[On August 30, Alan Benjamin, editorial board member of The Organizer Weekly newsletter, and Nnamdi Lumumba, co-convener of the Ujima People’s Progress Party, met via zoom to discuss the meaning of the police shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the powerful resistance that emerged in response to the police terror. Following is a transcription of this discussion.]
Alan Benjamin: On August 23, Jacob Blake was fired upon by the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin — seven bullets in the back at point-blank range as he was getting into his car, his young children watching. He was unarmed. During one of the nights of outrage that followed the cop’s assault on Blake, who is now paralyzed from the waist down, a 17-year-old white supremacist shot two protesters and wounded a third. The Kenosha police ignored the killings and allowed the teen-ager to leave the scene, dancing in the street with a rifle over his head. This self-appointed vigilante is now being hailed as a “hero” and “national treasure” by white supremacists across the country. What does all this mean?
Nnamdi Lumumba: This is what’s been happening to Black people over the past 400 years. The police are the arm of the State charged with controlling working-class people, especially Black people. For too long the police terror against the Black community was dismissed, but now with the new technologies, we have been able to capture the police violence for all to see.
Before the police became a consolidated arm of the State, the Black masses suffered acts of terror from the general white populations misinformed by the ideology of white supremacy and racism. The end result has always been to contain and control the Black community, especially working-class and poor members of our community.
The Kenosha situation only exposes how deeply rooted colonial domination over Black people’s lives exists within the American capitalist socio-economic system. Not only is it acceptable for a police officer to shoot an unarmed Black man in the back seven times while his three children watch but an ordinary white citizen can be empowered to be armed and leave his own state to take to the streets where resistance to Black suffering is happening to shoot and murder anti-racists activists!
Benjamin: After the police killing of George Floyd, mass outrage erupted in more than 2,000 cities across the country. It has been estimated that between 15 million and 17 million participated in mass actions in the streets, despite the pandemic, against the police terror and systemic violence. There is now a new development in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake: the stance by prominent Black athletes against the cop-killings.
Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green expressed the feelings of NBA players and other athletes when he said:
“Making headlines is great. The attention has been grabbed. Platforms have been used to get the attention that we all wanted so desperately for such a long time. Now the next steps are more important than ever. But it cannot just be athletes; the next steps must come from the Black community as an entirety. The next steps must come from the white community that supports being a part of the change that Blacks have been suffering for hundreds of years! Now is that time.”
What is your assessment of the stand taken by Black athletes?
Lumumba: Generally speaking this is a positive sign of the strength of the movement. A generation before this, the Michael Jordans and Hershel Walkers of the sports world were careful not to address social contradictions of this magnitude.
Athletes standing up to use their platform and influence is significant. It must also be noted that athletes of today are not just making powerful statements. They took collective action as workers. They went on strike and withheld their labor power, which generates billions of dollars, and interrupted entertainment of millions of people, many of whom are reactionaries on the wrong side of racial oppression. They walked off the job to demand justice for all the victims of the police killings. More than 30 sporting events were canceled in the NBA, WNBA, MLB and NHL.
However, we also must remain mindful that even as these athletes are attempting to make a correct stance, their class influences and their inability to critique capitalism places limitations on how far this question can be deepened. This situation has now allowed athletes to be influencers over the working-class activists on the ground. During the 1960s, athletes were also compelled to stand up. However the strength of militant Black working-class organization did not propel athletes to position themselves as leaders. The athletes then functioned as subordinates to the greater struggle, and the on-the-ground organizers were the experts and pacesetters.
Similarly, unlike the 1960s — when you had powerful but mainly personal statements from Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, or John Carlos and Tommie Smith — you now have the entire NBA players’ union calling to cancel games and demand true change, not just cosmetic change. This is a union of millionaires with middle-class world views. Yes, as you point out, the general level of political consciousness and resistance is at such a high point that the basketball players are calling upon the working class and its organizations to take a similar stand, with labor actions against the police violence nationwide.
Benjamin: Important sectors of the labor movement, in fact, are responding positively to this challenge. A statement by a number of unions in support of Black Lives Matter is circulating widely. A full list of initial endorsers will be released September 1, but so far endorsers of the “Statement from the Labor Movement in Support of Work Stoppages for Black Lives” include SEIU HCII, SEIU Local 73, United Electrical Workers (UE), United Teachers of Los Angeles, Oakland Education Association, and the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Their statement reads, in part:
“Last week’s action by professional athletes … remind us that when we strike to withhold our labor, we have the power to bring an unjust status quo to a grinding halt. The status quo — of police killing Black people, armed white nationalists killing demonstrators, of millions sick and increasingly desperate — is clearly unjust, and it cannot continue.
“As unions representing millions of people, … we echo the call to local and federal governments to divest from the police, to restore the stolen wealth of the billionaire class, and to invest in what our people need to live in peace, dignity, and abundance: universal health care and housing, public jobs programs and cash assistance, and safe working conditions.
“Progressive labor leaders stood with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. We have a long history of supporting the Black Freedom Movement, and we will not stop now. The labor movement and the Movement for Black Lives are each other’s keepers, and we are ready to work together to do what we must to win justice for our people. We support the demands for racial justice echoing throughout this nation, and the simultaneous call for a more just economy. We will use our strength and influence to make sure organized labor is on the right side of history at this moment.”
Lumumba: This is a significant development. As organizations of the working class, labor unions have to reconnect to the issues of workers in their communities and not just their workplaces. It raises the urgent need for the labor movement as a whole to step up to the plate and mobilize in huge numbers against institutionalized racism. It also raises the point that anti-racism has to be linked to anti-capitalism. Capitalism is what drives racist policies; you cannot fix racism without addressing and defeating capitalism.
Benjamin: On Friday [August 28] tens of thousands of people converged on Washington, DC, to commemorate the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The families of Jacob Blake, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor led thousands who marched under the banner of Black Lives Matter. “We are tired of the mistreatment and the violence that we, as Black Americans, have been subjected to for hundreds of years,” said a press release for the march. “Like those who marched before us, we are standing up and telling the police, telling lawmakers, telling the people and systems that have kept us down for years, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’”
What is your assessment of this march?
Lumumba: The march and rally had contradictory features. It was well-attended, expressing the anger felt by millions of Black people who want fundamental change. Participants in the event made it clear with their hand-made signs that “Enough in Enough!”
The vast majority of those who attended the march are Black working-class and poor people. Black workers went to the march in hopes of hearing solutions and building unity that would empower the masses to push further with action that would transform our conditions.
But the overwhelming message from the organizers and politicians who addressed the rally was, “Get Out the Vote for Joe Biden in November!” In that sense, the rally speeches took the fangs out of the moment. The Black misleaders who organized the event function as junior partners of neo-liberalism; they are tied at the hip to the Democratic Party.
The Black middle-class leadership is impacted by the rise in political consciousness, like all segments of our community. They see the opportunity to push forward reforms, but only those endorse by the Democratic Party. This again points to the need to understand that the defeat of racism is intimately tied to the defeat of capitalism. The Black middle-class can’t be counted on to support or organize around the most militant and structurally challenging demands for changes to this system.
Benjamin: So what is the way forward?
Lumumba: The working class, especially the Black working class, has no business supporting the liberal wing of capitalism against the conservative wing of capitalism. Neither Democrats nor Republicans can provide real solutions to the movement for Black Lives. We need to struggle for working class power. As Black workers we need to build our own independent organizations to wage the struggle for national liberation. We need to define our relationship to the workers’ movement on our own terms.
The message coming out of the Biden campaign is arrogant to the core. We are told, essentially, that if we don’t vote for Biden and the Democrats we’re not Black. We have to break out of this lesser-evilism, which is still evil. We have to understand that the struggle of the working class against exploitation, just like the struggle of Black people for their liberation, must be a struggle against imperialism and capitalism.
Black, Brown and other oppressed nationalities must continue to build their own organizational capacity and center their struggle around the concrete realities we experience under U.S. capitalism and colonialism. The overall struggle of workers against international capitalism demands that we unite our efforts and that we have respect for comrades who are minorities in the U.S. front. Dialectically, we know that all workers do not suffer evenly under capitalism. Attempts to push forward working-class solutions that reduce the oppression of specific oppressed communities to generalized slogans and actions do not work. Just as Black workers should not allow our community to be taken advantage of and used as components of electoral strategies by the ruling class Democratic Party, we cannot allow a white working-class majority to relegate our struggle to an adjunct sector of the struggle against imperialism. Having Black and Brown independent working-class self-organization ensures that our interests will be heard and defended.