pacifist demonstrations and civil disobedience acts (such as a ridiculous «Moral Monday» in mid-October). But on October 22th the anger erupted anew and there were clashes between police and protesters after the official autopsy report was leaked to try to somehow support the police version of the crime.
THE ELECTION OF OBAMA DIDN’T GET RID OF RACISM
The election of a black Democrat president has not changed the social situation in the United States nor eliminated the racism which is the consequence. Ferguson is not what would be termed a ghetto, but the population is predominantly black with nearly one-fifth of the total population, largely proletarian, living below the poverty line. By contrast the bourgeois are mostly white, including the local politicians, and police officers charged with defending order: for them blacks are an integral part of the «dangerous classes» as the proletarians of the nineteenth century were called. They are therefore the particular victims of police abuse and intimidation that are an important component of bourgeois rule in «free America».
The drama of Ferguson is indeed not an isolated case allegedly caused by particularly brutal and racist police officers (although in the course of events, several policemen have been suspended for racist actions or utterances); according to statistics, a black person is killed by police every 28 hours in the United States (2). The victims of the police are not all black (42.1% are white, 31.8% black, 19.7% Hispanic, etc.) (3), although they are the most likely to be; but they are mostly proletarians. Most of the time, the police are not punished for their crimes, or if they are, their sentences are generally mild: it shows that police brutality is a normal part of maintaining the bourgeois order in the United States and the «Justice» which it enforces. The United States is the country where the detention rate is the highest in the world (730 prisoners per hundred thousand inhabitants) (4) and one black male in ten age thirty or more has gone to prison at least once in his life. The incarceration rate has risen sharply since the seventies (almost tenfold, going from 240,000 in 1972 to almost 2.3 million in 2014) and continues to increase (5) even as the internal prison regime becomes ever-increasingly harsher. The budget for the construction of prisons has for years become more important than the budget for social housing, so that one could write that prison construction has become the main social housing program in the country! (6).
The press has thrown light on police harassment in Ferguson; it manifests itself among others ways by an avalanche of fines they impose on the poorest (in 2013 they issued 24,500 for its 21,000 inhabitants), the non-payment of which can lead directly to prison. This is a practice commonly used by municipalities in the region to find revenue (7) that perfectly matches the operating principles of capitalism: extort as much money as possible from the workers!
THE MILITARIZATION OF THE POLICE REFLECTS GROWING SOCIAL TENSIONS
On the occasion of the events in Ferguson, the well-intentioned liberal souls are again moved by the militarization of the police forces and their «excessive use of force». After the 1968 riots in Watts, a SWAT unit (Special Weapons and Tactics) was founded in Los Angeles; the following year it was engaged in a bloody battle against a group of Black Panthers. Since the 80’s these special police units of civil war have slowly spread, but the process accelerated after the attacks in 2001; today they exist in 80% of cities with over 25,000 inhabitants and they are deployed more than 50,000 times a year (against 3000 in 1980), 80% for mundane police operations. In 2011 alone more than 500 law enforcement agencies have been equipped with a heavily armored vehicle like that used in Ferguson. The report by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) concerning «excessive militarization (!) of the police», laments that «the militarization of American police is evident in the training of the police officers, which encourages them to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades and APCs [armored vehicles]. This shift in culture has been buoyed by the Supreme Court (...) « (8).
We absolutely do not believe that there was a «shift in culture» in American police; contrary to what liberals believe or want us to believe, the fundamental role of the police in the United States as elsewhere, is not to serve or protect people, but to serve and protect a specific political, economic and social order– capitalism. And the militarization of the police is not a phenomenon unique to the United States.
Certainly, at some points, at some times and in some countries the police present a more «human» face, pretending to be «close to the people» (such as the traditional unarmed London «bobby») but it is always to play the same role and serve the same bourgeois interests. The domination of the bourgeoisie and of the capitalist mode of production is based on violence, even when the violence is only «potential», that is even when it does not appear so openly (except in miscellaneous circumstances) but is expressed in the law with all the legal and police apparatus needed to enforce it.
Police «culture» varies depending on the severity of the social tensions: we have seen that the first SWAT units were created after the series of riots in black neighborhoods in the sixties. The reforms carried out in a period of economic prosperity to eliminate the worst and most archaic forms of racial segregation and to create a black middle class, have undoubtedly lowered tensions; but they could not eradicate the racism which is historically linked to the development of American capitalism, let alone eliminate the social inequalities created by capitalism. These have continued to grow since the Reagan years, and the phenomenon has accelerated since the last crisis. The bourgeois, who are well aware of all this, used the pretext of the «war against terrorism» to put in place measures of war against the proletariat.
According to the OECD, the United States is just after Chile, the country where inequality is greatest! (9). The economist Thomas Piketty writes that inequality in the United States «is probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world» (10). The American poverty rate is the highest of the most developed capitalist countries (17.1% against 11% in Germany, 8.3% in Britain, 7.1% in France, etc.); and if there are more poor whites in absolute numbers, blacks are more likely to be poor (11). Real wages for the 20% of the lowest paid workers are now lower than they were in 1973 (12), and the income gap between whites and blacks (black people being more likely among low-paid workers ) which was slightly reduced over the years, is again close to what it was 50 years ago (13). The black unemployment rate is significantly higher than that of whites: 12.2% against 5.6% in July this year. In Ferguson, where the number of poor has doubled in the city over the past ten years and the workers who still have a job have seen their incomes drop by a third since the crisis erupted in 2007, it is 26 % (14).
Liberals of all stripes lament that the «excessive» use of force by the police is widening the gap between them and the public; they offer a variety of measures to ensure that the police are actually in the service of and under the control of the citizens; they call on protesters to obey these killer cops and try to divert the anger of the masses and youth into the electoral impasse: they only serve capitalism of which the police are the instrument! But they could not prevent demonstrations and clashes with police in Ferguson. Speaking of these people, a young protester told a reporter: «They came down here with ‘Oh let’s be peaceful; let’s pray; let’s march; let’s vote. We need to keep raising hell, until we get what we want. Putting pressure on them until we get what we want. (...). Let’s keep fighting until we’re dead because they’re killing us anyway. (...).You can vote for whoever you want to, but the system won’t change. No matter who you put in office, the system is still the same. The system needs to be changed; you don’t need to put a different person in the system. You need to change the system itself» (15).
The tragic events in Ferguson are an episode in the ongoing class war that the ruling class wages against the proletariat and the exploited masses, in the United States as elsewhere. The youth in this city have set an example that it is possible to respond by revolting; and by doing this they turned what could have remained an isolated tragic event in a remote suburb, into a national political event.
This demonstrates that the bourgeois fear that the inexorable worsening social tensions is little by little turning the United States into a powder keg. The young Ferguson protesters understood that the path of resignation, peaceful protests and elections leads to nothing. These are the facts that prove it and demonstrate the need to revolt. These are the facts that will also demonstrate the need for class organization and for the revolutionary party to organize and lead the struggle to overthrow this system of poverty, crime and oppression.
When the proletariat is convinced of this necessity, then this will not be the time of riots, and isolated revolts, but the time when the sound of the revolution rings out. We’re not there yet, but it is this perspective indicated by Ferguson!
(1) Following this call, the press announced that more than 3,000 new voters were registered in a month. But the actual figure turned out to be only ... 123! Democratic sirens failed to convince the proletarian population of Ferguson that the solution to their problems is in the ballot box and that the Obama Democrats are their friends.
(2) see «Operation Ghetto Storm» www.mxgm.org The authors of the report say the real figure is probably a death every 24 hours because they were unable to confirm dozens of other cases of police killings.
(5) The increase in the number of people imprisoned is the consequence of the continuing increase in the severity of the legislation. In 1995, under a new law passed in California (the «Three Strike Law»), Leandro Andrade was sentenced to 50 years in prison for stealing 9-video cassettes; we could multiply these outrageous examples, including convictions of mandatory sentencing of life in prison (whose number was multiplied 4 times in twenty years and of which 80% are black). This kind of judgment has nothing to do with the classical principles of «justice,» according to which the sentence must be proportionate to the offense; it is simply to terrorize the poor as part of the «war against crime», which is actually part of the class war.
The increase in incarceration is a source of profit for a series of companies specialized in the construction and management of private prisons, etc. (to the point that there was a case where corrupt judges were highly paid by these companies to send as many people as possible to prison), but it is costly for public finances. That is why in several states court decisions have recently imposed a reduction in the number of people in jail; it caused a slight decrease in the rate of incarceration in 2013, but these decisions are little respected and have been rejected by the Supreme Court, as in California. See: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/jim13st.pd
(6) http://www. persee.fr/web/revues/ home/prescript/article/arss_0335-5322_1998_num_124_1_3261
(7) see «Guilty of being poor,» Le Monde, 10/08/2014. After the events of Ferguson Municipal Court St. Louis decided on 10/01 to remove 220 000 arrest warrants for traffic violations ...
(8) «War comes home. The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, « ACLU, 06/01/2014. www. aclu.org/ sites/default/ files/assets/ jus14-warcomeshome -report-web-rel1.pdf
(9) According to the «Gini coefficient» (the index most widely used to measure inequality), among the 31 countries belonging to the OECD. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/19/global-inequality-how-the-us-compares/
(11) The rate of poverty is greater than in the ‘70s and if the gap has narrowed, it remains 2 times higher among blacks than among whites. Especially for children, the higher rate of poverty is due to the weakness of social benefits and other social measures in the United States. Before taxes and transfers, the child poverty rate in the USA is not very different from the rates of other western capitalist countries. See http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Contemporary AmericanSociety/ Chapter %2012% 20—% 20Persistent% 20poverty%20—% 20Norton% 20August.pdf
(13) The average income for a black household in 2011 was 59% of the average income of a white household, against 55% in 1967, and the gap has widened since the last recession. http://www. pewsocialtrends. org/2013/08/22/kings-dream-remains-an-elusive-goal-many-americans-see-racial-disparities/4/#chapter-3-demographic-economic-data-by-race
The mother of a youth killed last year by police in St Louis with 21 bullets riddling his body while his hands were in the air, regretted that there were no riots after this murder and that all the protests were peaceful and orderly– and had come to nothing.
International Communist Party