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2016 Elections: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Party Trap

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As we head toward 2016, the presidential election will increasingly dominate U.S. politics, drawing in millions to political discussion. Inevitably, it will stir debate within the Black Lives Matter movement about who to support and what political strategy is needed for advancing the movement.

Hillary Clinton has, on several occasions, clearly declared that “Black Lives Matter.” At a speech in South Carolina, she added, “This is not just a slogan, this should be a guiding principle.” Fair enough! But has that been a guiding principle for her? Has it been for the Democratic Party, which she and her husband Bill have dominated since the 1990s?

In fact, as Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, “More than any other president, [Bill Clinton] created the current racial undercaste.” His 1994 Crime Bill included all sorts of policies that worsened institutional racism in housing, social programs, and policing. Hillary provided full-throated support for these policies at the time and has at various points since.

Forgive Them Their Trespasses?

Photo: AP Photo / Jeff Roberson
Photo: AP Photo / Jeff Roberson

Even if we were to forgive her and Bill’s trespasses from yesterday, why should we trust that she would do better as president? Barack Obama also made many wonderful promises to fight for ordinary people against the super-rich, to create a rising tide that lifts all boats, to end the “dumb wars” of George W. Bush. Obama has recently been making the rounds with proclamations on the need to end mass incarceration, while Bill Clinton has also made a halfhearted acknowledgment that his policies contributed to damaging and “excessive” mass incarceration. Yet Obama has waited until the third year of his second term to make such pronouncements, while the situation has been worsening for the last six years, including as a result of his own policies.

There are two reasons why Obama and Bill Clinton appear to have seen the light. First, Hillary Clinton – the corporate establishment’s candidate – is running for president and desperately needs the black vote. Second, there is powerful new black freedom struggle that is on a collision course with the Democrats, and the Democrats are working to do what they do best: absorb and neutralize mass movements that threaten the system.

Although Hillary has made some good blanket statements on the need to fight “systemic racism,” details are sorely lacking. This is no accident because, as the accompanying piece explains, while some reforms are possible, capitalism – the system she represents – cannot and will not give up institutional racism.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders has been creating much-needed excitement around the idea of a “political revolution” against the billionaire class, whose policies have been especially damaging to black and brown workers and poor. Unfortunately, until recently he made a strategic mistake in focusing almost exclusively on issues of class and economic justice, while largely avoiding directly addressing the Black Lives Matter movement and the issue of racist police brutality, despite the fact that his record on racial justice is far better than Clinton’s.

Sanders came under pressure, including from Black Lives Matter activists who interrupted him and Martin O’Malley at the Netroots Convention, bringing attention to black people killed by police violence. Partly because of this, Bernie’s more recent speeches have been much better. He became the first candidate to decry the injustice of Sandra Bland’s death in Texas and has produced a relatively strong program on racial justice.

However, while making many correct points and correctly attacking the Republicans, who pander to overt racism, Sanders does not directly address the role of the Democratic Party. This is not just a question of the role of the Democrats at the national level in supporting the policies that led to mass incarceration, including the War on Drugs, or Obama’s avoidance of a range of issues until recently.

The Democrats have entirely controlled politics in most big U.S. cities and many smaller cities with large black populations for decades – and, specifically, in many of the places where racist police violence has sparked outrage, and they have completely failed to offer real solutions. Many of these same cities have also implemented accelerated pro-big-developer policies on the Democrats’ watch, which have worsened gentrification and racialized housing inequality.

Baltimore, Washington, DC, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York all have Democratic Party mayors. Ferguson’s mayor is a Democrat. The Missouri governor who mobilized the National Guard against protesters is also a Democrat.

We need to build a politically independent movement that not only calls out state violence in general but also points to the responsibility of both the Democratic and Republican parties in administering this system. The success of our movements depends on building a political challenge to the two-party status quo of institutional racism. In addition to redoubling our efforts to build in the streets, campuses, and neighborhoods, we must look to run our own independent candidates from the Black Lives Matter movement, the labor movement, the environmental movement, and other social justice movements on a left-wing, working-class program of economic and racial justice, rejecting all corporate cash. Socialist Alternative proposes to link these campaigns to the struggle for fundamental change toward a democratic, socialist society.

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