Letter from the US: Police killings spark new, growing movement

Thousands demonstrate in Washington on December 13 during the national Justice For All march.

The struggles against police murders of African Americans have spread nationally since the events in Ferguson, Missouri last August, when the police murder of an unarmed Black teenager sparked angry protests.

A nascent new movement of Black people is being formed, with young Black women and men in the vanguard.

A racist backlash centring on defense of the police, a reactionary counter-movement, has also developed, which has strong support in the ruling class.

The next period will feature a political struggle between these two opposed forces. One side is defending the status quo, and the other is fighting for justice and an end to police violence.

In the course of this struggle, it is likely that some of these new leaders will come to see their struggle as part of a wider fight against the system as a whole.

The protests that erupted in Ferguson in response to the police murder of Michael Brown marked something new.

There had been protests against police violence against young Blacks before, such as the case of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California in 2009 and the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida by a police-connected vigilante in 2012.

Sustained protests

But the sustained protests in Ferguson and the militarised police response reverberated throughout the country with sympathy demonstrations. Police killings of Black youth became part of a national discussion.

The protests have made the slogans “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “No Justice, No Peace” well known. Recent protests have centred on the slogan “Black Lives Matter”, which echoes the “Black Power” demands of the 1960s that were proactive, not only defensive.

Such police killings are not new. A recent study has estimated that such incidents occur somewhere in the country every 28 hours.

In October, there were renewed mass actions in Ferguson and the St Louis region (Ferguson is a suburb of that city). It became clear that these actions were organised by African American youth in Ferguson.

These new leaders came out of the original Ferguson protests in August. But after those initial protests died down, these young people did not become inactive, but the opposite.

They began to organise groups of young leaders, and to lay plans for the October actions.

Many protests developed concerning similar killings in cities across the country, but one incident stood out. That was the December 3 decision by a grand jury not to indict police for strangling to death Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black man, in New York City earlier in the year.

Protests broke out, which culminated in a huge march in the city of about 30,000 on December 13. This was part of a national day of protests against police murders of Blacks that involved actions in many cities and towns.

The key organisers of the New York march were young African American women and men, uincludinf some interviewed on the Democracy Now! TV-radio show.

Washington march

On that day, about 10,000 also marched on the White House in Washington, led by Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN). A moving aspect of this action was the testimony of the parents of Brown and relatives of Garner, as well as of other victims going back some years.

In all these protests, “forgotten” victims have been recalled and honoured together with the recent and ongoing victims.

There was one incident at the Washington march that was indicative. That occurred when people in the crowd began demanding that young leaders from Ferguson be allowed to speak they were not on the official speakers’ list.

A scuffle ensued with NAN marshals initially blocking them from speaking. Finally, one young leader from Ferguson was allowed to speak, defusing the embarrassing confrontation.

The young Black women and men who have come to the fore in many of these actions have taken steps to bring in the established Black groups and leaders when possible.

At the same time, it is clear that this new layer of leaders refuses to be told what to do by the Black establishment, which is tied into the Democratic Party. “Sharpton doesn’t speak for us,” said one such young leader.

Sharpton, for his part, has spoken out on this issue and organised actions more than any other figure in the Black establishment, putting him head and shoulders above the rest.

At the same time, his objective is to try to keep this new movement within the confines of the Democratic Party. He is a public spokesperson for the Democrats on his TV show.

Observing the protests, another thing has become apparent. That is that young white people, not just the usual white radicals, are joining them.

From the start of this new wave of protests that started in Ferguson, there has been a racist backlash, evident in the right-wing media and the refusal to indict the killer cops.

Spearheading this new phase of the reactionary counter-movement have been the police and district attorneys. This was seen in Ferguson from day one, with police wearing on their uniforms “I am Darren Wilson” referring to the white cop who murdered Brown.

St Louis cops also demanded that Black football players for the St Louis Rams be disciplined for coming out on the field with their hands up in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture that has become ubiquitous in the protests.

The District Attorney for the St Louis region refused to indict Wilson and then organised a fake grand jury “investigation” to exonerate him. The same thing happened in the Eric Garner case.

This backlash took a bold step forward in reaction to the killing of two New York cops at the end of December.

Police reaction

When the two New York police officers were shot by a deranged Black man, Patrick Lynch, the head of the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association went on the offensive.

He blamed the new protest movement for the murders: “There is blood on many hands, from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers did every day.

“That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor.”

The attack on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was for remarks he made sympathetic to the protesters after Eric Garner’s murderers were exonerated. De Blasio also said he has cautioned his son, who is Black, on how to react when confronted by police.

Lynch's claims were then taken up by not only the right-wing media, but the “mainstream” too.

CNN, for example, replayed Lynch’s rant over and over. The funerals for the murdered cops were featured in hours-long live programming on the main news channels.

This was in stark contrast to the minimal coverage of the funerals for Brown and Garner let alone the many other victims of police violence.

Lost in the din is the fact that the person who shot the two cops had shot his girlfriend right before travelling from Baltimore to New York, had serious mental problems and never was part of any of protests against police killings.

The constant pounding of the pro-police propaganda in the capitalist-controlled media shows that powerful forces have decided to go on the offensive to blunt the protests against police killings.

This pushback is having an effect. De Blasio, for example, has stopped talking about police killings and practically trips over himself in praising police.

The cops, sensing blood, have increased their public displays of contempt for him.

The police killings are only one aspect of what has been called “institutionalised racism” in the US. (I prefer the Marxist term “national oppression” of Blacks.)

Just one statistic on the scale of the oppression: the average total wealth of white families is eight times the average wealth of Black families.

Front lines

The police are on the front lines of enforcing this national oppression, especially in the segregated Black communities. Their job is to continually harass and keep these communities in line.

The examples of the “crimes” of Brown and Garner that led to their deaths are cases in point.

Brown was committing the “crime” of not walking on the sidewalk when Wilson confronted him, shouting that he should “get the fuck off the street and onto the sidewalk”.

Brown, angered and offended, challenged Wilson, who gunned him down.

Garner had been regularly harassed by police for selling individual cigarettes on the street, the “crime” of not paying a few cents in taxes.

The day he was strangled, he wasn’t even selling “loose” cigarettes, but the cops harassed him anyway. When he protested, he was strangled to death.

Such harassment, usually falling short of murder, occurs thousands of times every day.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Associations are sometimes referred to as “unions”, even by officials of the labour movement. But they are an anti-worker force. One of their main jobs is to defend police against charges of brutality, and in the cases being raised, murder.

They are a force against the Black oppressed nationality, as is quite evident in the positions they are taking against the new Black protest movement.

[Barry Sheppard is a former leader of the US Socialist Workers Party. He is the author of a two-volume book The Party, on the social movements in the '60s and '70s and the role of the SWP, published by Resistance Books.]

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