By Mya Shone and Ralph Schoenman (on behalf of the Socialist Organizer National Organizing Committee)
Mass protests have erupted in Minneapolis, Kentucky, and throughout the United States as the pent-up rage against the police murder of Black men and women no longer can be contained by callous offers of “justice” and adjustments in police procedure. Four hundred years of slavery and institutional racism provide a legacy of failed promises and change.
On Monday, May 25, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, together with three police accomplices, brutally murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, after Floyd already had been handcuffed with his arms behind his back and pinned to the ground. For almost nine minutes, Chauvin, using his full body weight, dug his knee into Floyd’s neck and slowly choked him to death.
Captured on video by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, the harrowing desperate pleas of George Floyd resonated throughout the United States. “Please, I can’t breathe,” Floyd called out repeatedly as he gasped for air. “My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts me. Please, please I can’t breathe, officer. Don’t kill me!”
As Floyd’s cries of “I can’t breathe,” brought back memories of Eric Garner, a 43-year old Black man who died in 2014 after a New York City police officer strangled him with a choke hold, so, too, was the expectation that yet more police officers would get away with murder.
Although the four Minneapolis police officers were fired soon after Floyd’s death, it took five days, despite multiple compelling videos from many angles, for the Hennepin County District Attorney to arrest and charge Chauvin with third-degree murder, in which intent does not have to be proven. Third-degree murder, a category that exists in only three states, including Minnesota, is punishable with a maximum of 25 years imprisonment. The Floyd family and the community-at-large had pressed instead for the more onerous first-degree murder charge which would have been imposed automatically had a police officer been killed. Those convicted of first-degree murder face life in prison.
Chauvin was charged as well with voluntary manslaughter which has a maximum penalty of 15 years. State charges have yet to be filed against the other three officers. As Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, explained on MSNBC (05/29/20), even with these charges there still remains a long road to conviction and actual punishment.
Police killed 1,099 people in 2019 as they have during each of the last four years. Twenty-four percent, almost one in four of those killed by police, are Black although Blacks comprise only 13%, one in eight, of the U.S. population. The prospect of police being charged for these deaths, let alone convicted of them, is rare. Only one percent of killings by police resulted in officers being charged with a crime. This means that more than 99% of police officers who kill someone go scot free, essentially providing a license for police to kill, especially Blacks and other people of color in the United States.
Breonna Taylor was a Black woman who worked as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) in Louisville, Kentucky. She worked long shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic to save lives. On March 13, the 26-year old was killed in her apartment, shot at least eight times by Louisville police officers, after the police stormed into her apartment while executing a “botched” search warrant for someone who did not even live in Taylor’s apartment complex.
None of the officers involved have been charged in connection with the shooting. Protests of increasing breadth have developed in Louisville despite the risks for large group gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s a revolt against a system in which people have felt oppressed,” said Keisha Dorsey, a Louisville Councilwoman. “What I’m seeing,” Dorsey stated, “is people who are trying their best to do something with their hurt, their pain and their frustration.”
Poster signs with “Am I Next?” express the fear of youth in Minneapolis as well as the anxiety of their parents. “Black lives remain expendable,” is the title of the Washington Post’s Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Eugene Robinson’s article on May 28. “Stop treating African Americans like human trash,” declared Robinson, “and start treating us like citizens.”
Black lives, as well as those of the entire working class, will remain expendable and living conditions worsen as long as capitalism – the private ownership of the means of production – prevails. Capitalism creates ever-deepening exploitation of the working class, particularly those from racially oppressed communities. As it is evident for all to see, the ruling class pits people against each other through its efforts to maintain power. Local police, as well as the National Guard, serve to preserve that power.
Lynne Anderson wrote in The Conversation (06/04/19) about “the racist roots of American policing.” She cites specifically the slave patrols, which were squadrons made up of white volunteers empowered to use vigilante tactics sustaining slavery. The patrols hunted down enslaved people who had escaped, crushed uprisings led by the enslaved people, and punished enslaved workers found to have violated plantation rules. Slave patrols were dissolved formally after the Civil War ended but for many Black activists today’s metropolitan police serve the same function.
This must change and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) with over 200,000 members made its response to the police killing of George Floyd abundantly clear. ATU International President John Costa stated that, “Minneapolis bus drivers — our members — have the right to refuse the dangerous duty of transporting police to protests and arrested demonstrators away from these communities where many of these drivers live.”
Then, in their own letter of solidarity with the protestors, the Minneapolis bus drivers of ATU Local 1005 marked a way forward: “This system has failed all of us in the working class from the Coronavirus to the economic crisis we are facing. But this system has failed People of Color and Black Americans and Black youth more than anyone else. More than ever we need a new Civil Rights Movement. A Civil Rights Movement,” explained ATU Local 1005, “that is joined with the labor movement and independent of the corporate establishment’s Political parties so all workers from every religion, race and sexual identity can struggle together for a better future for people of color and for our collective liberation as working people — for economic justice, racial justice and the end to all oppression and hate in all its forms.”
In 2013 youth activists founded Black Lives Matter in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer (17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot fatally as he walked in a gated community in Florida where he was visiting someone). Black Lives Matter planned specifically “to build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the State.”
In 2014, in the aftermath of the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, the Black Left Unity Network stated in their discussion paper “Why Rebuild the National Black Liberation Movement?!” — “The system of national oppression has not ended; we do not live in a post-racial democratic society where the problems of Black people are mainly the failures and faults of the individual and not the system of national oppression as a structure of systemic capitalism. …”
Let us note that the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, along with the modern vigilante murders of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery (25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was hunted by three men and murdered as he jogged through a South Georgia neighborhood.), like the thousands of killings and millions of incarcerations of Black people over the past decades, have all been carried out with the complicity of the Democratic and Republican parties and their bipartisan institutional framework.
The spate of murders of Black men and women in the last few months as well as the preponderance of COVID-19 deaths in Black communities across the country thrust once again onto the political agenda the fight for an independent Black worker-led political party that can address the explicit issues of national oppression.
We, in Socialist Organizer, agree that in the United States a specific dimension of the class struggle involves the question of Black self-determination and Black nationalism. We support the construction of an independent Black working-class party and see it linked to the struggle to build an independent mass working class party rooted in the unions and communities of the oppressed.
Nnamdi Lumumba, convener of the Ujima People’s Progress Party, expressed the articulation of the commonality in the struggles for the creation of a Black working-class party and for a Labor-based party when he stated that “We need to organize people around their own class interests and their own interests as nationally oppressed people. … Having said that, we need to create a mass-based working-class party that says capitalism does not serve you, imperialism does not serve you, and racism does not serve you.”
A step on that road is the “Break the Grip of the Two-Party System” in July organized by the Ujima People’s Progress Party, Labor and Community for an Independent Party and the Labor Fightback Network. What is needed more than ever is for organizations of oppressed communities and their activists, along with union locals, such as ATU Local 1005, and labor and worker militants to participate in the organizing effort for the July conference.
The intent of the conference is to form labor and community coalitions that can run candidates at the local and state level. These candidates — mandated by local labor-community coalitions independent of the Democratic Party — along with the coalitions themselves, will fight for the demands contained in fightback platforms, such as expressed by ATU in its statement when it said: “We say ‘NOT ONE MORE’ execution of a Black life by the hands of the police. NOT ONE MORE! JUSTICE FOR GEORGE FLOYD!”