Black Lives Matter and Marxism

Adapted from a document drafted by Eljeer Hawkins and approved by Socialist Alternative’s National Committee, February 2015

We have entered a new phase in the struggle against racism and capitalism in the United States. “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) started after the death of Trayvon Martin and then became a protest movement. The BLM banner is a powerful affirmation of the humanity of black workers, poor and youth. Every 28 hours a black or brown person is killed by police, vigilante or extra-judicial violence. Police kill black Americans at nearly the same rate as the lynchings during the Jim Crow era; young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than white men. BLM has captured the imagination of a generation of new activists in the U.S. and globally.

This is a re-emergence of the black masses onto the scene of U.S. history after decades of defeat, sell-outs, decimation and mass incarceration. The current radicalization must be seen in the context of the limits given by the immediate past of a low-level of general class consciousness in society and a historically very low level of struggle in the black community. This is further complicated by the lack of militancy of the remaining civil rights leadership from the 1960s and 70s; those who weren’t assassinated or imprisoned have largely been bought off and co-opted by the establishment. The Obama Presidency both signifies the limits of pro-capitalist identity politics but also gives confidence to black youth that they could get support in society and can defeat racism.

The revolt against police violence took new form in Ferguson and New York in recent months, with daily determined demonstrations and a new layer of activists emerging. There is partial rejection of the old civil rights leadership, which is uneven geographically and generationally, and new organizations thrown up by struggle.

The mood to fight is influenced by the economic crisis and Occupy. At its height, the protests took mass direct action to block highways and occupy symbols of police violence, economic inequality and racism. Now, the movement is in at least partial retreat. There is a danger that the advanced activists will cut themselves off from the broader masses by taking isolated direct action. We should advocate tactics and a strategy that give the activists an approach that can bring broader layers along with them.

The first phase of the movement is over, but the new activists aren’t going away, and a new phase will emerge. This has been only one wave of struggle. There will be more atrocities, more protests, more movements in the coming months and years.

Socialists, while building actions to indict the killer cops and win demands against racist policing, also need to boldly connect the dots to a program that can defeat racism in all its forms. We must connect the battle against police violence to clear economic demands: for a $15 an hour minimum wage and massive jobs programs as well as quality education and housing. We must put forward tactics of mass action while calling on unions and organizations like the NAACP – where they have influence – to support this struggle. We put forward our slogans and demands to be taken up by the broader movement because we want to point towards victories in the here and now. But we must also boldly point to a socialist solution and the need to build a multiracial socialist force in the fight to once and for all end poverty, racism and corporate domination.

Backdrop: Economic Collapse and Mass Incarceration

The 1960s and ’70s witnessed major gains, particularly democratic reforms, for African Americans, especially towards the end of the civil rights movement. But since the 80s, beginning under President Ronald Reagan, there has been a slow but steady dismantling of those gains by big business and its two parties. Today we have to return to fight the same battles again, such as voting rights. We have seen the massive accumulation of wealth go to the top 0.01% since the crisis of global capitalism in 1973-75 ended the post-World War II economic upswing and the introduction of a new phase of capitalism: neo-liberalism. This paradigm shift ushered in a profound period of suffering economically, politically and socially for the working class and poor.

Despite the existence of black millionaires, celebrities and political representatives in the structures of American capitalism, including the first black president, the reality for black workers, poor and youth is drastically different. With the onset of the Great Recession and global crisis in 2007-08, black workers and poor were plunged into a deeper depressionary state. Working, middle class and people of color fell into a vicious cycle of debt, foreclosure and uncertainty about their future. United for a Fair Economy published a report, Foreclosed: State of the Dream 2008, which declared “This represents the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history.” The report concluded that the sub-prime loans disaster would lead African Americans collectively to lose between $71 and $92 billion. This came on the heels of the 2001 recession from which black workers never fully recovered, leaving them more susceptible to downswings in the economy. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, while symbolic, gave confidence to people of color, particularly to black youth. However, this increased confidence is combined with massive disappointment, a combination which gives rise to movements.

As The Nation recently pointed out, the result of this was also a sharply increased economic divide between the white and black population overall: “by 2010, whites had six times the wealth of blacks, up from four times the wealth in 2007. With the housing market’s recovery, the median net worth of white households today is thirteen times higher than that of black ones. Median wealth for black families fell 33.7 percent between 2010 and 2013, while white households saw theirs rise” (February 2, 2015). The black community is dominated by high levels of unemployment, poverty and low-wage, service-industry jobs. It is in these conditions, as well as the unrelenting police brutality concentrated in poor black communities, that the current BLM movement was born.

The rise of a militarized police has its roots in the 1960s, as big business sought to annihilate the radical elements of the black freedom movement. The COINTELPRO campaign to undermine and destroy radical black organizations was followed by the so-called War on Drugs that began in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon. This was part of a broader attempt to criminalize and suppress black youth, whom the state saw as the most radical section of society, as well as a political and electoral strategy by the Republicans to make a coded appeal to racism under new conditions with the end of legal segregation. It has continued with unrelenting force to the present day.

The result has been mass incarceration, labeled by Michelle Alexander as the “New Jim Crow.” There are 6 million people under “correctional supervision” in America. The level of incarceration in the U.S. is the highest in the world, and far higher than in any other advanced capitalist country. What is less well known is that there are more black and brown men and women under the control of the criminal justice system today than there were in slavery in 1850.

Black Lives Matter Movement

Historically, the development of the black freedom movement in the U.S. was spurred on by the unbearable conditions black workers, poor and youth faced dating back to the arrival of the first Africans to these shores. The death of Trayvon Martin and so many other women, men and children by state-sponsored violence has pushed this generation to act. The BLM movement is a continuation of the arc of protest and revolt nationally and globally over the past several years as Socialist Alternative has pointed out in previous material.

The nationwide protests against the non-arrest of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was the spark that forced the Florida political establishment to arrest and charge Zimmerman. It was the outcome of the trial that planted the seeds for the BLM hashtag. On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown was killed by the police officer Darren Wilson, with his lifeless body laying in the street for four hours. The Brown family and youth of Ferguson, rather than going home, chose to protest an overzealous police force, an indifferent political establishment, and conditions similar to the Jim Crow era in the South. Mike Brown joined Emmett Till as a rallying cry for black and brown youth, which ushered in the birth of a new movement. The differences between that moment in 1955 and 2014 are countless, but what links these generational-defining moments is the level of racism etched in the DNA of American capitalism. The movement gave rise to daily protests, like Wisconsin and Occupy in 2011. The largely spontaneous and youthful response in Ferguson also exposed the crisis of leadership in the black community.

Black Pro-Capitalist Leadership Exposed

“This movement was started by the young people. We started this. It should be young people all over this stage. It should be young people all up here.”

– Johnetta Elzie, Ferguson organizer at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network D.C. rally on December 13, 2014, before the microphone was cut off by rally organizers.

The above quote illustrates the contradiction between the emerging working-class young black activists and the self-serving former civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who are tied to the pro-capitalist Democratic Party. The decline of the radical black freedom movement of the 1960s and ’70s left black workers, youth and communities without grassroots based militant leadership. The sell-out nature of the current inadequate leadership was on full display in Ferguson, as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson attempted to hijack and direct the movement into “safe” channels. Jesse Jackson was unceremoniously booed off the stage as he attempted to proselytize for his church. Jackson hasn’t been back to Ferguson since.

While the gradualist politics of the traditional civil rights leaders and organizations has failed this generation of black youth, there are a few exceptions, like the role of the NAACP in the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. The black churches and the NAACP can play an important role in many cities despite being pushed aside in Ferguson and New York. Socialists argue for them, alongside the trade union leadership, to put their resources at the service of an effective movement against police violence and for economic justice.

Overall, the crisis facing workers, youth and people of color demands a new leadership and organizations, although a renewal of the traditional groups such as black churches and the NAACP can be part of the process. Ferguson gave rise to formations like Organization for Black Struggle, Don’t Shoot Coalition, Hands Up United, Michael Brown Leadership coalition and other NGOs. This movement is led by young women and men in a way unseen since the civil rights movement and the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Individuals like Tef Poe, Tory Russell, Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou and Ashley Yates are the faces and names of a new and untested leadership coming out of Ferguson and St. Louis. They have challenged the establishment, forging a deeper discussion and debate about the course of the movement, as the spirit of Ferguson has spread like wildfire throughout the nation, with sporadic and spontaneous civil disobedience blocking highways, solidarity with worker struggles, occupying shopping malls, shutting down Walmarts, and disrupting the everyday activity of big business and society. Still, without a nationally cohesive force, the movement faces a myriad of questions of its direction and challenges of dealing with divisions and the pressure of co-option by political forces aligned with big business.

It is necessary to try to give an approximate characterization of the movement at this stage of its development. Nationally there are important regional differences, particularly in the extent to which the traditional black leadership has been challenged. For instance, the NAACP is still a dominant force in North Carolina, while branches barely exist in most key cities throughout the rest of the country. BLM coalitions vary massively in their character nationwide. In Philadelphia, black churches play an important role in mobilizing for rallies; in other areas, the churches help hold back protest. This is a multi-class movement, with an overwhelmingly moral (rather than class) appeal, although young black workers have played a very prominent role, especially in Ferguson. And while the “go-slow” traditional pro-capitalist leadership has been challenged and, in some areas, even displaced, there is no coherent political alternative being put forward.

Despite radical words and action, there is generally little understanding among the activists of a working-class centered, consciously anti-capitalist approach. However, there is real openness among many to the idea of linking the BLM struggle to the Fight for 15, which Socialist Alternative has championed.

In Philadelphia, for example, the MLK DARE coalition took up demands for economic justice as well as demands on policing. With the involvement of a section of the labor movement, the result was a very dynamic march of thousands on MLK Day in 2015, in contrast to the downturn of the movement in many areas. There are many chants against “the system” that are well-received and some good debates among activists, and socialists can increase their influence during the process of regrouping the struggle despite the fact that anti-capitalist politics haven’t yet come to the fore.

But it must be stressed that the political confusion which characterizes the movement at this stage is entirely unsurprising, given that it is emerging out of decades of low levels of class struggle throughout U.S. society and widespread passivity and defeat in the African American community in particular. As with the young activists in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, there can be a rapid radicalization under the pressure of events. It is in the very nature of the struggle for black freedom that it rapidly and inevitably throws up profound questions about the nature of capitalist society. As Dr. King pointed out: “In these trying circumstances, the Black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

After the Grand Jury Decisions: The Movement and President Obama

The grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases detonated the powder keg of accumulated anger at militarized policing and criminal economic neglect. The ruling elite were forced to re-evaluate and debate the nature of policing in black and brown poor communities. The cases of police violence under President Obama are domestically his “Hurricane Katrina.” Obama’s “post-racial” mantra has been torn asunder and thrown in the wastebasket of history.

Another problem for the ruling class is that the civil rights and black liberation uprising in the 1950s and ’60s occurred in a time of economic upswing for capitalism, giving them more room to concede serious reforms. Today, the ruling elite and capitalism are in a deeper crisis. Maximizing the profits of the ruling elite is the first priority. Short-term thinking predominates but the far-thinking elements of U.S. capitalism understand the danger to their interests if this revolt develops further.

Perspectives for the Movement

The genie is out of the bottle and the ruling elite will have to contend with a new political reality like that after Occupy Wall Street. A radicalized black youth movement has awakened the consciousness of the nation. The first phase of the movement came to a close with the killings of two NYC police officers by a mentally unwell young man in December 2014, and the MLK Day actions a month later. Still, it is very likely that further racist atrocities or attacks on voting rights or economic racism will bring people back on to the streets in the coming months and years.

The fight for economic justice is one direction that the protests could move towards in widening the struggle. The fight of low paid workers for a $15 minimum wage, which made dramatic gains in 2014, spearheaded by Seattle and San Francisco, is the movement’s most powerful potential ally. People of color make up a large swathe of low-wage workers nationally. In some of the surrounding areas of St. Louis and Ferguson, poverty is as high as 40%. Unemployment and low-wage work predominate. The median household income in the district that borders the scene of Brown’s death is only $14,390 a year.

As Dr. King realized after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and with the urging of activists in the SCLC and SNCC like Diane Nash and James Bevel, the movement needed to tackle poverty, economic injustice, and questions about capitalism.

We have seen a limited combination of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Fight for 15. The greatest hurdle is the role of the trade union leadership and its cozy relationship with pro-corporate Democratic Party politicians. The role of labor in the civil rights movement was instrumental in its major victories and led to a growing role of blacks and women in unions throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The labor movement could play a powerful role in the movement today, despite its enormous retreat, because it still embraces millions of people, disproportionately people of color, and still has massive resources. A higher percentage of African-Americans are union members than whites.

Socialists must explicitly call on labor movement leaders to take action. This can serve as a positive proposal to argue for the power of working people to BLM activists who may have a dismissive approach toward the unions. It can also serve to call out the union leaders who have refused to take sufficient action while pointing towards mass demonstrations and new coalitions. It is frequently the sons and daughters of union members who are victims of police violence and surveillance. For example, Eric Garner’s mother is a member of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City.

The movement is currently in a lull in most areas of the country. However, Cleveland had its biggest demonstrations after the murder of Tamir Rice. This shows the potential for specific events to breathe new life into the national struggle. While riots could occur out of despair at new murders, there is also currently a new opening to discuss strategy and next steps for the movement to grow. Local coalitions, small mass actions and the clarification of ideas can occur in a lull with the conscious intervention of socialists and working-class forces. At the same time, we see the dangers of isolation and co-option of sections of the protesters in retreat.

To go forward, this movement needs to connect racism, police brutality, and economic demands. For the most effective protests, we need coherent, independent and united organizational structures focused on mass action with a clear program. Valuable lessons of national coordinated actions and leadership can be learned from previous social movements like the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement that transformed U.S. society and radicalized an entire generation. Many of these coalitions were built with a focus on concrete protests and campaigns.

The birth of a mass movement is urgently needed to tie together the threads of the various struggles against police violence, economic injustice, political disenfranchisement and social alienation. In such a movement the role of socialists is indispensable.

Identity Politics and Privilege Theory

The rise of the BLM movement has tested the limited forces of the left and Marxism in the U.S.  Like the Occupy movement, the BLM movement provides socialists an opportunity to interact with fresh and radicalizing forces. Socialist Alternative set out early to send members to Ferguson to intervene in the movement.

One of the challenges we have faced in the movement is the strength of identity politics and privilege theory. Of course, this is not uniform. It is striking how white youth and socialists were welcomed to the protests in Ferguson where black working-class youth felt firmly in control of what they were doing. What was more characteristic of the response we received there was an anti-party/anti-organization mood rather than sharply-posed identity politics, although we shouldn’t understate that it did pose difficulties. We have been told by some activists influenced by privilege theory: “if you don’t have roots in this community, then why should we listen to you?” The assertion that the movement should be black-led has frequently been linked to the idea that white activists should not put forward proposals but should “listen” only and be allies. We support having black leadership in the movement, but the question of program and strategy is central to how that leadership should be judged. We are in this to win.

Privilege theory originated in academia in the context of the enormous throwback in consciousness after the collapse of Stalinism. It reflects despair in the historic potential of the working class to lead society out of the impasse which capitalism has created.

It is very understandable that privilege theory and identity politics have had a pronounced affect on new anti-racist activists entering into struggle in this period. They are searching for a straightforward way of explaining the awful reality facing large sections of the black population and to push back on the ridiculous “post-racial” narrative or other attempts to sugarcoat this reality. Besides this genuine and understandable aspect of its appeal, there is also a less healthy desire among some to prevent real democratic discussion in the movement about the way forward. Strong affiliation with identity politics can often come from a healthy place but then can still be used to hold the movement back.

The influence of privilege theory at this point has a contradictory character. It reflects the search for a way to combat racism at a deeper level. It also reflects the early stages of the movement and the past defeats of the working class and oppressed. Socialists need to have a very sympathetic attitude towards genuine activists who are influenced by these ideas while patiently explaining our ideas. It is also necessary to skillfully push back when the ideology of privilege theory is used by middle-class elements who seek to limit the movement to what is acceptable to the liberal establishment.

The task of socialists to explain a class perspective in a credible way to this new generation is complicated by the fact that they have become politically active in the wake of a long period of a low level of class struggle. Marxists also need to explain how the false ideology of racism historically convinced large numbers of white workers and poor whites to often accept their own exploitation because at least they could think of themselves as better than people of color. While the open ideology of anti-black racism has been pushed back, these ideas can still be a significant barrier to common struggle.

However, the white working class is still heavily exploited under capitalism. Overcoming racial division is a key strategic task for the working class. It is critical for the labor movement to confront every manifestation of racism. Educational campaigns by unions and community groups have had and can still have a real impact on the consciousness of white workers, but the key way consciousness will change is through the reemergence of the class struggle, where the common interests of workers become clear.

We need to recast the question of privilege and look at it from a materialist perspective. In the final analysis, classes aim to act in their own interests, and this includes white workers who need to unite with workers of color to fight and win. We must also look at this question from an historical perspective. The influence of overt racist ideology has significantly diminished in the U.S. Privilege theory often starts from an abstract, ahistorical perspective, which does not acknowledge or understand how consciousness actually changes and develops. Racism was invented by class society and has material roots that cannot be done away with through merely a change in attitudes. It will require a fundamental transformation of the material structures of society, which can only be carried through successfully by the working class.

The black freedom movement would benefit massively from white and Latino workers moving into action in their own interests, including their common interests to defeat racism. The way to move broader class forces into action isn’t guilt, shaming or a few workshops. It is through the experience of struggle with a leadership pointing towards strategies to win victories. Confidence, not guilt, is the key thing that moves people into action to defeat racism.

The politics of “moral witness” and “allies” can downplay the focus on mass action and strategies to win. Marxists reject this outlook and stress workers’ and particularly poor workers’ common interests without understating the important and sharp differences in the experience of white and black workers.

Slogans and Policing

Socialists need to address a number of audiences while intervening in the BLM movement. One audience is the more advanced protesters, many of whom are very receptive to socialist ideas. A bold appeal against capitalism and the connections to economic issues like $15 an hour can speak to this audience while pointing towards the next steps necessary at each stage of the struggle.

Also, however, we must warn against ultra-left sloganeering from anarchists and others like “Hands Up! Shoot Back!” These slogans, while sounding radical, can point towards the dead end of individual terrorism. Killings of police officers, as in New York in December 2014, cuts across the mood to struggle against racist police violence.

We also need to put forward slogans that can address a broader audience and be taken up by other activists in the movement as a guide to action. In this way, we call to “Stop the Militarization of the Police!” We also specifically demand the indictment and conviction of killer cops. However, we also need to go further with a more developed program of demands around policing.

The police, along with the National Guard, are the armed bodies which protect the interests of capital domestically. Their day-to-day violence is directed disproportionately against the black community. The state is also used to attack the left and the labor movement. This isn’t just a historic question. There were arrests of longshore workers’ leaders in the Longview, Washington battles of 2011-2012. There have also been full-scale raids of plants during unionization drives in recent years, deporting Latino activists to try to break attempts at organization.

However, there are also some police officers who feel conflicted about their role. There were clearly divisions among police in New York in the wake of Eric Garner’s killing, where white cops are now a minority of patrol officers. Therefore, the slogan, especially yelled by white protesters “How do you spell racist? NYPD!” can be out of place. Socialists seek to mobilize ordinary people against the organized violence inflicted by capitalism while also trying to connect with consciousness where it is at in a way that can help to exacerbate splits in the state machinery.

We have called for elected civilian boards with full powers over the police as opposed to the toothless oversight bodies which exist in a number of cities today. This can be widely taken up by other activists and also give a concrete expression to the desire to put a check on the cops’ violence. This isn’t our full program on public safety, but it points in the direction of dulling the sharpest negative effects of the capitalist state while pushing for the maximum democratization of policing and public safety.

The dual role of the police as capital’s protection while also playing a role in maintaining public safety leaves many confused about how to take this issue up. In this context, especially in high crime working-class areas, the blanket slogan “Disarm the Police!” will not strike an echo beyond isolated activists. In situations of more advanced struggle, we would point to more far-reaching challenges to the capitalist state. Also calls to shut down notorious racist and corrupt police precincts can under some circumstances strike a chord but not without explaining how public safety could be ensured.

Marxists cannot be light-minded about slogans. We must seek to raise consciousness, stand out as a pole of attraction, and win people to our banner but also to connect with current moods in different sections of the working class. We must do all of this while pointing towards challenging capitalism and various aspects of its domination.

The Struggle for Socialism

Socialists must also understand that the movement has a strong anti-party or anti-organization mood, but we can overcome this with an audacious approach to putting forward our program.

This mood will not remain the same. Consciousness is never stagnant; it leaps forward and backward based on events and the class struggle. The Indignados movement and the rise of Podemos in Spain is an important current example of often quick reversals of “anti-politics” ideas based on experience and struggle. We must be humble, listen and prove ourselves to activists and families involved in the struggle against police violence. We participate in the spirit of solidarity but we affirm and state clearly our socialist ideas with proactive proposals and a strategy to take the movement forward. We are armed with the most powerful method of struggle and action – Marxism.

Our program is rooted in the experience of the working class and the oppressed. Genuine Marxism and internationalism will speak to the far thinking elements in the movement. We must aim to win the best and brightest of the movement to our ranks. We have advanced demands for community control of the police and economic justice, for guaranteed quality jobs with a $15 an hour minimum wage. Issues around education, housing, prisons, the death penalty, the environment, women’s rights and immigrant rights will also be a powerful way to broaden the movement out to the wider layers of the working class and poor.

The movement today is led by youth of color, and socialists must continue to encourage that development while still actively engaging in the battle of ideas to take the struggle forward. Marxists advance the need for working-class unity that is multi-racial, democratic, accountable, and politicized, learning the lessons of the historic radical black freedom movement.

The BLM movement opens a new powerful chapter. The previous radical black freedom movement always had powerful anti-capitalist, socialist, and internationalist currents. Today black and Latino youth are increasingly open to the ideas of socialism and Marxism. Let’s engage this movement with confidence, armed with our ideas and the lessons of history. The struggle of the multiracial working class for socialist change is the beginning of overcoming racial division. Overthrowing capitalism cannot end all aspects of racism overnight, but it can do away with the exploitation that lays the basis for class society’s divide-and-rule approach. There is no other road. Black liberation can only be won through the socialist transformation of society.