USA - Police racism in Ferguson: countering the violence of the oppressor

Winter 2014

Racist killings in the US are frequent - and it is also not uncommon for the police to be the ones committing these murders. This means that communities are used to them. So the angry protest riots which broke out in the small city of Ferguson, Missouri, this August after 18-year old Michael Brown was shot dead by a cop, surprised the authorities, which panicked in fear they might spread. They are not used to being put into question this way. The riots were sustained for 6 days, despite facing unprecedented violence from the police and national guard. We publish below several articles written in response to these events by the comrades of the Trotskyist American group Spark.
We do so, just 3 years after the summer riots in London - described as the biggest riots in modern English history, which were sparked by the shooting dead by police of a young black man, Mark Duggan on 4 August 2011. Earlier this year, a jury found that Mark, who police were pursuing after he allegedly purchased a firearm, had been "lawfully killed" - even though he was unarmed when shot three times in the back, having been forced to lie face-down on the pavement and while already surrounded by armed cops. The riots which then followed began in Tottenham on 6 August, after the police refused to give the Duggan family any information abut Mark's death. They immediately spread rapidly all over London, and then further afield to other parts of the country, with widespread confrontations with the police, burning and looting, finally ending after 6 days.
While police racism regularly comes under public fire, and even though there have been previous riots over this issue in Britain, the statistics show that there has been little improvement in the situation over the years. And why should there be? If anything the working class population is more impoverished and under pressure than ever. And the black section of the working class has always faced the added oppression which comes with just being a different colour or ethnicity.
In 2013, black people were stopped and searched at just under 3 times the rate of white people across London . There is even greater disproportionality under section 60 of the stop and search legislation. This is a suspicionless power, under which black people are searched at 12 times the rate of whites, mixed race people at under 4 times that rate and Asians at just under twice the rate. People from Chinese or Other backgrounds were searched at the same rate as whites. So it couldn't be more obvious: the darker your skin, the more likely you are to be a target for the police.
As for the recourse the public has to complain after such systematic injustice, well, apparently the police upheld just 1% of 7,963 public complaints of racism in England and Wales over an 8-year period - that is 77 cases, leading to the dismissal of 3 police officers. However, we are told that the London police (the "Met") only upheld complaints 13 times (0.4%) although it paid compensation in 43 cases. In other words it was prepared to pay shut-up money but not prepared to admit racism. And racism, of course, continues, unabated.

"Typical" and Murderous

[ Editorial of Spark's workplace bulletins on 17 August 2014, just after the killing of Michael Brown ]

It happened in Ferguson, Missouri, but it easily could have happened in any city or town in this country. Because young black men, when they walk down the street, have a target on their back.

Some will say that's an exaggeration. Well, look at the behaviour of the political and police establishment in Ferguson after Michael Brown was gunned down by a cop. The Ferguson police and mayor shielded the cop, impeding the investigation. When they finally released the cop's name, they showered him with praise, calling him, "a gentle, quiet man." And they distributed a video at the same time, showing Brown apparently grabbing cigarillos from a convenience store without paying for them - trying to reinforce the idea that Brown was a dangerous criminal.

In fact, no one disputed that Brown took the little cigars.

What is in dispute is why an unarmed teenager was gunned down, shot multiple times as he ran away. The theft of a few little cigars does not call for the death penalty in this country. It doesn't - except when a trigger-happy cop becomes the judge, jury and executioner of a black teenager; and when the white political establishment rushes to cover up another cop-murder.

In fact, the cop didn't know that Michael Brown had taken that handful of cigarillos. Even the Ferguson police chief admitted it. Michael and his friend were stopped, according to the chief, for "walking down the middle of the street, impeding traffic."

No. Michael Brown was confronted by a trigger-happy cop for walking down the street and being black.

This kind of murder could have happened anywhere in the country - and, in fact, regularly does. The difference is that the black population of Ferguson didn't accept it without protest. The protests have continued for the last week, marked by outbursts that reveal a rage residing deep inside people who have been abused and discarded.

Authorities from President Obama on down decry the "violence" that has since broken out in Ferguson.

What cynics they are. Without that so-called "violence," there would be no investigation today by the FBI, no grand-jury investigation. The Missouri governor would not have stepped in replacing the Ferguson police. Without the protests, it would have been business as usual. And business as usual, when a young black man is killed by a cop, is to brush all evidence of murder under the rug. In fact, it wasn't until the protests - and yes, the "violence" - continued for six days that anyone in authority dared to acknowledge that something might have been wrong in what that cop did..

The people in Ferguson are right to protest, they are right to find all the ways they can to express their outrage. "Power concedes nothing without a demand." That was a famous line from a speech by Frederick Douglas, speaking of the fight to overturn slavery. It's just as true today, as it was then, 157 years ago.

Michael Brown's mother addressed the news media in St. Louis with these words: "You took my son away from me. Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don't got nothing to live for anyway. 'They're going to try to take me out anyway.'"

And that's exactly what the murdering cop in Ferguson and all those who today support him did. They took Michael Brown out anyway.

There can be no justice for Michael Brown, nor his family. He is dead, cut down in his 18th year. And he can't be brought back. But the anger that today is roiling the streets of Ferguson may back off some other trigger-happy cop, saving the life of some other teenager, who next week otherwise would have been cut down before he, too, had the chance to live out his life.

Ferguson: backing off the blood suckers

[ Article from the Spark newspaper 15 September 2014 ]

The continuing anger and protests against the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson have pushed the Ferguson City Council to reduce somewhat the municipal court fees that had overwhelmed many of the city's 21,135 residents. The council offered a limited amnesty for those facing insurmountable bills from the city.

City officials in Ferguson had come to depend increasingly on municipal court fines to pay for the functioning of the city. About 20 per cent of the city's $12 million (£7.5m) budget now comes from fines, making it the second largest source of income for the city. To boost this income as much as possible, authorities had encouraged the police to write as many tickets and citations as possible - in effect, to bleed the working class and poor.

News reports have shown how the city has passed more and more ordinances that provide cops with any excuse to stop people and issue a ticket. Cops regularly ticket people for walking down the street, which they say is jay walking. There is even an ordinance to fine young people for wearing baggy pants. And cops are known to stop anyone driving an older car, just looking to find something to write a ticket for.

This is part of the situation that led to Michael Brown's murder. A big part of the population in Ferguson, which is already squeezed for money, hasn't been able to afford to pay these fines. But not paying a fine provided the courts the excuse to multiply the cost of the original ticket with more fees and fines on top of each other. And it gave the court the excuse to issue bench warrants for "failure to appear" in the court. This has become so widespread, on average last year, the court in Ferguson issued three bench warrants for every single household in the city.

Along with bench warrants comes the possibility of jail time. And because most other cities throughout the region are doing the same thing, ordinary people can have bench warrants in several places. So, after they are picked up, they serve time in not just one jail, but many jails, being passed from one to the next ... and then to the next.

In other words, ordinary people just trying to drive to work or going to the store are treated like criminals, often dragging down their entire family.

The people of Ferguson, responding to the murder of Michael Brown, shone a light on this filthy practice. To one degree or another, all over the country, municipalities are slashing corporate taxes and searching to make up the difference with oppressive fees and fines, which target the working class and poor.

St. Louis death: more protests against police

[ From the Spark Newspaper, 13 October, 2014 ]

On October 8, another young black man, Vonderrit Myers Jr., was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer, this time in St. Louis, Missouri. There was an immediate and angry response from those in his community. It was followed by other protests, including thousands coming out to protest this and other injustices on Saturday, October 11.

The young man killed was only 18, and lived only a few miles from Ferguson, where Michael Brown had lived and had been killed by a police officer two months earlier.

Police were quick to claim the young man had a weapon he used to shoot at the cop - and the police produced spent shells and a gun. But if so many people didn't believe it, it's because the cops have regularly pulled out a weapon and planted it on their victims to justify their shootings.

But it's not just the murder of Myers that people responded to. How many others have been murdered by cops? Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina and Eric Garner in New York are only two among those who gained attention. But an estimated 400 people are killed by police in the US every year, the vast majority of whom are black men. And this doesn't include the vigilante shootings of recent years, like George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin.

Behind the events in Missouri, as in every other state, lies not just common police tactics but the whole desperate situation created by this capitalist society.

Today, among the poorer parts of the population, there are almost no jobs. An estimated HALF of young black men are unemployed, with no hope for a job.

They are deprived of a decent education. Schools in working class areas have for decades lacked the resources of wealthier suburban schools. But in the last 20 years, schools have deteriorated even more. Some exceedingly wealthy business people have spent millions to help destroy public schools. Sometimes the motive was simply profit, but other educational choices have been based on racism.

Young black men end up in prison in far greater numbers than their share in the population. A lot of money is spent keeping them in prison, much more than was ever spent in educating them.

The future looks bleak for many young black men. It is the result of a racism so deeply pervading the entire society that it goes beyond the despicable racist behavior of some individuals, including many cops.

Protests alone will not end this racism because it is so ingrained in capitalist society. But when people don't protest, as the last 40 years have shown, their situation gets even worse. It is proof that only a large and angry response ever backs off the police - even if their caution is temporary.

Without response, there will be more deaths, especially of young black men.

The Racism I See Today...

[ From Spark 13 October 2014 ]

The following is a selection from Sam Johnson's book, "A Fighter All My Life", published earlier this year and reprinted with permission from the author. Sam was born in Alabama in 1939 and witnessed the racism of the time in the Deep South. Later he was an auto worker and trade union activist in Chrysler's Dodge Main plant in Detroit for many years and is currently standing for a Congress seat in Michigan District 13.

"The racism I see today doesn't look the same as what I grew up with. It's at a different level. But it's still there.

There are no jobs for black workers. In Detroit, in other cities, they moved the jobs out of the city. They moved them out where most black people don't live. And there's no transportation. Kids in the city can't get out and back if they get a job. And the schools in the city don't train the kids so they can get a job.
They don't say they don't hire blacks. But the way it's set up, black workers can't get hired. It's the whole capitalist system that is racist.
The cops may not be KKK today, although some might as well be. But they have gotten much worse the way they treat people. The situation in the streets is tougher. And the cops are tougher. And when you see a cop kill someone, they may say he shouldn't have done it, but the courts don't do anything to him. They say he was just doing his job.
The cops kill a young black kid quicker than a young white kid, especially if the black kid speaks up. And a lot of them out there in the streets, they do speak up. So what if they go to jail, they're already in jail - that's how they feel. So they front off the cops. And sometimes the cops kill them. Or these young kids end up in prison. For what?
This monster of a capitalist system was born in slavery. Slavery may be over, but the racism it produced is not over. And the violence of this monster system against all working people is not over.

Afterword by Class Struggle

To repeat Sam Johnson's words: "We're all of us, the working people, being treated like slaves. "

We are. And it is only when all workers see themselves as belonging to one worldwide class, instead of belonging to different race and nationalities, that we will be able to mount an effective, final fight against this monster, capitalism, which was created and is sustained by all of our diverse labour. In the context today, of increasing prejudice against immigrants being expressed by the likes of Ukip, more than ever, these ideas need to be fought for in working class ranks: that workers have no "nation" to defend, no country. And the world to win.