United States: Police shooting of Jacob Blake intensifies racial reckoning

The contrasting treatment by the police of the white vigilante and Jacob Blake make clear the double standard of “race” and racism in the United States.

And I contend that the cry of “Black Power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro.

I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.

— Martin Luther King jnr, in response to a frequent question asked by reporters in 1966.

Once again, a young Black man was shot in the back by a white cop — this time in the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, about 65 kilometres north of Milwaukee, where the majority of African Americans in the state live.

The man, Jacob Blake jnr, was intervening in a street dispute between two women on August 23.

The cops arrived and immediately challenged Blake. Two of them shot tasers at him. When he walked to his car, where his three young boys aged 3, 5 and 8 years sat in the back seat, the white cop grabbed his shirt and fired seven shots at his back with four hitting him. Afterwards, the cops said Blake had a knife on the car’s floorboard.

Bystanders yelled at the cops throughout the conflict. The cops did not care. A person with Black skin is, by definition, a “threat” to safety.

Blake survived the shooting. He lies in a hospital, paralysed from the waist down. His spinal cord was shattered. When his father, Jacob Blake snr saw him, he reported that Blake’s leg was shackled to the bed because of an outstanding misdemeanour warrant.

After an outcry, the shackles were removed, and the warrant was set aside.

Blake grew up in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His family were community activists and his grandfather was a leader of the fair housing fight in the 1960s.

Blake’s family said he moved to Kenosha for a fresh start. He was employed and had a young family. Kenosha is 10% African American, with a population of nearly 100,000 people.

Immediately after the cop shooting, the streets were filled with protesters. The Black Lives Matter movement is strong in the area. Whites and Blacks demanded the cop be arrested and prosecuted. The protests were peaceful.

A few people did carry out property vandalism in the evening. As has occurred in other cities, some of these people could have been pro-police white provocateurs, who came to Kenosha to incite a “race war”. A Facebook post had called on white extremists to come to Kenosha.

Quickly, solidarity protests spread to Milwaukee and across the country, from New York City to Oakland, California. Signs read: “Justice for Jacob” and “Time for change is now”.

The cops reacted with excessive force against peaceful demonstrators. President Donald Trump tweeted in support of the police and called the BLM demonstrators “thugs”.

White vigilante killer

Yet, when a group of armed white vigilantes arrived in Kenosha to “defend” property from the “rioters”, the police welcomed them and passed out bottles of water.

One was a 17-year-old white man, Kyle Rittenhouse, from the nearby town of Antioch, Illinois. He carried an AR-15 long rifle. He joined other white supremacists and the heavily armed police.

The white vigilante then shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26 and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and injured Gaige Grosskreutz. The police watched the murders and did nothing. They allowed him to drive home and sleep in his own bed.

After public outrage — the killings were filmed — the Illinois police arrested Rittenhouse. The prosecutor in Wisconsin charged him with first degree intentional homicide and five other counts of murder.

Rittenhouse’s lawyers won a 30-day delay of his extradition hearing to prevent his immediate relocation to Wisconsin. They claim he acted in self defence.

The Kenosha police chief said the protesters were at fault for being out on the streets past curfew. The white nationalist murderer was a “victim”, according to the far right.

The contrasting treatment by the cops of the white vigilante and Blake make clear the double standard of “race” and racism in the country. Skin colour is the decisive factor for the cops. The white man is a legitimate “American” and the Black man is less than human.

Blacks understand that skin colour defines who a “real” American is. White skin colour has advantages that even new white immigrants know. Blacks — rich, poor, famous or not — are treated differently than whites.

President Trump visited Kenosha on September 1 to meet with and praise the cops. He visited some damaged businesses. He refused to contact Jacob Blake's family or the families of the two white protesters killed by the white vigilante. Both Huber and Rosenbaum are residents of Kenosha, unlike the killer from Illinois. Trump said the vigilante had to defend himself — the line of the far right.

Sports take a stand

In an unprecedented response to the Kenosha shooting and Trump’s racism, top sports players and leagues reasoned with work stoppages.

In the National Basketball Association’s “Bubble” (a secure location to  mitigate the pandemic), the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their August 26 first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic in protest against the shooting.

Later that day, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association announced that, in light of the Bucks' decision to refuse to play, all NBA games for the day were postponed.

LeBron James, the superstar of the Los Angeles Lakers put it bluntly: “I’m afraid.

“People get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified.”

On August 26, the Major League Baseball game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds was postponed in protest. On August 27, seven MLB games were postponed in protest.

On August 26, Major League Soccer players boycotted five games in a collective statement against racial injustice.

All six Women’s National Basketball Association games scheduled for August 26 and August 27 were also postponed. Players from the Washington Mystics wore white T-shirts printed with seven bullet holes on the back, in honour of Blake.

The National Hockey League announced the postponement of their four playoff games for August 27 and 28. The NHL has only a few Black players,

In tennis, the 2020 Western and Southern Open announced that all matches scheduled for August 27 would be rescheduled for the following day, after Naomi Osaka threatened to boycott her semifinal. Osaka’s father is Haitian.

57th anniversary march

Tens of thousands of people marched and rallied at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, on August 28, under the banner “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks”, in reference to George Floyd’s death.

The date marked the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March for Racial and Economic Justice, when Martin Luther King jnr (MLK) gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“We must never forget the American nightmare of racist violence exemplified when Emmett Till was murdered on this day in 1955, and the criminal justice system failed to convict his killers,” MLK's son, Martin Luther King III, told the rally.

“Sixty-five years later [after Till’s murder], we still struggle for justice — demilitarising the police, dismantling mass incarceration, and declaring as determinately as we can that Black lives matter,” he said.

Family members of victims of police killings and shootings, including Blake’s father, spoke. Blake snr spoke the obvious truth: “There is two systems of justice: One for whites and one for Blacks.”

Reverend Al Sharpton, whose civil rights organisation, the National Action Network, planned the commemoration, had a message for naysayers of public protests against police violence.

“Some say to me, ‘Rev Al, y’all ought to denounce those that get violent, those that are looting,’” Sharpton said. “All of the families [of victims of police and vigilante violence] have denounced looting. What we haven’t heard is you denounce shooting.

“We will speak against the looting, but when will you speak against wrong police shooting?”

Many speakers focused on demands to arrest the cops and prosecute them. Others emphasised the need to vote in the presidential election on November 3.

Local BLM leaders stressed that mass protest is the primary way to make change. In fact, the modest reforms made to date have been because of the movement.

The white backlash, led by Trump, his enablers and the white vigilantes he inspires — including the white Kenosha killer — is happening.

A group of protesters who were marching from Milwaukee to the August 28 protest were shot at in rural Pennsylvania by a white gunman.

According to the York Daily Record: “The activists were at the Hampton Inn in Bedford Township … when a man allegedly showed up and began firing a gun, according to state police.”

The shootings and attacks by cops and vigilantes are just beginning. Trump and his followers seek more violence to justify his re-election.  The stakes are high. The white “racial” majority and its hardcore supremacist wing rejects a country based on democratic rule by all citizens — not just by and for whites.

What next?

The three cops involved in the Blake shooting have been put on paid administrative leave. The law in Wisconsin immediately sets up an “independent investigation” that reports to the Kenosha district attorney (DA) to decide if charges should be filed. The local DA works closely with the police.

Blake may face charges for resisting the cop who shot him. Despite having his misdemeanour charges set aside after he survived the cops’ murderous attack, the police and the right-wing media have emphasised his alleged “crimes”.

“Such allegations are common and a patently unfair response to tragic events that need to be corrected,” said Northeastern University School of Law professor Daniel Medwed.

In every case of cop brutality, shootings and murder, the victim’s alleged crimes and flaws are used by the cops to justify their violence.

"So many people have reached out to me, saying they're sorry that this has been happening to my family," said Letetra Widman, Blake’s sister. "Well don't be sorry, because this has been happening to my family for a long time, longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till - Emmett Till is my family. It happened to Philando [Castile], Mike Brown, Sandra [Bland]."

"I don't want your pity, I want change."

Trump’s re-election strategy is simple and deadly: to mobilise and win the white electorate, which remains 67% of the population, and suppress the votes of non-whites. White fear has worked in previous elections.

What the Black Lives Matter movement shows is that only popular struggle, strikes and mass action can turn back the racist white nationalist forces. The ruling class must decide if racial conflict is its solution.

As history teaches us, rebellions work.

[This article was updated on September 2.]

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