“Hands up, don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” These slogans have emerged based on reports of the last desperate actions and words uttered by Michael Brown and Eric Garner before they died at the hands of the police in Ferguson Missouri and New York City in 2014. In the wake of these atrocities, a new movement, Black Lives Matter, was born and protests erupted across the US.
The often murderous harassment of black people is nothing new of course. Veteran rapper Krs-One’s brilliant 1993 track “Sound of Da Police” highlights the continuity in the role of plantation overseers and the modern police force:
Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity, check the similarity…
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has a right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest.
It was their militant opposition to police brutality that brought the Black Panther Party to prominence in the 1960s. In 1992 riots exploded across Los Angeles in the wake of the acquittal of police officers who had administered a savage beating to the black motorist Rodney King. On that occasion, anger was fuelled by the fact that the officers were exonerated despite the fact that their assault upon King had been filmed and broadcast.
The existence of footage documenting the everyday harassment of black people was rare in the 1990s but the proliferation of smartphones means that it is much easier to capture today. The very reason we know that Garner gasped “I can’t breathe” 11 times is because the incident was filmed by a passerby. Similarly, an onlooker’s camera proves that just 2 seconds had elapsed between his arrival and Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehman’s fatal shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice in November 2014.
Any hope that this increased surveillance might lead to a tempering of police behaviour has been misplaced. The Guardian newspaper now has a dedicated webpage called “The Counted” which logs people killed by the police. As I write these words in mid-September the figure for 2016 stands at 790, of whom 185 have been black men, a hugely disproportionate number. By the time you read this it will no doubt be significantly higher. Meanwhile, a state of emergency has been declared in Charlotte, North Carolina, following two nights of rioting over the latest shooting.
The death of Philando Castile in Minnesota at the beginning of July was one of the sparks for the latest round of protests. Castile, who had been ordered to stop for having a broken tail light, was shot dead while he sat in the car with his partner Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter. Reynolds recorded the aftermath of that encounter and streamed it live on Facebook. She can be heard politely saying, “Please officer, don’t say you just did this to him. You just shot four bullets into him sir.” Reynolds’s camera shows the officer Jeronimo Yanez still pointing his gun at the bloodstained and motionless Castile while shouting at her.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s excellent new book, From BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, examines the historical and political context in which such grisly encounters are routine. She suggests that “police murder and brutality are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the US criminal justice system” and observes that the “US accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” that “there are more than a million African-Americans in prison” and that “Black people are incarcerated at a rate six times that of Whites.”
Taylor’s book goes on to demonstrate how the treatment of black people within the US criminal justice system is the most gruesome aspect of an overall experience of marginalisation and exclusion. African-Americans are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts, the net worth of white households is 13 times that of black households and black life expectancy is four years lower than that of white Americans. In short, there has been a 25 year long period of increasing inequality.
Things were supposed to get better during the presidency of Barack Obama. It appeared as if he had broken the mold when he stormed to victory in 2008. His rallying cry “Yes we can!” captured the imagination, roused hundreds of thousands of young people into activity and swept him past the Democratic Party’s expected candidate Hillary Clinton and all the way to the White House. His election was supposed to mark the fulfilment of the dream of the Civil Rights Movement and the advent of a “post-racial” society.
Arguably the most poignant image on that historic night was that of a tearful Jesse Jackson, the man who had cradled the dying Martin Luther King in 1968 and who had himself twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination, among the ecstatic crowd in Grant Park, Chicago. As he soaked up the acclaim, Obama quite deliberately echoed the words of Dr King’s final speech when he declared:
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.” “This victory is your victory,” he said, and he acknowledged that, “You didn’t do this just to win an election. And I know that you didn’t do it for me.”
Fine words, but alas, as Taylor observes, the record of Obama’s two-term administration is deeply depressing. He has done little to arrest the long term divide. Since he came into office, black median income has fallen by 10.9 percent to $33,500 compared to a 3.6 percent drop to $58,000 for whites. Astonishingly, white median wealth (as opposed to income) is $91,405 compared to just $6,446 for African-American households.
Given such grim statistics, it is tempting to conclude that nothing at all has changed in the US and that the efforts of equality campaigners over the decades have all been in vain. The truth is rather more complex.
The activists who established and participated in the 20th century civil rights and Black Power struggles should not simply be applauded for their courage and self-sacrifice. The reality is that they fought for and achieved a great deal. The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) achieved its primary aim by forcing the federal government to pass legislation which formally outlawed racial discrimination.
Moreover, the struggle did not end there. Those activists did not naively believe that the passage of such legislation would deliver equality in itself. Arguably the struggle became more militant with the CRM growing over into a Black Power movement as activists fought for political representation, a fair share of public resources and economic empowerment. We should remember that Dr King himself died while campaigning for sanitation workers’ rights in 1968.
The outcome of those struggles was tangible. By the beginning of the 1970s, half of all black male and 60 percent of black female college graduates were employed in the public sector. In 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act, there were just 100 black elected officials across the whole of the country. By 1990 there were over 7,000. Nor were these simply the equivalent of parish councillors. As Taylor observes, “African-Americans were handed the keys to some of the largest and most important cities in the country: Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.” Significantly, between 1970 and 2006, the number of black households earning more than $100,000 increased from 1 percent to 9 percent.
In short, the struggle led to the development of a sizeable black middle class and political establishment.
In 1993 Ron Brown was nominated as Bill Clinton’s first commerce secretary. Having been Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the most powerful military positions under George Bush Sr, Colin Powell subsequently became George W Bush’s first Secretary of State. Powell served just one term before handing over to Condoleezza Rice, who incidentally had been a classmate of the four black girls murdered in the infamous 1964 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing. And then came Barack Obama, the president and also the most powerful military figure, the Commander-in-Chief.
The fact that the rallying cry of today’s movement is the rather desperate sounding “Black Lives Matter” speaks volumes. It is a damning indictment of those who have pioneered and profited from the strategy of putting “black faces in high places”.
A decade ago Obama seemed to recognise the constraints of elected office. As I composed these thoughts, I leafed through my copy of his 2007 book, The Audacity of Hope, and noted that I had underlined a passage where he admits, “I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all of them.”
Perhaps mindful of his own background as a community organiser in Chicago, Obama’s Grant Park speech seemed to hint at the need for his supporters to remain focused, organised and engaged. That all changed once he had been inaugurated. Instead of standing up for the poor and oppressed, he has bowed to the rich and powerful. Over $600 billion was used to bail out the banks that caused the 2008 financial crash. His supposedly landmark Obamacare health reforms were emasculated and the increased arming and militarisation of the police was authorised.
As he approaches the end of his presidency, Obama cuts an increasingly forlorn figure. He continues to trade tired cliches about the American dream while simultaneously pleading with the nation to take a long hard look at itself and address historical wrongs such as racism and gun crime.
He recognises the real concerns that have led to the BLM protests but is always quick to defend the police, condemn any violence on the part of demonstrators and call for respect for laws and their enforcers who discriminate against African-Americans. It would be churlish to lay the blame for this betrayal entirely at the feet of Obama. What Taylor demonstrates is how the “development of a Black political establishment had not been a benign process.” Instead, she argues, “Many of these officials use their perches to articulate the worst stereotypes about Blacks in order to shift the blame away from their own incompetence.”
It should be added that these officials have often been vociferously encouraged by “role models” such as the now disgraced comedian Bill Cosby.
Taylor’s assertion is certainly true, but as she herself acknowledges, it is not simply because of these officials’ own incompetence. If that were the case, one solution would be to replace them with others who are more able. The betrayal has persisted for decades however not simply because of the incumbents’ shortcomings but because their elevated status places them in a different class to that of their brethren.
Their control of local or national resources gives them a vested interest in the system and they have been only too willing to protect, serve and preserve the status quo. The anger of protesters has therefore been exacerbated by the fact that often the people immediately responsible for oppressing and denying them justice have been fellow black people, whether the officers on the beat, the chiefs of police departments, district attorneys, or elected mayors and governors.
The black faces in high places strategy has been thoroughly exposed and its failure raises urgent questions about the way forward. Some activists have chosen to take matters into their own hands, quite literally by arming themselves and seeking revenge against the police.
As the tragic demise of the Black Panthers demonstrated however, such vigilante action cannot offer a way forward. Instead the solution must lie in collective action and given that African-Americans make up just 13.2 percent of the population, they must look for allies. In a society as segregated as that of the United States, unity across racial lines is by no means automatic, but it is possible. From the communist led struggles in Harlem and Alabama in the early 20th century through to the civil rights and Black Power campaigns in the middle decades there are stirring examples of interracial solidarity.
Moreover there are compelling reasons why such unity is desirable. African-Americans have been dealt the worst hand, but working class Americans of all ethnicities have suffered. Three hundred and eighty seven white people and 130 Hispanics/Latinos have been among those slain by the police in 2016. Taylor cites a Huffington Post survey which reported that more than 19 million white Americans, double the number of blacks, fall below the poverty line. This figure has grown from 3 percent to 11 percent since 2000.
It is of course to this very cohort of justifiably angry Americans that the billionaire Donald Trump has pitched his bellicose appeal. He is buoyed by the fact that his Democratic opponent is deeply implicated in the policies that have failed them for so long. Working class Americans should reject such appeals, unite and fight their common enemy, the rich and powerful who oppress and exploit them all.
To that end, one of the most heartening aspects of the BLM protests has been the extent to which they have brought people from all racial backgrounds together. More broadly, the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders election campaign demonstrates that there is an audience for socialist ideas. As Obama’s presidency reaches its ignominious end, the people to whom he dedicated his victory must stay together and ensure that they don’t get fooled again.
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