By Yuri Prasad
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Why we defend the right to self-defence

Socialists back the right of self-defence for the oppressed and exploited everywhere
Issue 2905
Armed members of the Black Panther Party

Armed members of the Black Panther Party (Picture: CIR Online on Flickr)

 
When the slogan “self-defence is no offence” rang through the streets of 1970s Southall and Brick Lane in London, it was an echo of a call made regularly in the United States.
 
There, black people in the Marxist group, the Black Panther Party For Self-Defence, had in the mid to late 1960s organised themselves against systemic police violence.
 
US cops acted with impunity. They knew they would never be held to account for the countless times they beat up black people because they had the backing of those in authority. 
 
But in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, a new mood swept cities in the North. Black people refused to take state violence any longer.
 
The Black Panthers organised armed patrols of the police when they entered black areas.
 
The group would ride with their shotguns poking out of their car windows and tail the officers until they left.
 
News of the tactic spread like wildfire and soon it was emulated across the US.
 
So, in late 1960s Britain, when fascists groups began targeting Asian people, there was already a model for resistance.
 
Starting in Gravesend, Kent, groups of young Asian people mounted patrols to keep the fascists out of their areas.
 
By the late 1970s, a similarly-based Asian Youth Movement had spread to many parts of Britain.
 
But the cops were not about to let Asians determine their own defence.
 
They sought to criminalise the movement, preferring to arrest Asians protecting each other, rather than arrest the National Front and British Movement fascists.
 
This was the context for the great slogan, “Self-defence is no offence”.
 
It became a rallying cry for those that fought back against racism and was deemed so vital that it became part of Socialist Worker’s Where We Stand column.
 
Socialists then and now have a duty to stand with all those that use physical measures to defend black and Asian people from racist attacks. 
 
This is part of a broader understanding that the oppressed and exploited everywhere have the right to use any means they deem necessary to advance their liberation.
 
The later experience of the Black Panthers though was to send a warning that there were limitations to such “community defence” strategies.
 
The US state was astonished when the Black Panthers first applied their new tactic in California. But it soon caught up.
 
The cops and FBI internal security forces made black revolutionaries their number one target. And they used massive state violence to smash the Black Panthers.
 
The cops killed its leaders with targeted assassinations while the courts jailed others for “crimes” they had never committed.
 
Eventually, the group cracked under the weight of state repression.
 
Some revolutionaries drew the conclusion that it was impossible to fight the system.
 
Instead, they argued, activists could change it from the inside. But a minority drew a very different conclusion.
 
In Detroit, an African-American socialist group, based in the city’s car plants, built among black workers.
 
The aim of the Revolutionary Union Movement, as it became known, was to use the particular power of the working class to force change on the racist system.
 
Strength on the factory floor could be turned into strikes, and that was where real power lay, it argued.
 
When the group called walkouts, it was able to shut down car production and hit profits hard.
 
This radicalism spread to the black working class across the city.
 
It was much harder for the police and the state to break the strikes than it had been to assassinate the Black Panthers.
 
Every action by the cops risked spreading the strikes from one car plant to another, thereby threatening the profits of the entire industry.
 
Socialists today continue to stand by the self-defence slogan, and defend everyone that fights racism, regardless of the tactics they adopt.
 
But we can also learn from the US black liberation struggle that in the battle against the system organised workers are our strongest battalion.
 
This is the 12th of a series of columns that discuss What We Stand For, the Socialist Workers Party statement of principles, printed every week in Socialist Worker. For the full series go to tinyurl.com/WWSF2024
 

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