Letter from the US: Ferguson a 'turning point', says Black Lives Matter activist

Protesters in New York last August show support for those struggling in Ferguson for justice for Michael Brown, a Black youth ki

Khury Petersen-Smith is a 32-year-old African American activist based in Boston, who is actively involved in the growing “Black Lives matter” struggle sweeping the US.

I was able to speak with Petersen-Smith, a member of the International Socialist Organization, at the Marxism 2015 conference organised by Socialist Alternative in Melbourne over Easter, at which he was a featured guest.

He told me: “There were some small actions in solidarity with the demonstrations in Ferguson that occurred when a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown [last August].

“But when a grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for the killing in November, the call went out for protests. That night there were thousands of people who mobilised in Roxbury, the heart of Boston’ Black community.

“There were other protests all around the city. That began a wave of protests throughout the fall. Every single day there were protests, whether hundreds of people or a few dozen high school students who walked out of classes, or some students from Harvard who did the same.

“The first call was put out by young Black radicals organised in Black Lives Matter Boston. Other groups of young Black folks formed.

“I would come home and find out that a high school group had organised a protest. The next day another protest would be organised, but that would be totally separate.

“Lots of high school and college students, who may or may not have influenced each other. How do we get these groups together is one of the tasks the movement faces.

“There was some level of organising nationally, conference calls. But for the most part it was local, spontaneous, in reaction to local police killings.

“In some cases, existing groups that had been working against police violence for a long time, initiated them. Others came into existence around the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was murdered by a racist vigilante, George Zimmerman, in Florida.

Ferguson

But Petersen-Smith said most emerged in the aftermath of the murder of Brown in Ferguson and the protests it provoked, saying: “What happened in Ferguson inspired people.

“There is a national recognition that in spite of what the politicians say, this is not just a Ferguson problem, this is an American problem, centered around local manifestations of police violence.”

Petersen-Smith highlighted the “Ferguson October”, centred on a national conference organised last October by young Black activists in St Louis, the Missouri city of which Ferguson is a suburb, which drew hundreds of people.

“That was an important moment that prepared the ground for the bigger protests in November,” he said. “I remember thinking, why go all the way to Ferguson, we have organising to do right here in Boston.

“What I didn’t understand then was that the experience of meeting those activists in Ferguson was a learning experience. They had produced organising tools, such as videos documenting how they organised in the Black community.

“I know activists from Boston who went to Ferguson, who put out the first calls for protest in Boston in November. That October gathering was really critical, for sure.”

The civil rights and Black liberation movements of the 1950s–70s overthrew the Jim Crow system of apartheid in the South and had major repercussions in the North. Petersen-Smith, however, sees a backlash against the gains of those struggles.

This includes attacks on Black voting rights and the gutting of affirmative action, as well as the false picture among many whites that the US is now a “post-racial” society.

“A key feature of racism in the US today is the denial that racism exists,” he pointed out. The election of a Black president is often cited as proof the US is now “post-racial”.

“It is true,” Petersen-Smith said, “that without the civil rights movement Obama couldn’t have been elected. But the election of a Black president did not end the oppression of Blacks.

“The effect of Obama’s election was mixed. On the one hand, there was the idea that ‘our guy’ is in so things will get better, we don’t have to mobilise.

“But the other side is that when things don't get better, the basis for the new movement to break out.”

One result of the civil rights movement was the growth of class divisions among Blacks. A new Black establishment has emerged, including Black politicians in the two capitalist parties, although mainly the Democrats.

“Those Blacks part of the Black establishment are part of the American establishment. Even Al Sharpton, who takes a more militant stance, is part of the American establishment. He plays a part in the administration, making dozens of visits to the White House to advise Obama.”

New oppression

On the other side are the great mass of Black people, who still suffer the same conditions they rebelled against in the 1960s. Also, there are now two new forms of oppression: mass jailings and police occupation of the Black ghettoes.

This is the framework in which the new movement has emerged, Petersen-Smith said. “This has to be put in the context of the facts of everyday life for the majority of Blacks – of course, the killings by the police, but also the higher levels of unemployment, poverty, infant mortality rates, lower access to health care and housing, mass incarceration.

“In the mass media, these things are never framed in political terms, but in terms of Black people bringing these things down upon themselves, that they are doing something wrong.

“The ideology that comes with mass incarceration and the war on drugs is that if you are branded a criminal, you don’t matter. Your schools are closed because you don’t matter, transit is cut in the Black communities because Black lives don’t matter.

“So the slogan of Black Lives Matter is a broad one, including the idea that Blacks deserve better education, deserve jobs, deserve to live in neighbourhoods that aren’t segregated, and so forth.

“The conservative response to Black Lives Matter is to say All Lives Matter or Blue [ie: police] Lives Matter, ignoring the prevalent ideology that Black lives do not matter.

“I grew up in the era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs, and it is hard for me to imagine a time when there wasn’t a mass police presence in the Black neighbourhoods. Now 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the US wildly disproportionately Blacks and Latinos.

“It’s not just the numbers in prison, but the numbers forced after prison to wear ankle bracelets, the numbers on parole or probation, trapped in the broader penal system.

“In many states, if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony, you lose the right to vote. In Chicago, 80% of Black men have lost the right to vote.

“Social control, repression and intimidation go along with mass incarceration. Blackness and criminality are linked in the dominant ideology to the point where if a cop kills a Black person, the immediate response is ‘What did he do wrong? What did she do in the past?’

“Part of the reality of daily police harassment and violence is people can get used to it. I’ve been stopped by the cops some 50 times. At some point, you learn how to talk to a cop, to try to avoid being arrested, beaten or shot.”

Racist reaction

There has been a racist counter-mobilisation to the new movement. “I think things are really polarised in the US,” Petersen-Smith said. “The movement on the one hand galvanised people against police terrorism. But it was also an opportunity for the other side to mobilise in an open way.

“When Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin, he received a great deal of support among the far right, but it wasn’t particularly public. But when Michael Brown was killed, there was a public rally by the Ku Klux Klan in St Louis. The cops wore armbands with ‘I am Darren Wilson’.

“In New York, the Police Benevolent Association mobilised against the protests of the police choking to death of Eric Garner. he head of the PBA publicly stated that the police were now ‘on a war footing’.

“Rallies defending the cops have been organised, including in historically white racist enclaves in Boston. There are people pulled to that side, and people pulled to our side, including whites.”

On the growing numbers of young whites have been joining the Black-led protests, Petersen-Smith said: “That is a trajectory that goes back to the Trayvon killing.

“Having already seen Trayvon’s killer get off, and then see Wilson get off, that had an impact well beyond Black people. In a small town of Westford, Massachusetts, which is 95% white, an 11-year-old white girl put out a call for a Black Lives Matter protest and 70 showed up.

“Among younger people generally, it has been noted that they have more progressive attitudes generally. Now this new movement has given a venue for these new attitudes among a section of young whites to express themselves.”

Petersen-Smith says one task for the young leaders of the new movement is to reclaim the legacy of 400 years of Black struggle. This includes analysing the role of racial oppression in the rise and maintenance of US capitalism.

This means drawing the need for the anti-racist struggle to become part of an anti-capitalist movement - the conclusion both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X in the '60s before were assassinated.

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