Category Archives: History
In 2019 Matthew Desmond wrote an article for the New York Times “1619 Project” that attributed the brutality of American capitalism to cotton-plantation slavery. There are many types of capitalist societies around the world, Desmond said, “ranging from liberating to exploitative, protective to abusive, democratic to unregulated.” America’s is what University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Joel Rogers calls “low-road. In a capitalist society that goes low, wages are depressed as businesses compete over the price, not the quality, of goods; so-called unskilled workers are typically incentivized through punishments, not promotions; inequality reigns; and poverty spreads.” The US ranks at the bottom in terms of trade union membership, regulation of temporary work arrangements, and ease of firing workers, often without severance pay. Desmond: “Those searching for reasons the American economy is uniquely severe and unbridled have found answers in many places (religion, politics, and culture). But recently, historians have pointed persuasively to slave-labor Southern cotton plantations as the birthplace of America’s low-road capitalism.
Slavery was a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not other parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s willingness to use violence to extract land from Native Americans and labor from African-American slaves. Slavery helped turn a poor, fledgling nation into a financial colossus and created specific economic methods still used today.
Before the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, enslaved workers grew more cotton than they could clean. The gin broke the bottleneck, making it possible to clean as much cotton as you could grow. The other problem with cotton, its quick depletion of soil, was solved by expropriating millions of acres from Native Americans, often with military force, acquiring Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida, then selling the land cheaply to white settlers. As slave labor camps [otherwise known as “plantations”] spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the US was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who built textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an ‘unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.’ Cotton planters, millers, and consumers fashioned a new global economy whose beating heart was slavery.
Everything you do at work these days is tracked, recorded, and analyzed. This quantification feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques were first developed by and for large Southern plantations during slavery. Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker, using both precise systems of record-keeping and the threat of vicious punishment for slacking. Overseers recorded each enslaved worker’s yield, not only after nightfall, when cotton baskets were weighed, but throughout the workday. Northern factories wouldn’t begin adopting these techniques until decades after the Civil War. During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3% a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked 400% as much cotton as his or her counterpart did in 1801. The technology that accompanies modern workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic, but it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought utmost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force. In most cases punishments were authorized by the higher-ups – it was the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was rational, capitalistic, part of the plantation’s design. Punishments were the worst when the price of cotton was high.
The cotton trade and the earlier trade in slave-produced sugar from the Caribbean accelerated worldwide commercial markets in the 19th century, creating demand for innovative contracts (including ‘futures’), novel financial products, and modern forms of insurance and credit. Enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America. In colonial times, when land wasn’t worth much and banks didn’t exist, most lending was based on human property. Enslavers weren’t the first to securitize assets and debts in America; the land companies that thrived during the late 1700s relied on this technique, too. But enslavers made use of securities to such an enormous degree for their time, that they created a globalized financial market. As America’s cotton sector expanded, the value of enslaved workers soared. Between 1804 and 1860, the average price of men ages 21 to 38 sold in New Orleans grew to from $450 to $1,200. Because they couldn’t expand their cotton empires without more enslaved workers, ambitious planters needed to find a way to raise enough capital to purchase more hands. Enter the banks. The Second Bank of the United States, chartered in 1816, invested heavily in cotton. In the early 1830s, the slaveholding Southwestern states represented almost half the bank’s business.
When seeking loans, planters used enslaved people as collateral. Thomas Jefferson mortgaged 150 of his enslaved workers to build Monticello. People could be sold much more easily than land, and in multiple Southern states, more than eight in 10 mortgage-secured loans used enslaved people as full or partial collateral. As the historian Bonnie Martin has written, ‘slave owners worked their slaves financially, as well as physically from colonial days until emancipation’ by mortgaging people to buy more people. Global financial markets got in on the action. When Thomas Jefferson mortgaged his enslaved workers, it was a Dutch firm that put up the money. The Louisiana Purchase, which opened millions of acres to cotton production, was financed by Baring Brothers, the well-heeled British commercial bank. A majority of credit powering the American slave economy came from the London money market. Years after abolishing the African slave trade in 1807, Britain, and much of Europe along with it, was bankrolling slavery in the United States. To raise capital, state-chartered banks pooled debt generated by slave mortgages and repackaged it as bonds promising investors annual interest. During slavery’s boom time, banks did swift business in bonds, finding buyers in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Some historians have claimed that the British abolition of the slave trade was a turning point in modernity, marked by the development of a new kind of moral consciousness when people began considering the suffering of others thousands of miles away. But perhaps all that changed was a growing need to scrub the blood of enslaved workers off American dollars, British pounds, and French francs, a need that Western financial markets quickly found a way to satisfy through the global trade in bank bonds. Here was a means to profit from slavery without getting your hands dirty. In fact, many investors may not have realized that their money was being used to buy and exploit people, just as many of us who are vested in multinational textile companies today are unaware that our money subsidizes a business that continues to rely on forced labor in countries like Uzbekistan and China and child workers in countries like India and Brazil. Call it irony, coincidence or maybe cause – historians haven’t settled the matter – but avenues to profit indirectly from slavery grew in popularity as the institution of slavery itself grew more unpopular.
Banks issued tens of millions of dollars in loans on the assumption that rising cotton prices would go on forever. Speculation reached a fever pitch in the 1830s, as businessmen, planters and lawyers convinced themselves that they could amass real treasure by joining in a risky game that everyone seemed to be playing. If planters thought themselves invincible, able to bend the laws of finance to their will, it was most likely because they’d been granted the authority to bend the laws of nature to their will, to do with the land and the people who worked it as they pleased. Du Bois wrote: “The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, kinglets.” What are the laws of economics to those exercising godlike power over an entire people?
In 1799 the state of New York passed the first of a series of laws that would gradually abolish slavery over the coming decades, but the investors and financiers of the state’s primary metropolis, New York City, invested heavily in the growth of Southern plantations, catching the wave of the first cotton boom. Southern planters who wanted to buy more land and black people borrowed funds from New York bankers and protected the value of bought bodies with policies from New York insurance companies. New York factories produced the agricultural tools forced into Southern slaves’ hands and the rough fabric called “Negro cloth” worn on their backs. Ships originating in New York docked in the port of New Orleans to service the trade in domestic and (by then, illegal) international slaves. As the historian David Quigley has demonstrated, New York City’s phenomenal economic consolidation came as a result of its dominance in the Southern cotton trade, facilitated by the construction of the Erie Canal. It was in this moment – the early decades of the 1800s – that New York City gained its status as a financial behemoth through shipping raw cotton to Europe and bankrolling the boom industry that slavery made. (In 1711, New York City officials decreed that ‘all Negro and Indian slaves that are let out to hire be hired at the Market house at the Wall Street Slip.’ It’s uncanny, but perhaps predictable, that the original wall for which Wall Street is named was built by the enslaved at a site that served as the city’s first organized slave auction. The capital profits and financial wagers of Manhattan, the United States and the world still flow through this place where black and red people were traded and where the wealth of a region was built on slavery.)
Speculation continued to drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it’s been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It’s the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs, and abusing the powerless. It’s the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929, and the recession of 2008 – the culture that’s produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism – a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs, and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but rewarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider – one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.”
You may think you understand history, politics, and economics, but a lot depends on who you’re reading or listening to. I just finished reading David McNally’s 2020 book “Blood and Money,” and I heartily recommend it for a thorough shakeup of your previous concepts. Turns out money really is the root of all evil! (No, it’s treating others like “others,” ’cause then you need to do rude things like insist that the items you’re exchanging be absolutely equal in value — as measured in monetary units. You might even want to steal their land, their stuff, or their bodies (enslave them). Did you know that slaves were the first major “goods” traded, back in the 700s BC?) If you don’t want to buy the book and wade through it yourself (McNally takes us from those early days to the present, with war and cruelty connected to economics all the way), I’m about to post my notes on it on this site under Resources/Books (top menu).
Believing that Trump chose Tulsa, OK and 6-19-20 as the place and time to kick off his 2020 presidential campaign deliberately, Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of American history at UCLA, described it in a 6-24-20 interview on The Intercept podcast as a “white rally,” opposing black emancipation, celebrated on Juneteenth, and mocking the killing of over 300 black Tulsans in “the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Choosing Tulsa wasn’t an accident. Just like choosing Juneteenth, June 19th, as the original date for this event wasn’t an accident. Tulsa has a very interesting story, not because of what we typically talk about – the destruction of the Greenwood community in 1921, which was a Black community often called Black Wall Street. After destroying this community, including hospitals, libraries, and churches, with the support of the police and deputized white men, the city interned 7,000 Black people in camps and held them there through the winter of 1921-1922. So imagine you’re rendered homeless and you’re forced into internment camps for the crime was being Black. Trump’s choice of Tulsa is a slap in the face to that history.
Juneteenth also represents emancipation as the date, June 19, 1865, when Galveston, Texas was occupied by the Union army and there was a declaration that slavery had come to an end. Juneteenth is a day of celebration of abolition, but also, historically, at least for the last century and a half, a day of reflection and organizing on the part of Black communities. There’s a long history of Juneteenth representing the opposite of what Trump tried to claim, and his trying to turn that date into a reassertion of his authoritarian rule.
Oklahoma as a whole is an interesting place for another reason, which is that the Homestead Act of 1862, a means of dispossessing Indigenous peoples, also created an opportunity to have all-Black towns, and Oklahoma had more all Black towns than any other state in the Union. Many of these towns were, like the Greenwood district, places of Black autonomy and economic independence, and they were subject to racial pogroms and violence. Many of them were razed, destroyed. So, in some respects, Oklahoma has been a battleground state between Black freedom and white supremacy for a long time. During the late 19thand early 10th century period of Black disfranchisement, Oklahoma was also one of those places where many poor whites were disfranchised. That’s something that few of the 6,000 people at Trump’s rally have an understanding of – that even in the framework of white supremacy, class rule can lead to the disfranchisement of poor white people.”
Scahill added that “at that same rally in Tulsa, Trump claimed that Democrats want ‘rioters and looters’ to have ‘more rights than law-abiding citizens.’ How is Donald Trump using that word ‘looters’ in this instance? Set it in the historical context of this country.”
“The tradition in this country has been to identify looting as criminal behavior, which justifies the state’s relentless use of lethal violence against episodic political violence by people trying to fight back or take advantage of a temporary crisis to try to get commodities. In 2020 this is happening in a context where over 40 million people have applied for unemployment. In the 1960s, the same question was posed. Why do people loot? The answer’s always wide-ranging: it’s economic, political, criminal, senseless, normative, deviant, all these things. But one thing that came out of the ‘60s articles on the subject became the prevailing theory of law enforcement. Looters were identified as hard-core criminals, thugs who just hadn’t been caught yet – an expression of latent criminal tendencies in Black communities rather than people acting during a lack of restraint or responding to a crisis. This became the basis of the broken windows theory, now repudiated, that ignored the structural racism creating horrific conditions in these communities, suppressing home values, and the divestment of services for working people, people of color, and the poor in urban communities. In some ways, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You create policies that quite literally kill people, deny them basic goods and services, deny them employment, deny them a livelihood, and then you police them at that level of desperation with a fascist structure of violence, rendition, and torture. You’re criminalizing a community rather than dealing with crime, allowing the police to function with almost no boundaries on the basis of a racist untruth. To me, that’s part of the story of looting. Another part is to flip the question of ‘What’s a looter? Who’s doing the looting?’ And what we’ve seen, often, is that it’s the system of racial capitalism.”
Scahill’s asked him to explain that term, and Kelley said, “Racial capitalism is the idea that capitalism isn’t distinct from racism, that racism is a by-product of capitalism, a way to divide workers. It’s a way to extract greater value from, say, enslaved people, Indigenous people, etc. But Cedric Robinson argued that the ground of the civilization in which capitalism emerges is already based on racial hierarchy. If you think of race as assigning meaning to whole groups of people, ideologically convincing others that some people are inferior to others, that some people are designed as beasts of burden, what you end up getting is a system of extraction that allows for a kind of super-exploitation of Black and brown people. Racial capitalism also relies on an ideology or racial regime that convinces a lot of white people, who may get the crumbs of this extraction, to support or shore it up, even though their own share of the spoils is minuscule.
If you think of capitalism as racial capitalism, you realize that you can’t eliminate or overthrow it without the complete destruction of white supremacy. The main function of the police is to protect capital, property of all kinds, including slaves. The whole system of policing is organized around property, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the violent acts of the police are supported by capital, which needs force to terrify people. When we look at the relationship between the cost of police, police budgets, and the amount of money being shelled out to settle police misconduct cases, we’re talking about billions. In my city, Los Angeles, $880 million was shelled out between 2005 and 2018 over police misconduct suits, wrongful death suits, these kinds of things. Why do we let that happen? Companies like Target and Walmart give money to police foundations to make sure the police are operable. Wall Street benefits from police violence. You’d think that capitalists trying to be as efficient as possible would say this has to stop. But imagine if you have a police force that’s not a terror force. A police force that says, ‘of course, labor has a right to strike and to occupy a workplace. Of course, people have a right to protest and to protest freely and engage in forms of civil disobedience that disrupts business as usual.’ That’s not going to work. And we allow ourselves to be mentally deputized, brainwashed into calling the police whenever we think something, however minor, is amiss. And, too often this results in police killing someone, most often a Black man. Part of defunding the police is a recognition that the police, as constituted, make life more dangerous for vulnerable populations even as it creates a false sense of safety for white people. Part of what we have to think about is, how do we get out of the habit, or the reflex, of calling the police to solve issues that should have evoked simple compassion, neighborliness, and other thoughtful responses. Unless we learn how to care for one another, we’re going to continue to have this situation where we call the police and the police continue to kill us.”
Scahill mentioned Kelley’s new book, Black Bodies Swinging, in which he wrote, “‘Reverend William Barber [one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign] is right – we’re living through a third Reconstruction, and the great rebellion of the summer of 2020 marks a moment of reckoning between real freedom and fascism.’ Can you expand on that?”
“There are two things I’m trying to deal with in this book. One is to amplify the fact that this generation of abolitionists have the most visionary conception of abolition in history. The first Reconstruction in the 1860s, an effort to expand social democracy to include everyone, faced a backlash, and was crushed under the weight of racial terror, Jim Crow, and disfranchisement. The second Reconstruction, responding to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, an attempt to expand the democracy we had to include all people, and deal with some of the social justice issues of housing and police violence, was based on the idea that the constitutional basis of our system was sound; we just had to tweak it to include everyone. This generation is saying it’s not sound and never has been. It’s been based on dispossession, white supremacy, and gender violence. This vision of abolition isn’t better jails, better police, and better training. It’s no police, no jails, and no prisons. It’s creating a new means of justice based not on criminalization, but affirmation and reparation – trying to repair relationships that have been damaged and destroyed as a result of five centuries of warfare against Indigenous peoples, Africans, poor white people, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Latinx populations. It’s an opportunity to transform not just the nation, but the entire world.
In the 1970s, after the second Reconstruction, the Klan was resurrected and the prison-industrial complex expanded – another backlash and retrenchment. After 2020, we’ll see either more fascism or true abolition. This is a very exciting time, and what the book tries to do isn’t so much predict what’s going to happen, but understand that 500-year history through the stories of particular individuals who have died over the last few years and recognizing what’s unique about the generation that’s emerged since the late 1990s.”
Scahill asked for Kelley’s “big picture thoughts on what that says about our society that Trump and Biden are the two major-party candidates at this moment in history.”
“It says something about the failure of electoral politics to solve this problem. Because, imagine a political conundrum that leaves us with the choice of going back to Clinton-era policies that stripped us of the protections of Glass-Steagall, expanded the prison-industrial complex, and criminalized immigration even further than before. Biden represents that, and if we see this as ‘elect Biden by any means necessary,’ I think we’ve lost. A continued Trump White House, with the backing of the apparatus of state violence, is a much more difficult place to fight these fights, but at the same time, I think that this radical generation sees that no matter who is elected, the fight has to continue because it isn’t just a fight to restore an old democracy, but to create a new one. We can’t silence the critique of Biden and the Clintons and Obama or continue to have a foreign policy built on war and drone strikes, the same kind of violence that’s replicated in the cities of the United States, in the Arab world, and elsewhere.”
Schahill then brought up Kelley’s “book from a couple decades ago, Hammer and Hoe, which tells the story of how in the 1930s and ‘40s, coming out of the Great Depression, Communists took on Alabama’s repressive, racist police state, and engaged in a battle not so different from the analysis that you’re offering now from this newer generation of radical abolitionists. I’m wondering if you could share with people an overview of that book, and share some of the stories that you researched and brought to life in it.”
“That book told the story of a party made up of overwhelmingly Black working people in rural areas, as well as in cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, who fought for the right to organize, for relief for the unemployed, against home eviction, and ultimately for democracy in the South and throughout the country. It preceded the civil rights movement and it had a vision of social democracy that even the civil rights movement didn’t. The Communist Party in Alabama had some white membership, and organized white working people. It actually tried to organize former Klansmen into the organization and got some in there. They saw themselves as a multiracial movement that could create a democratic, anti-capitalist society – true abolition for the entire United States, in solidarity with what they saw as a worldwide movement.
One of the things that made the Communist Party in Alabama different than, say, other movements was the confidence that they had that they were part of a global insurgency. I interviewed people, like a man named Lemon Johnson. When cotton pickers went on strike in 1935, he believed that any significant violence from the planter class would be met with the possibility of Stalin sending troops through Mobile, Alabama to protect them, to engage in class warfare against the planter class.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Communist Party of Alabama, but there’s also a lesson about how movements can be wiped out, and how their history can be destroyed, because by the Cold War, by 1948, though individual communists continued to do their work, the party wasn’t simply outlawed – it was crushed under the pressure of Bull Connor and his regime. We need to come to terms with that history, because I think that the best of this generation is an echo of that moment, and it proves to me, and this is a really important lesson, that anti-racism and class solidarity are not mutually exclusive. It shows the importance of fighting all forms of oppression – not just race and class, but gender oppression, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism – that none of these things can be separated off and left to the side, that a truly, fundamental abolitionist future requires that they all be held together. And the Communist Party of Alabama shows that that actually could happen.”
Scahill: “Arundhati Roy, the great Indian writer, described coronavirus as a portal, and I’m wondering what your assessment is of the racial capitalist system at this moment in an election year with this rebellion that shows no signs of ceasing, with Trump in power and with so many people having their lives and their livelihoods put in the sniper scope of the government and the pandemic.”
“The pandemic is a portal. And as a portal, it’s just an opening. And as an opening, nothing’s guaranteed, but it’s an opening because it exposed the structure of racial and gendered capitalism and the violence meted out to the people who are most vulnerable. The fact that people are already dying from Covid-19 and then dying from state violence, with the video of Ahmaud Arbery, for example, the killing of Breonna Taylor, that these kinds of things exposed both the underside of the health crisis, but also the top side of it – the continuation of racial violence, state-sanctioned violence. So when folks carry the sign around a protest saying “Stop killing us,” that’s a slogan we’ve been carrying for centuries. In some ways, it’s aimed at ending state-sanctioned racist violence, but also ending the violence of poverty, the violence of an unequal health care system, the violence of dilapidated housing, and the violence of economic strangulation. It’s not an accident that these things converge. The question is: What are we going to do in this portal? Do we have the political will to basically recognize the fact that all these conditions are inseparable, that with all these conditions, you can’t simply reform your way out of it? They have to be destroyed and a humane society created that cares about human beings and life itself, over wealth accumulation and property. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. But I don’t think many portals open up. And this particular portal wasn’t simply rendered open by Covid-19. It was rendered open by what Covid-19 revealed in terms of the contradictions of society that claims to be a democracy and claims to care about people, but actually cares more about property and wealth accumulation than the lives of the most vulnerable. Inequality was foundational to capitalism, and as long as we hold onto those ideas and as long as capitalism exists as a means of accumulating wealth through exploitation, those ideas aren’t going to go away. To me, this is not a matter of a kind of slight redistribution, like let’s give more crumbs to the poor. Nor is it about just ending poverty as we know it. It is about creating a structure of caring and repair in which we can all benefit from our labor and our kind of collective generosity and create a whole new ethos, not just for the United States but for the world.”
In Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of A Movement (2016), Angela Davis says (in an interview by Frank Barat in Brussels 9-21-14), “Ferguson is Gaza, and vice versa…The major challenge of this period is to infuse a consciousness of the structural character of state violence into the movements that spontaneously arise [against it]…I don’t know whether we can say yet that there is a movement, because movements are organized. But these spontaneous responses, which we know happen over and over again, will soon lead to organizations and a continual movement.
The use of state violence against Black people has its origins in colonization and slavery, [and] practices that originated with slavery weren’t resolved by the civil rights movement. We may not experience lynchings and Ku Klux Klan violence in the same way we did earlier, but there still is state violence, police violence, military violence…The civil rights movement was very successful in what it achieved: the legal eradication of racism and the dismantling of the apparatus of segregation…But racism persists in a framework that’s far vaster than the legal framework. Economic racism continues to exist, and racism can [still be] be discovered at every level in every major institution – including the military, the health care system, and the police.”
Asked about her advocacy for the abolition of prisons, Davis says, “The very existence of the prison forecloses the kinds of discussions that we need in order to imagine the possibility of eradicating [unwanted] behaviors. Just send them to prison…a violent institution that reproduces violence…so that when the person is released he or she is probably worse…
Abolishing the prison is about attempting to abolish racism. Why are so many prisoners illiterate? That means we have to attend to the educational system. Why is it that the three largest psychiatric institutions in the country are jails in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles: Rikers Island, Cook County Jail, and L.A. County Jail? That means we need to think about health care issues, especially mental health care issues. We have to figure out how to abolish homelessness…
Prison is a money-making business. They need prisoners, right? …A lot of people are in jail for really minor offenses…I think that you can say that all over the world now the institution of the prison serves as a place to warehouse people who represent major social problems. Getting rid of people, putting them in prison is a way not to have to deal with immigration in Europe. Immigration, of course, happens as a result of all the economic changes that have happened globally – global capitalism, the restructuring of economies in countries of the Global South that makes it impossible for people to live there. In many ways you can say that the prison serves as an institution that consolidates the state’s inability and refusal to address the most pressing social problems of this era…
[If you think of] prisoners as the objects of the charity of others, you defeat the very purpose of antiprison work. You are constituting them as an inferior in the process of trying to defend their rights. The abolitionist movement has learned that without the actual participation of prisoners, there can be no campaign.”
In an interview with Frank Barat on December 10, 2014 in Paris, Davis said, “We have to talk about systemic change, including perhaps establishing community control of the police. Not simply a review of actions in the aftermath of a crime by the police, but community bodies that have the power to actually control and dictate the actions of the police. That means addressing racism in the larger sense. It means also, looking at the ways in which police are encouraged to use violence as a first resort and the connection between this institutionalized violence and other modes of violence. In relation to Ferguson, especially, it means demilitarization of the police as a demand that needs to be taken up all over the country…
The way that society and the media portray Black people as potentially dangerous, potentially criminal…these stereotypes have been functioning since the era of slavery. Frederick Douglass wrote about the tendency to impute crime to color. This is true everywhere in a way. If you talk to someone who is of Moroccan or Algerian descent in Paris, they face pretty much the same stereotypes and fabrications as African Americans in the USA. Why do you think those stereotypes are fabricated? Is it a case of ‘divide and rule’ strategy? You know, racism is a very complex phenomenon. There are very important structural elements of racism and it’s often those structural elements that aren’t taken into consideration when there is discussion about ending racism or challenging racism…
Anyway I don’t think we can rely on governments, regardless of who is in power, to do the work that only mass movements can do. I think what is most important about the sustained demonstrations that are now happening is that they are having the effect of refusing to allow these issues to die…[In the struggle against racism] every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements – from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome. Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the part of slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army – both women and men – that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements – anchored by women, incidentally – that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today…
Movements require time to develop and mature. They don’t happen spontaneously. They occur as a result of organizing and hard work that most often happens behind the scenes. Over the last two decades I would say, there has actually been sustained organizing against police violence, racism, racist police violence, against prisons, and the prison-industrial complex, and I think that the sustained protests we are seeing now have a great deal to do with that organizing. They reflect the fact that the political consciousness in so many communities is so much higher than people think. That there is a popular understanding of the connection between racist police violence and systemic issues…I won’t say that there exists an organized movement because we haven’t yet reached that point, but there’s a powerful foundation and people are ready for a movement…
I think we learned in the ‘60s and ‘70s that mass movements can bring about systematic change. If one looks at all of the legislation that was passed, the Civil Rights Act, for example, the Voting Rights Act, that didn’t happen as a result of a president taking extraordinary steps. It happened as a result of people marching and organizing…
Certainly Black freedom in the narrow sense has not yet been won. Particularly considering the fact that huge numbers of Black people are ensconced in poverty. Considering the fact that a hugely disproportionate number of Black people are now in prison. But at the same time we have to look at Latino and Native American populations, and we have to look at the way in which anti-Muslim racism has thrived on the foundation of anti-Black racism…Increasing numbers of people associated with Black, Native American, and Latino movements [are also] incorporating Palestine into the agenda. I think I spoke in the last interview about the tweets of Palestinian activists used to provide advice for protesters in Ferguson, on how to deal with the tear gas…
I [also] think that feminism is not an approach that is or should be embraced simply by women but increasingly it has to be an approach embraced by people of all genders. We also need to do this with class, nationality, and ethnicity. I don’t think we can imagine Black movements in the same way today as we once did.
Can there be policing and imprisonment in the US without racism? At this point, at this moment in the history of the US, I don’t think that there can be policing without racism. I don’t think that the criminal justice system can operate without racism. Which is to say that if we want to imagine the possibility of a society without racism, it has to be a society without prisons. Without the kind of policing that we experience today. I think that different frameworks, perhaps restorative justice frameworks, need to be invoked in order to begin to imagine a society that is secure. I think that security is a[n important] issue, but not the kind of security that’s based on policing and incarceration. Perhaps transformative justice provides a framework for imagining a very different kind of security in the future.”
In a speech in London on 12-13-13, Davis said, “On any given day there are almost 2.5 million people in our country’s jails, prisons, and military prisons, as well as in jails in Indian country and immigrant detention centers. It’s a daily census, so it doesn’t reflect the numbers of people who go through the system every week or every month or every year. The majority are people of color. The fastest-growing sector consists of women – women of color. Many are queer or trans. As a matter of fact, trans people of color constitute the group most likely to be arrested and imprisoned. Racism provides the fuel for the maintenance, reproduction, and expansion of the prison-industrial complex.”
In a speech at Birkbeck University on 10-25-13, Davis said, “The historical significance of the Emancipation Proclamation is not so much that it enacted the emancipation of people of African descent; on the contrary, it was a military strategy. But if we examine the meaning of this historical moment we might better be able to grasp the failures as well as the successes of emancipation. I have thought that perhaps we were not asked to reflect on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation because we might realize that we were never really emancipated. But anyway, at least we might be able to understand the dialectics of emancipation, because we still live with the popular myth that Lincoln freed the slaves and that continues to be perpetuated in popular culture, even by the film “Lincoln.” Lincoln did not free the slaves. We also live with the myth that the mid-20th-century civil rights movement freed the second-class citizens. Civil rights, of course, constitute an essential element of the freedom that was demanded at that time, but it was not the whole story. Eric Foner, in his book called The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, wrote that, and I am quoting: ‘The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. The Proclamation also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage.’ And of course popular narratives about the end of slavery produced by the pronouncing of this emancipation document by Abraham Lincoln erase the agency of Black people themselves. But, there is something for which Lincoln should be applauded, I believe: that he was shrewd enough to know that the only hope of winning the Civil War resided in creating the opportunity for Black people to fight for their own freedom, and that was the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation. W. E. B. Du Bois defined the consequence of the Emancipation Proclamation as a general strike. ‘The Black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader, in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force.’ What Du Bois calls ‘this army of striking labor’ eventually provided the 200,000 soldiers, ‘whose evident ability to fight decided the war.’ These soldiers included women like Harriet Tubman, who was a soldier and a spy and had to fight for many years in order to be granted, later, a soldier’s pension.
In the 1960s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860s. The Ku Klux Klan and the racial segregation that was so dramatically challenged during the mid-20th-century freedom movement was produced not during slavery, but rather in an attempt to manage free Black people who would have otherwise been far more successful in pushing forward democracy for all. And so we see this dialectical development of the Black liberation movement. There is this freedom movement and then there is an attempt to narrow the freedom movement so that it fits into a much smaller frame, the frame of civil rights. Not that civil rights isn’t immensely important, but freedom is more expansive than civil rights.
As that movement grew and developed it was inspired by and in turn inspired liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australia. It was not only a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in society, but rather it was also about substantive rights – it was about jobs, free education, free health care, affordable housing, and also about ending the racist police occupation of Black communities. And so in the 1960s organizations like the Black Panther Party were created.
The Black Panther Party was anticapitalist! It demanded ‘decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings, and decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in present-day society.’ The Panthers also demanded ‘free health care for all Black and oppressed people; an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black people, other people of color, and all oppressed people inside the United States; an immediate end to all wars of aggression; freedom for all Black and oppressed people now held in US federal, state, county, city, and military prisons and jails; trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country; and finally, we want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace, and people’s community control of modern technology.’ What’s so interesting about this manifesto is that it recapitulates 19th-century abolitionist agendas, and of course the most advanced abolitionists in the 19th = century recognized that slavery couldn’t be ended by simply negatively abolishing slavery but rather that institutions had to be produced that would incorporate former slaves into a new and developing democracy. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, the program recapitulates abolitionist agendas from the 19th century, and it continues to resonate with respect to abolitionist agendas in the 21st century.
All around the world people are saying that we want to struggle together as global communities to create a world free of xenophobia and racism. A world from which poverty has been expunged, and the availability of food is not subject to the demands of capitalist profit. I would say a world where a corporation like Monsanto would be deemed criminal. Where homophobia and transphobia can truly be called historical relics along with the punishment of incarceration and institutions of confinement for disabled people, and where everyone learns how to respect the environment and all of the creatures, human and nonhuman alike, with whom we cohabit our worlds.”
In a speech given in St. Louis, Missouri on June 27, 2015, Davis said that “the call for public conversations on race and racism is also a call to develop a vocabulary that permits us to have insightful conversations. If we attempt to use historically obsolete vocabularies, our consciousness of racism will remain shallow and we can be urged to assume that, for example, changes in the law spontaneously produce effective changes in the social world. For example, those who assume that because slavery was legally abolished in the 19th century, it was thereby relegated to the dustbin of history, fail to recognize the extent to which cultural and structural elements of slavery are still with us. There are those who believe that we have definitively triumphed in the struggle for civil rights. However, vast numbers of Black people are still deprived of the right to vote, especially if they are in prison or former felons. Moreover, even those who did acquire rights that were not previously available to them did not thereby achieve jobs, education, housing, and health care. The mid-20th-century campaign for civil rights was an essential moment in our struggle for racial equality, but it’s important to develop vocabularies that help us acknowledge that civil rights was and is not the entire story. Such an analysis of racism would be helpful to those who are celebrating yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on marriage equality as if the final barrier to justice for LGBTQ communities had been surmounted. The decision was indeed historic, but the struggles against homophobic state violence, [for] economic rights, health care, et cetera, continue. Most importantly, if the intersectionality of struggles against racism, homophobia, and transphobia is minimized, we will never achieve significant victories in our fight for justice.
The inability to understand the complexity of racism can lead to assumptions, for example, that there is an independent phenomenon we can call ‘Black-on-Black crime’ that has nothing to do with racism. So, the development of new ways of thinking about racism requires us not only to understand economic, social, and ideological structures, but also collective psychic structures. One of the major examples of the violence of racism consists of the rearing of generations of Black people not now in possession of the education and the imagination that allows them to envision the future. This is violence that leads to other forms of violence – violence against children; violence against partners; and violence against friends…In our families and communities, we often unconsciously continue the work of larger forces of racism, assuming that this violence is individual and sui generis. If the popularization of more complex analyses of racism, especially those that have been developed in the context of Black and women-of-color feminisms, can assist us to understand how deeply embedded racist violence [is] in our country’s economic and ideological structures, these ways of talking about racism can help us to grasp the global reach of our struggles…
When we are told that we simply need better police and better prisons, we counter with what we really need. We need to reimagine security, which will involve the abolition of policing and imprisonment as we know them. We will say demilitarize the police, disarm the police, abolish the institution of the police as we know it, and abolish imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment. But we will have only just begun to tell the truth about violence in America.”
In a talk delivered at the University of Chicago on May 4, 2013, Davis said, “Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism – I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple feminisms, right? It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism, racism, colonialism, postcolonialities, ability, more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name. Feminism has helped us not only to recognize a range of connections among discourses, and institutions, and identities, and ideologies that we often tend to consider separately. But it has also helped us to develop epistemological and organizing strategies that take us beyond the categories “women” and “gender.” And, feminist methodologies impel us to explore connections that are not always apparent. And they drive us to inhabit contradictions and discover what is productive in these contradictions. Feminism insists on methods of thought and action that urge us to think about things together that appear to be separate, and to disaggregate things that appear to belong together. Now, the assumption has been that because transgender and gender-nonconforming populations are relatively small, why should they deserve so much attention? But feminist approaches to the understanding of prisons, and indeed the prison-industrial complex, have always insisted that, for example, if we look at imprisoned women, who are also a very small percentage throughout the world, we learn not only about women in prison, but we learn much more about the system as a whole than we would learn if we look exclusively at men. Thus, also, a feminist approach would insist both on what we can learn from, and what we can transform, with respect to trans and gender-nonconforming prisoners, but also it insists on what this knowledge and activism tells us about the nature of punishment writ large – about the very apparatus of prison. It’s true that we cannot begin to think about the abolition of prisons outside of an antiracist context. It’s also true that antiprison abolition embraces or should embrace the abolition of gender policing. That very process reveals the epistemic violence that is inherent in the gender binary in the larger society. So bringing feminism within an abolitionist frame, and vice versa, bringing abolition within a feminist frame, means that we take seriously the old feminist adage that ‘the personal is political.’
We can follow the lead of Beth Richie in thinking about the dangerous ways in which the institutional violence of the prison complements and extends the intimate violence of the family, the individual violence of battery and sexual assault. We also question whether incarcerating individual perpetrators does anything more than reproduce the very violence that the perpetrators have allegedly committed. In other words criminalization allows the problem to persist. And it seems to me that people who are working on the front line of the struggle against violence against women should also be on the front line of abolitionist struggles. And people opposed to police crimes, should also be opposed to domestic – what is constructed as domestic – violence. We should understand the connections between public violence and private or privatized violence. There is a feminist philosophical dimension of abolitionist theories and practices. The personal is political. There is a deep relationality that links struggles against institutions and struggles to reinvent our personal lives, and recraft ourselves. We know, for example, that we replicate the structures of retributive justice oftentimes in our own emotional responses. Someone attacks us, verbally or otherwise, and our response is what? A counterattack. The retributive impulses of the state are inscribed in our very emotional responses. The political reproduces itself through the personal. This is a feminist insight regarding the reproduction of the relations that enable something like the prison-industrial complex. The imprisoned population could not have grown to almost 2.5 million people in this country without our implicit assent. And we don’t even acknowledge the fact that psychiatric institutions are often an important part of the prison-industrial complex, nor do we acknowledge the intersection of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex. But the point I make is that if we had mounted a more powerful resistance in the 1980s and 1990s during the Reagan-Bush era and during the Clinton era, we wouldn’t be confronting such a behemoth today. We’ve had to unlearn a great deal over the course of the last few decades. We’ve had to try to unlearn racism, and I’m not just speaking about white people. People of color have had to unlearn the assumption that racism is individual, that it is primarily a question of individual attitudes that can be dealt with through sensitivity training.
Prisons are racism incarnate. As Michelle Alexander points out, they constitute the new Jim Crow. But also much more, as the lynchpins of the prison-industrial complex, they represent the increasing profitability of punishment. They represent the increasingly global strategy of dealing with populations of people of color and immigrant populations from the countries of the Global South as disposable populations. Put them all in a vast garbage bin, add some sophisticated electronic technology to control them, and let them languish there. And in the meantime, create the ideological illusion that the surrounding society is safer and more free because the dangerous Black people and Latinos, and the Native Americans, and the dangerous Asians, and the dangerous White people, and of course the dangerous Muslims, are locked up! And in the meantime, corporations profit and poor communities suffer! Public education suffers! Public education suffers because it’s not profitable according to corporate measures. Public health care suffers. If punishment can be profitable, then certainly health care should be profitable, too. This is outrageous. It’s also outrageous that the state of Israel uses the carceral technologies developed in relation to US prisons not only to control the more than eight thousand Palestinian political prisoners in Israel but also to control the broader Palestinian population. These carceral technologies, for example, the separation wall, which reminds us of the US-Mexico border wall, and other carceral technologies are the material constructs of Israeli apartheid.
We should not have allowed this to happen over the last three decades. And we cannot allow it to continue today.
We have to challenge the assimilationist logic of the struggle for marriage equality! We can’t assume that once outsiders are allowed to move into the circle of the bourgeois hetero-patriarchal institution of marriage, the struggle has been won.”
In a speech at Davidson College on February 12, 2013, Davis noted that “there are still many significant civil rights movements in the 21st century. The struggle for immigrant rights is a civil rights struggle. The struggle to defend the rights of prisoners is a civil rights struggle. The struggle for marriage equality with respect to LGBT communities is a civil rights struggle. But freedom is still more expansive than civil rights. And in the ‘60s there were some of us who insisted that it wasn’t simply a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in society, but also about the forty acres and the mule that were dropped from the abolitionist agenda in the 19th century. It was about economic freedom. It was about free education. It was about free health care. Affordable housing. These are issues that should have been on the abolitionist agenda in the 19th century, and here we are in the 21st century and we still can’t say that we have affordable housing and health care, and education has thoroughly become a commodity. It’s been so thoroughly commoditized that many people don’t even know how to understand the process of acquiring knowledge because it is subordinated to the future capacity to make money…
Given that my historical relationships with this country have been shaped by circumstances of international solidarity, I have entitled my talk ‘Transnational Solidarities: Resisting Racism, Genocide, and Settler Colonialism,’ for the purpose of evoking possible futures, potential circuits connecting movements in various parts of the world, and specifically, in the US, Turkey, and occupied Palestine. The term ‘genocide’ has usually been reserved for particular conditions defined in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted on December 9, 1948, in the aftermath of the fascist scourge during World War II. Some of you are probably familiar with the wording of that convention, but let me share it with you: ‘Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such, killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’ This convention was passed in 1948, but it wasn’t ratified by the US until 1987, almost forty years later. However, just three years after the passage of the convention, a petition was submitted to the United Nations by the Civil Rights Congress of the US, charging genocide with respect to Black people in the US. This petition was signed by luminaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who at that time was under attack by the government. It was submitted to the UN in New York by Paul Robeson and it was submitted in Paris by the civil rights attorney William L. Patterson. Patterson was at that time the head of the Civil Rights Congress. He was a Black member of the Communist Party, a prominent attorney who had defended the Scottsboro Nine. His passport was taken away when he returned. This was during the era in which communists and those who were accused of being communists were seriously under attack. In the introduction to this petition, one can read the following words: ‘Out of the inhuman Black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty, and disease. It is a record that calls aloud for condemnation, for an end to these terrible injustices that constitute a daily and ever-increasing violation of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.’ The introduction continues, ‘We maintain, therefore, that the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against, and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.’ The authors go on to point out that they will submit evidence proving, in accordance with the convention, the killing of members of the group. They point to police killings – this is 1951 – killings by gangs, by the Ku Klux Klan, and other racist groups. They point out that the evidence concerns thousands of people who have been ‘beaten to death on chain gangs and in the back rooms of sheriffs’ offices and in the cells of county jails and precinct police stations and on city streets, who have been framed and murdered by sham legal forms and by a legal bureaucracy. They also point out that a significant number of Black people were killed allegedly for failure to say ‘sir’ to a white person, or to tip their hats, or to move aside. I mention this historic petition against genocide first because such a charge could have also been launched at the time based on the mass slaughters of Armenians, the death marches, the theft of children and the attempt to assimilate them into dominant culture.
I also evoke the genocide petition of 1951 because so many of the conditions outlined in that petition continue to exist in the US today. This analysis helps us to understand the extent to which contemporary racist state violence in the US is deeply rooted in genocidal histories, including, of course, the genocidal colonization of indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. A recent book by historian Craig Wilder addresses the extent to which the Ivy League universities, the universities everyone knows all over the world – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et cetera – were founded on and are deeply implicated in the institution of slavery. But – and in my mind this may be the most important aspect of his research – he discovers that he cannot tell the story of slavery and US higher education without also simultaneously telling the story of the genocidal colonization of Native Americans. Our histories never unfold in isolation. We can’t truly tell what we consider to be our histories without knowing the other stories. And often we discover that those other stories are actually our stories. This is the admonition ‘Learn your sisters’ stories’ by Black feminist sociologist Jacqui Alexander. It’s a dialectical process that requires us to constantly retell our stories, to revise them, and retell them, and relaunch them. We can thus not pretend that we don’t know about the conjunctures of race and class and ethnicity and nationality and sexuality and ability. I can’t prescribe how Turkish people come to grips with the imperial past of this country. But I do know that it has to be possible to speak freely, it has to be possible to engage in free speech. The ethnic-cleansing processes, including the so-called population exchanges at the end of the Ottoman Empire that inflicted incalculable forms of violence on so many populations – Greeks, Syrians, and, of course, Armenians – have to be acknowledged in the historical record. But popular conversations about these events and about the histories of the Kurdish people in this space have to occur before any real social transformation can be imagined, much less rendered possible. I tell you that in the United States we are at such a disadvantage because we do not know how to talk about the genocide inflicted on indigenous people. We do not know how to talk about slavery. Otherwise it would not have been assumed that simply because of the election of one Black man to the presidency we would leap forward into a postracial era. We do not acknowledge that we all live on colonized land. And in the meantime, Native Americans live in impoverished conditions on reservations. They have an extremely high incarceration rate – as a matter of fact, per capita the highest incarceration rate – and they suffer disproportionately from such diseases as alcoholism and diabetes. In the meantime, sports teams still mock indigenous people with racially derogatory names, like the Washington Redskins. We don’t know how to talk about slavery, except, perhaps, within a framework of victim and victimizer, one that continues to polarize and implicate. But I can say that, increasingly, young activists are learning how to acknowledge the intersections of these stories, the ways in which these stories are crosshatched and overlaid. Therefore, when we attempt to develop an analysis of the persistence of racist violence, largely directed at young Black men, of which we have been hearing a great deal over this last period, we cannot forget to contextualize this racist violence.
For some time now I have been involved in efforts to abolish the death penalty and imprisonment as the main modes of punishment. I should say that it is not simply out of empathy with the victims of capital punishment and the victims of prison punishment, who are overwhelmingly people of color. It is because these modes of punishment don’t work. These forms of punishment don’t work when you consider that the majority of people who are in prison are there because society has failed them, because they’ve had no access to education or jobs or housing or health care. But let me say that criminalization and imprisonment don’t solve the problem of sexual violence either.”
In the introduction to her 2016 book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says that “the current iteration of the black revolution is exposing the evils still ‘rooted,’ as Martin Luther King said in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, ‘in the whole structure of our society: racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.” Taylor says she agrees with King’s statement that “the radical reconstruction of that society” is necessary for the majority of Americans (and the rest of the world) to live good lives.
“Over the course of ten months, from the summer and fall of 2014 into the winter and spring of 2015, the United States was rocked by mass protests, led by African Americans in response to the police murder of a young Black man, Michael Brown. In these protests, the people of Ferguson, Missouri, rose up and brought the world’s attention to the crisis of racist policing practices in the United States. Eight months later, some forty miles from the nation’s capital, the city of Baltimore exploded in fury at the police killing of another young black man: Freddie Gray. What began as a local struggle of ordinary Black people in Ferguson, who for more than 100 days demanded justice for Brown and for themselves has grown into a national movement against police brutality and daily police killings of unarmed African Americans.
Police murder and brutality are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the US criminal justice system. It’s impossible to understand the intense policing of Black communities without putting it into the wider context of the decades-old War on Drugs and the effects of mass incarceration. Today, the United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population. There are more than a million African Americans in prison because Black people are incarcerated at a rate six times that of whites. As Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book The New Jim Crow, the imprisonment of Black men has led to social stigma and economic marginalization, leaving many with few options but to engage in criminal activity as a means of survival. The entire criminal justice system operates at the expense of African American communities and society as a whole. This crisis goes beyond high incarceration rates; indeed, the perpetuation of deeply ingrained stereotypes of African Americans as particularly dangerous, impervious to pain and suffering, careless and carefree, and exempt from empathy, solidarity, or basic humanity is what allows the police to kill Black people with no threat of punishment.
The United States is often referred to these days as a ‘colorblind’ or ‘post-racial’ society in which the success of a relative few African Americans is held up as a testament to the transcendence of its racist past. Where there is bad treatment on the basis of race, it’s viewed as the product of lapsed personal behavior and morality, but it’s ‘no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom,’ as President Obama suggested in a speech commemorating the 50thanniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Promoting the United States as colorblind or post-racial is used to justify dismantling the state’s capacity to challenge discrimination. The Supreme Court has done precisely this with voting rights, ruling that racism no longer hinders access to voting.
Institutional or structural racism can be defined as the policies, programs, and practices of public and private institutions that result in greater rates of poverty, dispossession, criminalization, illness, and ultimately mortality of African Americans. It’s the best way to understand how Black deprivation continues in a country as rich and resource-filled as the United States. The report of the Kerner Commission, charged by the federal government with looking into the causes of ‘civil disorder’ during the 1960s, plainly stated that ‘white racism’ was responsible for Black poverty – ‘white society created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.’ As the civil rights and Black Power movements receded in the 1970s and as a bipartisan political attack on the welfare state gained traction, however, the mantras of the “culture of poverty” and “personal responsibility” reemerged as popular explanations for Black deprivation. Speeches by President Obama now reiterate this.
While it may be surprising that a Black protest movement has emerged during the Obama presidency, the reluctance of his administration to address any of the substantive issues facing Black communities has meant that suffering has worsened in those communities during his time in office. African Americans mobilized historic levels of support for Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections based on his promises of hope and change, but by any measure African Americans under Obama are experiencing the same indifference and active discrimination; in some cases, these have even become worse. Black unemployment has remained in the double digits, Black college graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white college graduates, and 12% of Black college graduates, compared to 4.9% of white college graduates, were out of work in 2014.
Pundits and politicians alike have been celebrating what they describe as an economic recovery from the Great Recession of 2008, but for African Americans, the long winter of the downturn keeps churning on, with 27% of African Americans living in poverty. The national poverty rate for African Americans can obscure the even greater depths of Black economic deprivation concentrated in some parts of the country, especially across the southern United States. Across the Midwest, too, there is also intense Black poverty, including 46% in Minnesota, 39% in Wisconsin, and 34% in Michigan. Since Obama assumed office, Black median income has fallen by 10.9% to $33,500, compared to a 3.6% drop for whites, leaving their median income at $58,000.
Poverty is but a single factor in making sense of the ever-widening wealth gap between African Americans and whites. Over the last 25 years, the disparity in household wealth has tripled; today, white median wealth (as opposed to income) is $91,405, compared to $6,446 for African American households. If there were a single indicator to measure the status of Black women in the United States, it would be the difference in median wealth for single Black women compared to single white women. A 2010 study found that the median wealth of single white women was $42,600 compared to the surreal median of $5 for single Black women. The historic crash of the American housing market in 2008 destroyed much of African Americans’ wealth holdings. At the height of the mortgage lending boom in the mid-2000s, almost half of the loans given to African Americans were subprime. Today, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, almost 25% of Black families who purchased homes during this period are at risk of losing their homes as a result. As has been widely reported, the crisis effectively destroyed tens of billions of dollars of Black wealth invested in real estate, with more than 240,000 African Americans losing their homes. In Detroit, for example, a city that once boasted one of the highest Black homeownership rates in the country, more than a third of Black families who borrowed between 2004 and 2008 have lost their homes to foreclosure.
Barack Obama became president at a time when Black people needed help the most, yet he has done precious little. In fact, when he ran again in 2012, he reassured the nation (or at least white voters), “I’m not the president of Black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.” It’s not only that Obama is reluctant to offer or support a Black agenda: he’s also played a destructive role in legitimizing the ‘blame the victim’ discourse discussed above. At a time when the entire Western world was pointing to corrupt practices on Wall Street and illicit gambling in global financial markets as the causes of the global slump, Obama was blaming absent Black fathers and Black parents not reading to their children at night for the lack of secure work and stable home lives in Black communities.
The killing of Mike Brown, along with an ever-growing list of other unarmed Black people, drove holes in the logic that Black people simply doing the ‘right things,’ whatever those things might be, could overcome the perennial crises within Black America. After all, Mike Brown was only walking down the street. Eric Garner was standing on the corner. Rekia Boyd was in a park with friends. Trayvon Martin was walking home with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Sean Bell was leaving a bachelor party, anticipating his marriage the following day. Amadou Diallo was getting off from work. Their deaths, and the killings of so many others like them, prove that sometimes simply being Black can make you a suspect, or get you killed. Especially when the police are involved, looking Black is more likely to get you killed than any other factor. In Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, people’s exhaustion, sadness, frustration, and anger at the dehumanizing trauma inflicted by racism finally boiled over.
After spending the better part of his presidency chastising African Americans for their own hardships, Obama has shifted gears post-Ferguson to focus on what he termed the ‘criminal injustice system’ in a speech on crime and punishment. In the summer of 2015, he appeared at the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to deliver a sweeping speech on reforming it, highlighting the racial disparities that lead to vastly different punishments for Blacks, whites, and Latino/as; calling for restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated; and arguing that the $80 billion spent annually to maintain the nation’s prisons could cover the cost of college tuition in every public college and university in the country.” This didn’t lead to any substantive action, however.
Taylor starts the first chapter of her book, “A Culture of Racism,” by saying that “the Black experience unravels what we’re supposed to believe about America, the land of milk and honey, where hard work makes dreams come true. This mythology isn’t benign: it serves as the United States’ self-declared invitation to intervene militarily and economically around the globe. This is perhaps why the US political and economic leadership clings so tightly to the framework of Black inferiority as the central explanation for Black inequality. While the rest of the world wrestles with class and the perils of ‘class envy,’ the United States, according to its own legend, is a place where anyone can make it. On the night he won the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama said, ‘If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.’ Years earlier, Ronald Reagan called the US ‘the last best hope of man on earth.’
This idea of American exceptionalism operates as a mythology of convenience, obscuring the contradiction between the apparent creed of US society and its more complicated reality,” indeed its history. What gets erased or rewritten, Taylor says, are “genocide, slavery, and the massive exploitation of immigrant workers, cruel realities that made the soaring ideals of American exceptionalism and American democracy possible. The mutual foundation of slavery and the genocide of the Native population, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the codified subordinate status of Black people for more than a hundred years after slavery ended are all grim reminders of the millions of bodies upon which the audacious smugness of American hubris is built. Race and racism haven’t been exceptions; they’ve been the glue that holds the United States together…
In the 1930s the failures of the American economy produced widespread insecurity and poverty, despite the personal intentions or work ethic of those most affected. At the same time, the Russian Revolution in 1917 cast a long shadow, and the threat of radical and revolutionary activity loomed over Europe. In this context, the mythology of the United States as different and unaffected by class tensions and dynamics took on new urgency. The New Deal legislation and the reorganization of capital was a reflection of this. The turn to Keynesian economics and the bolstering of demand-based consumption helped to underpin perceptions of economic stability, and the development of state-sponsored social welfare – Social Security, aid to mothers with children, and public housing – created a bottom through which the vast majority of ordinary people couldn’t fall. These, combined with the US entrance into World War II, revitalized the American economy and gave rise to the longest economic expansion in American history. The robust postwar economy put flesh on the ideological scaffolding of the American dream. Massive government subsidies were deployed in ways that hid the state’s role in the development of the American middle class, perpetuating the mythology of hard work and perseverance as the key ingredients to social mobility. This was especially true in housing. The private housing lobby and its backers in Congress denounced publicly subsidized housing as creeping socialism. The federal government therefore didn’t subsidize homeownership through direct payment but through interest-rate deductions and government-guaranteed mortgages that allowed banks to lend with abandon. Not only did it rebuild the economy through these measures, but it reinforced and gave new life to the idea of American exceptionalism and the good life.
But the fruits of these new arrangements didn’t fall to African Americans. Political scientist Ira Katznelson describes the uneven distribution of postwar riches in his well-known book When Affirmative Action Was White, including the initial exclusion of African Americans from Social Security collection and other New Deal benefits. When it came to homeownership, federal mortgage guarantees were contingent on recipients living in new, suburban housing, from which most African Americans were excluded. As businesses began to relocate their firms and entire industries to suburban areas because of lower land costs and taxes, the urban disinvestment dynamic was exacerbated, leaving cities bereft of the jobs that had initially lured millions of people to them. Meanwhile, real-estate interests and their backers in government ensured that neither Black renters nor Black home buyers could participate in the developing suburban economy.
The postwar economic expansion offered Black laborers their chance at escaping the grip of Jim Crow. One hundred and twenty-five thousand Black soldiers had fought in World War II and were returning to cities across the North – to the most serious housing shortage in American history. Southern whites’ defense of Jim Crow is well integrated into American folklore, but this kind of attempt at racist mob rule wasn’t regional. In Chicago and Detroit, in particular, thousands of whites joined mobs to terrorize African Americans who tried to move into white areas. In both the North and South, white police either joined the attacks on African Americans or stood aside as whites stoned houses, set fires, destroyed cars, smashed windows, and threatened to kill any Blacks who got in their way.
The Cold War also had an effect, as elected officials in both parties demonized social welfare as socialism or communism. Between 1947 and 1956, more than five million federal workers underwent loyalty screening, and an estimated 2,700 of them were dismissed and about 12,000 resigned. Those most affected, according to historian Landon Storr, ‘were a varied group of leftists who shared a commitment to building a comprehensive welfare state that blended central planning with grassroots democracy.’ The state specifically targeted leading activists and intellectuals involved in the fight against racism; antiracist campaigns were dismissed out of hand as subversive activity. As Manning Marable observes, ‘The purge of communists and radicals from organized labor from 1947 through 1950 was the principal reason for the decline in the AFL-CIO’s commitment to the struggle against racial segregation.’
The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act removed the last vestiges of legal discrimination across the South. Its success was an amazing accomplishment by the ordinary men, women, and children of the civil rights movement, and it forced a monumental shift in the Southern political and social order. But ending legal segregation and disenfranchisement in the South didn’t necessarily guarantee free and unfettered participation in the public and private spheres of employment, housing, and education. This was also true in the North. The civil rights movement had much clearer targets in the South; the means of discrimination in the North, such as housing and job discrimination, were legal and thus much harder to change.
Five days after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, the Watts Rebellion exploded in south central Los Angeles. The civil rights movement had hastened the radicalization of all African Americans. There had been smaller uprisings in New York City, Philadelphia, Rochester, and other cities the previous summer, but the Watts Rebellion was on an entirely different scale. For six days, an estimated 10,000 African Americans battled with police in an unprecedented rebellion against the effects of racial discrimination, including police brutality and housing discrimination. Thirty-four people were killed, hundreds more injured. Four thousand people were arrested and tens of millions of dollars in property damage occurred.
The New Deal had mostly excluded African Americans, but President Lyndon Johnson responded to the civil rights movement’s economic demands with the War on Poverty and Great Society programs, even though his administration also spawned the Moynihan report, blaming the supposed negative behaviors of poor Black families on the way American slavery had broken up Black families. Moynihan was a liberal, but this is where liberal and conservative thought converges, seeing Black problems as rooted in Black communities as opposed to seeing them as systemic to American society. Over the next three years, violent and furious explosions of Black rage in American cities punctuated every summer, shocking the nation and withering the triumphalism of the vaunted American dream. These protests forged an alternative understanding of Black inequality. Black psychologist Kenneth Clark saying in his book Dark Ghetto that there was ‘a calm within the chaos, a deliberateness within the hysteria. The Negro seemed to feel nothing could happen to him that hadn’t happened already; he behaved as if he had nothing to lose. His was an oddly controlled rage that seemed to say, “The only weapon you have is bullets. The only thing you can do is kill me.” His apparent lawlessness was a protest against the lawlessness directed against him, his acts a desperate assertion of his desire to be treated as a man.’
Johnson’s Great Society programs included job training, housing, food stamps, and other forms of assistance that inadvertently helped to define Black inequality as primarily an economic question. The expansion of the welfare state, the turn to affirmative action practices, and the establishment of the EEOC by the end of the 1960s also reinforced the idea that Blacks were entitled to a share in American affluence. A Harris poll taken in the summer of 1967 after major riots in Detroit and Newark, found that 40% of whites believed that ‘the way Negroes have been treated in the slums and ghettos of big cities’ and ‘the failure of white society to keep its promises to Negroes’ were the leading causes of the rebellion.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was beginning to critique capitalism, as Malcolm X had done, but the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) went even further when it declared its intent to rid the United States of its capitalist economy and build socialism in its place. Formed in Oakland, California in 1966 in response to the crisis of police brutality, the Panthers, declared leader Huey P. Newton ‘realize that this country became rich upon slavery and that slavery is capitalism in the extreme. We have two evils to fight, capitalism and racism. We must destroy them both.’
In a Washington Post poll published in 1967, 39% of whites said they believed the condition of Black housing was responsible for the ongoing riots. In another poll of African Americans and whites, strong majorities came out in support of antipoverty programs. Sixty-nine percent of all Americans supported federal efforts to create a jobs program. Sixty-five percent believed in tearing down ghettos. Sixty percent supported a federal program to eliminate rats, and 57% supported summer-camp programs for Black youth.”
Taylor concludes that “really addressing the systemic and utterly destructive institutional racism throughout the country would have two immediate consequences, both of which would be unacceptable to liberals and conservatives alike. The first would be to fundamentally undermine America’s continual efforts to project itself as the moral leader of the world, and the second would be a massive redistribution of wealth and resources to undo the continuing damage. Instead, the political establishment clings to cultural explanations for the frightening living conditions in places as varied as West Baltimore, Oakland, North Philadelphia, and Overtown in Miami, because such explanations require them to do very little. This narrative works to deepen the cleavages between groups of people who would otherwise have every interest in combining forces. The intractability of Black conditions becomes seen as natural as opposed to standing as an indictment of the system itself, while the hard times befalling ordinary whites are rendered almost invisible (the majority of poor people in the United States are white).
By the end of the 1970s, there was little talk about institutional racism or the systemic roots of Black oppression, and even less talk about the kind of movement necessary to challenge it. Instead, when Ronald Reagan ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, he made a play for the racist vote by complaining about a fictitious ‘strapping young buck’ using food stamps to buy T-bone steak. He also invented the stereotypical ‘welfare queen,’ who, he said, ‘used 80 names, 30 addresses, and 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, and welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.’ These were familiar racist baits for the white conservative electorate: lazy Black welfare cheats getting something for nothing. But in the aftermath of the ‘Black revolution’ of the 1960s, politicians no longer felt comfortable wearing their racist credentials upon their sleeves. The ‘strapping buck’ and the ‘welfare queen’ were assumed to be Black, but, politically, Reagan and others couldn’t risk saying so. Reagan lost the nomination to Gerald Ford by a narrow margin, but the trajectory of mainstream politics was clear. It wasn’t just the right: the Democratic Party was also moving quickly to abandon its recent association with the civil rights movement. The country was entering an era of post–civil rights ‘colorblindness.’
At the precise moment when the Black movement needed enormous infrastructural investment to revive urban enclaves, the booming American economy of the postwar era was grinding to a halt. With its end came a relentless ideological assault on the kinds of public expenditures needed to attend to deep economic deprivation.
American politics had been deeply polarized for much of the 1960s, but relentless protests had thwarted the right’s efforts to demobilize the movement. Not only was the Black movement a threat to the racial status quo, but it also acted as a catalyst for many other mobilizations against oppression. From the antiwar movement to the struggle for women’s liberation, the Black movement was a conduit for questioning American democracy and capitalism. Its generative power provided a focal point for the counteroffensive that was soon to come. This counteroffensive, launched by the business class, would affect not only Blacks but everyone who benefited from the expansion of social welfare. It was intended not only to discipline rebelling African Americans, but to reestablish order in a society where demonstrations, illegal strikes, riots, and rebellion had become legitimate means of registering complaints, including those of ordinary working-class white people.
Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968 signaled that not everyone was pleased with the radicalism sweeping across the United States. He articulated the anxiety experienced by many white workers chafing at the pace at which Blacks were demanding change, and especially embodied the anger of a ruling class that wanted to reestablish control over the direction of the country. This meant ending street protests as well as curtailing public-sector programs and work. The reassertion of Republican control began with binding the loose threads of the party. The GOP had been deeply divided for most of the ‘60s among the hardcore Goldwater right, the buttoned-up business elite of the Northeastern corridor, and the liberal civil-rights wing of the party. The tumult of social upheaval and the war in Vietnam had also blown the existing Democratic Party apart, leaving its segregationist Dixiecrat wing without a home. This gave the GOP an opening to reestablish itself as the political home for conservatives, including racist Southerners displaced from the Democratic Party. Integrating the Dixiecrats into the GOP was central to a broader strategy the Republicans referred to as the ‘Southern strategy,’ which at its core was about winning white Democrats, particularly poor and working-class Democrats, to the Republican Party on the basis of racism. Reagan and Clinton would later use the same strategy: using racial codes and innuendo to build a case against programs benefitting poor and working-class whites, while undermining the potential for solidarity among those who have the most to gain by uniting and the most to lose by continuing to be divided.
Crime bills passed by Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton also helped the repression, focusing mainly on ‘criminals’ of color. As historian Heather Ann Thompson has pointed out, there were many markers highlighting the shifts in law enforcement over the 1960s and 1970s, but the vicious crackdown against a mostly Black uprising in the Attica prison in upstate New York in 1971 was perhaps the most indicative. Inmates in Attica took 42 prison staff members hostage to draw attention to demands for improved sanitation, an end to guard brutality, better medical care, better food, etc. For five days inmates negotiated in good faith with state officials, but on the morning of September 13th, the governor of New York, according to Thompson, ‘gave the green light for helicopters to rise suddenly over the prison and blanket it with tear gas. As inmates and hostages fell incapacitated to the ground, 500 state troopers burst in, riddling catwalks and exercise yards with thousands of bullets. Thirty-nine people – 29 inmates and 10 hostages – lay dead or dying.’ The brutal suppression of the Attica uprising was a way for the state to impose its authority in ways that it had been unable to in the hundreds of rebellions that had rocked the country throughout the 1960s.” “Tough on crim”’ and “law and order” were the new wachwords.
New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws also indicated a punitive turn in sentencing in the 1970s. After a 31% increase in drug-related arrests in the early 1970s, supposedly liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller called for harsh sentences even for drug possession, including a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years to life for four ounces of narcotics, the same sentence as for involuntary manslaughter. Over the next twenty years, the proportion of drug offenders in New York’s prison population grew from 11% in 1973 to a peak of 35% in 1994. In 1978, the state of Michigan tried to outdo New York by concocting the ‘650-lifer’ law, which required judges to impose life sentences on anyone convicted of delivering 650 grams (less than one and a half pounds) or more of narcotics. The effects of the growing policing and prison state were clear by the end of the decade: In 1970 the American prison population, including those in state and federal facilities, was 196,429 – as small as it had been since 1958, but by 1980 it had grown to 315,974, the largest number of Americans ever imprisoned. In addition, while white people have always been the predominant group of drug users, the ever-expanding powers of the police were directed at Black and Latino neighborhoods,” where possession of crack cocaine drew much harsher penalties than possession of the drug’s powder form, used by most whites.
In the spring of 1973, several weeks before he was to offer a draconian budget that included suspending all federal housing subsidies, President Nixon declared the urban crisis to be over. He wasn’t naïvely thinking that urban problems were now a thing of the past; he was extracting the federal government from its responsibility to resolve them. The new attack on social spending was buttressed with descriptions of urban populations as either not truly in need or beyond the help of federal antipoverty programs. Nixon’s declaration of the end of the urban crisis wasn’t only a way to isolate poor, urban Blacks; it also began ideologically undoing the postwar welfare state. Carl Albert, Democratic Speaker of the House, recognized Nixon’s draconian 1973 budget as, ‘nothing less than the systematic dismantling and destruction of great social programs and the great precedents of humanitarian government inaugurated by Franklin D. Roosevelt and advanced and enlarged by every Democratic president since then.’ It would take the swinging axe of Ronald Reagan to completely destroy the Johnson welfare state, but Nixon helped to establish the ideological groundwork for Reagan’s project by systematically discrediting the people who relied on federal programs.”
Taylor’s third chapter, “Black Faces in High Places,” explains that, primarily because of lack of funds, black mayors and other legislators weren’t able to materially improve conditions in the black ghettoes. The city of Baltimore, which “exploded in rage at the brutal beating and then death of 15-year-old Freddie Gray,
eight months after Black people in Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets to demand justice for Michael Brown. Gray, from the poorest area of Baltimore, was Black and unarmed, and when the police attempted to stop him for no reason, he ran. Why? Because Baltimore police are notorious for the physical abuse they enact against people, particularly Black people, in their custody. Gray’s death almost went unnoticed until cell-phone video emerged to show him being ‘disappeared’ into the back of a police van, only to emerge later with his spinal cord cut almost in half. The six officers involved were placed on paid administrative leave as questions mounted during a slow-moving investigation. From the time of Gray’s death there were daily protests demanding the arrest of the six police. In the hours after Gray’s funeral on Monday, April 27th, patience ran out when police attacked high school students and the students fought back, touching off the Baltimore rebellion. A federal survey estimated that the rioting caused $9 million worth of damage, including the destruction of 144 cars and the incineration of fifteen buildings. More than 200 people were arrested, including 49 children.
What distinguishes Baltimore from Ferguson is that the Black political establishment runs the city: African Americans control virtually the entire political apparatus. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and police commissioner Anthony Batts were the most prominent faces of political power in Baltimore during the rebellion, but Black power runs deep in the city: Baltimore’s city council has fifteen members, eight of whom are African American, including its president. The superintendent of the public schools and the entire board of the city’s housing commission are African American. In Ferguson, where Blacks are 67% of the population, the city is run almost exclusively by whites, and the lack of Black political power and representation became a narrative thread in popular explanations for what went wrong there.
If the murder of Mike Brown and the rebellion in Ferguson were reminiscent of the old Jim Crow, the murder of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore uprising symbolize the new Black political elite. The dynamics of a Black rebellion in a Black-governed city highlight one of the most dramatic transformations in Black politics and Black life in general. Across the United States, thousands of Black elected officials govern many of the nation’s cities and suburbs. Yet, despite this unprecedented access to political power, little has changed for the vast majority of African Americans.
Three of the six police officers involved in Gray’s death are African American. Judge Barry G. Williams, who is also African American, presided over the trial of Black police officer William G. Porter, which ended in a mistrial eight months later. Even though Porter confirmed that he didn’t buckle Gray into his seat or call an ambulance when Gray’s injuries were apparent, the jury didn’t find that he had played a significant role Gray’s death.
The development of the Black political establishment hasn’t been a benign process. Many of these officials use their perches to articulate the worst stereotypes of Blacks in order to shift blame away from their own incompetence. Despite the lawlessness of the Baltimore Police Department, Mayor Rawlings-Blake reserved her harshest comments for those involved in the uprising, describing them as “criminals” and “thugs.” A few days later, President Obama took the mayor’s lead when he referred to “criminals and thugs who tore up the place.”
Baltimore’s Black mayor had “turned a blind eye” to the intense poverty in Freddie Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood, Sandtown, where residents experience 24% unemployment and have a median income of $25,000, less than half the median income in the rest of Baltimore. Surely there could be some connection made between the desperate levels of poverty in Baltimore and the crime that exists in those communities. In a context, however, where no programs and no money were on offer to transform those conditions, a mayoral press conference singling out Black men for crime in the city of Baltimore was deemed sufficient.
The utility of Black elected officials lies in their ability, as members of the community, to scold ordinary Black people in ways that white politicians could never get away with. Black elected officials’ role as interlocutors between the broader Black population and the general American public makes them indispensible in American politics. The harsh conditions of urban governance in the 1980s pushed many Black elected officials into embracing policies that, while promoted as economic development, in reality transferred public resources over to private control. As Adolph Reed has observed, they pursued ‘programs centered around making local governments the handmaiden to private development interests, with little regard to the disadvantageous impact of their constituencies.’
Black Philadelphia elected African American Wilson Goode to the mayor’s office in 1983, and from the outset he was the obedient representative of corporate and financial interests. In 1985 Goode orchestrated an assault on the Black countercultural organization MOVE in which police pumped more than 7,000 rounds of ammunition into MOVE’s row house. The attack culminated with police dropping a bomb on the house, killing eleven people, including five children, and destroying 61 homes in the fires that consumed the block, leaving 240 people homeless. The attack prompted little outcry from Black civil rights organizations or Black elected officials.
In Chicago in 1983, a citywide movement of ordinary Black people organized to topple the white, racist Democratic Party machine that had been led by Richard J. Daley. But Harold Washington, the Black new mayor, was unable to undo decades of segregation and discriminatory practices.
Perhaps nothing embodied the conservative direction of formal Black politics more than the CBC’s cosponsorship of Ronald Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. Liberal congressman Ron Dellums from California, along with seventeen of the CBC’s twenty-one members, supported the legislation. The act was considered an important tool in the mounting War on Drugs and would be instrumental in the explosion of Black incarceration. It codified more severe sentencing for possession and use of crack cocaine than for powder cocaine, and allocated $1.7 billion toward the drug war, even as the nation’s already fragile welfare state suffered relentless budget cuts. The 1986 act made ‘crack cocaine’ the only drug that carried a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for a first-time offense. The CBC cosponsored conservative law-and-order politics out of not political weakness, but as a result of its successful entrenchment in Beltway politics.
During the Clinton administration, Black elected officials lined up to sign off on legislation that was literally intended to kill Black people. In 1993, President Bill Clinton unveiled a new “crime-fighting” bill, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, that included expanded use of the death penalty, life sentences for nonviolent criminal offenses, 100,000 more police on the streets, and a gratuitously punitive elimination of federal funding for inmate education. The majority of the CBC voted for the bill, including liberal luminaries like John Conyers and former Black Panther Bobby Rush. By the end of Clinton’s term, Black incarceration rates had tripled and the United States was locking up a larger proportion of its population than any other country on earth.
By the turn of the 21st century the CBC could no longer claim to be the ‘conscience’ of the Congress; its members, like every politician in Washington, line up at the trough for corporate money. They have accepted donations from a ‘who’s-who’ of corporate interests, including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, Texaco, General Motors, Ford, Nissan, DaimlerChrysler, Anheuser-Busch, Heineken USA, Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, and Coca-Cola. The largest donations to the CBC Foundation, its nonprofit wing, have come from the likes of Walmart and McDonald’s. The foundation has also accepted up to $2 million from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), even while ALEC was spearheading voter-identification laws aimed at suppressing the Black vote. Individual CBC members have collected money from an array of insurance, pharmaceutical, and defense corporations. These corporate donations have ensured that the CBC is no more than a marginal player in campaigns against foreclosures and evictions and for fair wages in the low-wage worker movement. It also at least partially explains CBC members’ reluctance to participate in responding to the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and the many other victims of police brutality. CBC members are usually good for allowing working-class and poor Black people to come and vent about racist police or unjust housing policies, but rarely do those toothless hearings turn into policies that curb the activity being protested.
This complicity is the price of admission into the ranks of the political establishment, and President Obama is the most visible of this cohort, who are all described as having ‘equal fluency in black and white settings; broad, multiracial fundraising networks; and tenuous ties to black protest politics.’”
Taylor begins her fourth chapter, “The Double Standard of Justice,” by saying that “the racism of the police flows from their role as armed agents of the state. The police function to enforce the rule of the politically powerful and the economic elite, which is why poor and working-class communities are so heavily policed. African Americans are overrepresented among the ranks of the poor and the working class, so police overwhelmingly focus on those neighborhoods, even as they direct their violence more generally against all working-class people, including whites. But the police also reflect and reinforce the dominant ideology of the state that employs them, which also explains why they are inherently racist and resistant to substantive reform. In other words, if the task of the police is to maintain law and order, then that role takes on a specific meaning in a fundamentally racist society. Policing has changed over time as the nature and needs of the American state have changed, but it has also remained incredibly consistent as a thoroughly racist institution trained on Black communities. The racism of the police, historically, has also overlapped with the economic needs of business and the state to create a racialized political economy that’s particularly burdensome to Black communities.
Biologically inflected ideological explanations, no longer necessary to justify enslavement, have been deployed since the end of Reconstruction to justify the surveillance and control of Black people, especially Black workers. ‘Black Codes,’ a series of laws, rules, and restrictions imposed only on African Americans, criminalized poverty, movement, and even leisure in the South. Blacks could be arrested for vaguely worded or innocuous ‘crimes’ such as vagrancy and sentenced to ‘hard labor’ in slavery-like conditions as punishment. Law enforcement officials could also ‘hire out’ Black vagrants to white employers to ‘work off’ their sentences. It was an effort to re-create slavery by another name. The police were deployed to enforce these codes, as agents of states still largely controlled by a white planter class that had been militarily defeated but not economically and politically destroyed. The Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 expressly banned practices such as Black Codes that could be considered a badge or emblem of slavery. There was, however, a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment that allowed for the incarcerated to be treated like slaves, and ‘convict leasing’ was born. Over the course of the 19th century and into the 20th, convict leasing became a new way for Southern employers to manipulate the law and resolve a perpetual labor shortage. In 1898 almost 73% of the total revenue in Alabama was derived from convict leasing in coal mines.
Historian Khalil Muhammad argues that statistics, particularly rates of Black incarceration, were woven together by the mainstream media, the Southern political and economic elite, and the emergent field of social science to build a narrative of post–Reconstruction Black criminality. He says that ‘for white Americans of every ideological stripe African American criminality became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public safety.’
The Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision nationalized the ‘separate but equal’ paradigm while also codifying Black inferiority at the highest levels of the American government. These perceptions, and the widespread acceptance of theories of eugenics, weren’t confined to the South but became a national phenomenon, especially as African Americans began to move into Northern cities. Racism was stoked, in part, by Northern employers’ cynical use of newly arrived African Americans as strikebreakers in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Tensions also rose because cities generally lacked the housing and infrastructure needed to support both waves of foreign immigrants and Southern Blacks. Blacks’ housing choices were strictly limited, though thousands continued to make their way to cities across the Northeast and Midwest. Landlords fully exploited the segregated housing market, charging Black tenants more for inferior housing and refusing to maintain their properties because Black tenants had no housing alternative.
Housing segregation was important because the physical separation of people allowed heinous stereotypes about African Americans to flourish. This was a product of ignorance and also of the material impact segregation had on Black living spaces. Overcrowding led to rapid deterioration of the housing stock, while an overabundance of refuse resulted in rat infestations and health problems. Whites blamed these conditions on Black people’s inferior hygiene instead of the racist manipulation of the housing market. The concentration and effects of Black poverty provided a constant pretext for police incursions, arrests, and violence, fueling an antagonistic relationship between the police and African Americans. As early as the 1920s, patterns of police abuse that would be recognizable today contributed to Blacks’ growing disillusionment with the police and the supposed freedoms of the North. Compounding the physical deterioration of Black areas, officials allowed vices, including drugs, illegal alcohol, and prostitution, to flourish in order to keep them out of white areas. According to Muhammad, ‘estimates from Chicago and other cities suggest that from 80 to possibly 90% of vice businesses were owned by nonblacks.’
White police displayed their contempt for Black communities in multiple ways, including failing to intervene when white mobs attacked African Americans. In Chicago in 1919, for example, police stood by while racist whites rampaged through Black areas in anger after a Black teenager, Eugene Williams, violated the informal rules of segregation at a local beach. Williams was murdered, and when his killer was identified, white police refused to arrest him…All along there has been an effort to recast rebellions against racial discrimination as ‘riots’ or criminal activity.
For more than thirty years, the War on Drugs has been waged mostly in Black communities. The perception of African Americans as responsible for drug-related violence has been fostered by a range of actors, from elected officials in both parties to the mainstream media to popular culture. Now ‘nuisance crimes’ and other ‘quality of life’ offenses have become the new frontier of American policing, which has little or nothing to do with fighting crime and everything to do with monitoring oppressed populations and instilling fear in them. As municipalities and state legislatures cut social services and critical aspects of the public sector intended to mitigate the worst aspects of poverty, the police are deployed to “clean up” the consequences. The starkest example of this is that jails have become the predominant destination for the mentally ill. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of the city’s twelve mental health clinics, citing lack of funds even as he gave the police raises. Cook County sheriff Tom Dart has said that one-third of the county jail’s 10,000 inmates are mentally ill, even higher than that national average among the incarcerated, 17%. The social consequences of austerity budgets have also made the police stormtroopers for gentrification, as cities compete to attract businesses and young white professionals. This is seen in new rules, ordinances, and laws criminalizing public displays of poverty: sitting on the sidewalk, sleeping in a public place (or even in your car), soliciting for money or begging in public, and loitering.
In the summer of 2013, a US District Court for the Southern District of New York declared the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk unconstitutional. But this hasn’t stopped the practice from continuing in New York and elsewhere, often under other names. In the spring of 2015, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of six African Americans in Chicago for racial discrimination related to stop-and-frisk practices. After an investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that in the summer of 2014, Black Chicagoans were subjected to 182,048 stops, 72% of all stops, while only accounting for 32% of Chicago’s population. This aggressive policing not only leads to an increasing rate of arrest of African Americans, but every encounter with law enforcement draws working-class and poor Blacks into a matrix of fines and fees. Twenty-first-century municipalities, urban and suburban, increasingly rely on revenue generated by fines and fees that either originate with or are the products of arrests. Because politicians have been reluctant to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations, police are increasingly responsible for municipal revenue. As a result, fees as a percentage of state and local revenue have increased over the last several years. The rebellion in Ferguson uncovered how the local government was literally extorting the Black population, to such a degree that monies derived from these fines and fees were the second largest source of revenue. The town issued 33,000 minor-crime arrest warrants for a population of 21,000, mostly for traffic violations and overwhelmingly to Black residents. Whites, who are 29% of the population, accounted for only 12.7% of stops. Throughout Missouri, this process of legal extortion is considered a perfectly acceptable practice. According to a report from Better Together, a nonprofit group, Ferguson doesn’t even rank among the top twenty municipalities in St. Louis County that rely on fines and fees as the central source of their operating budgets. In the nearby town of Bel-Ridge, a traffic light was rigged so that police could change it as people entered the intersection, boosting their city budget by 16%. New York City makes almost a billion dollars a year in court, criminal, and administrative fines for ‘quality of life’ offenses. These effectively amount to a ‘race tax,’ as it is nonwhite populations who bear the disproportionate burden of being overpoliced.
Fees and fines are only the beginning of the ways the criminal justice system traps poor and working-class people. Nearly a third of US states jail people for not paying their debts, including court-related fees, a completely illegal practice. A 1983 Supreme Court decision ruled that people can’t be jailed for being too poor to pay a fine, fee, or debt, but it takes money to challenge illegal practices throughout the criminal justice system. Forty-eight states have either increased criminal and civil court fees or added new ones. The number of Americans with unpaid fees and fines grows every year. Unpaid fees and fines can lead to property seizures and arrests, which result in a new round of fees and fines. According to DOJ statistics, 66% of the incarcerated owed court-imposed costs, restitution, fines and fees, up from 21% in 1991. In at least 43 states, poor people can be billed for using a public defender, meaning that poor defendants may be priced out of legal counsel. In 41 states, inmates can be charged ‘room and board’ for jail and prison stays.
In 2014, cash-strapped Chicago paid more than $50 million to settle police misconduct suits, not including the $63 million paid to the lawyers litigating the cases. Over the last decade, the city has paid more than half a billion dollars to settle police brutality suits. In ten years, New York City has paid, on average, $100 million a year, to the tune of $1 billion, to settle police misconduct cases. The Los Angeles Police Department paid $54 million in 2011 to settle lawsuits involving brutality and misconduct. Philadelphia, whose African American police chief, Charles Ramsey, was handpicked by President Barack Obama to lead a national study on reforming policing, has paid out $40 million during Ramsey’s tenure to settle lawsuits involving wrongful shooting deaths, illegal searches, and excessive force complaints. As one lawyer who successfully sued the city explained about Philly police, ‘The rank and file have no expectation that their behavior is ever going to be subject to any real, meaningful review.’
Most other public institutions responsible for this kind of debt and malfeasance – hospitals, clinics, libraries, schools – are either privatized or suffer deep budget cuts that threaten their ability to function properly. When the Chicago public schools were facing a $1 billion deficit in 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel close 54 schools despite parents’ pleas. Yet rarely, if ever, are police rebuked for costing cities millions of desperately needed public dollars. Instead, they’re universally lauded by public officials and shielded from any consequences, including for killing or brutalizing civilians. This lack of culpability gives some insight into why police default so quickly to killing. American police kill like no other law enforcement agencies in the so-called First World. In only seven years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, American police have killed 7,427 people, an average of 928 people a year. In Canada in 2014, 78 people were killed by law enforcement. From 2010 to 2014, police in England killed four people. German police killed no one in 2013 and 2014.
Authorities dramatically underreport police killings, when they’re even reported at all. According to the Wall Street Journal, hundreds of police killings between 2007 and 2012 were never reported to the FBI. The investigation found that, in the 105 largest police agencies, more than 550 police killings were missing from the record. Incredibly, the federal government doesn’t require that police departments report the number, race, or ethnicity of the people they shoot or kill, thus making it impossible to piece together a full picture of the problem. Florida hasn’t reported police killings to the FBI since 1997, and New York City hasn’t done so since 2007. Without accurate tracking, it’s impossible to know who is being killed by police. We do know, however, that the disproportionate contact Black men, women, and children have with law enforcement means that they are most likely bearing the brunt of these killings. Police are more likely to shoot or kill Black men than anyone else. According to a ProPublica study, from 2010 to 2012, young Black men ages fifteen to nineteen were twenty-one times more likely than their white peers to be killed by the police. When the authors went back to measure a wider sample, they discovered that the disparity of police killing young Black men to young white men was getting worse over time. From 2006 to 2008, the risk ratio was 9 to 1. By 2010, it had risen to 17 to 1; by 2012 it had risen to the study’s original finding of 21 to 1.”
Taylor’s fifth chapter, “Barack Obama: The End of an Illusion,” highlights Obama’s lack of urgency about police killings of Black people. “President Obama turned out to be very different from candidate Obama, who’d stage-managed his campaign to resemble a social movement. An unprecedented number of Black voters, across all ages and genders, voted to put him in the White House.
In the first hours of 2009, just weeks before Obama was to be inaugurated, an armed transit officer named Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant, a 22-old Black man lying face down in handcuffs on a public transportation platform. Dozens of witnesses, many of whom were returning to Oakland after New Year’s Eve celebrations, watched in horror as Grant was murdered in cold blood. His murder was captured on several smartphone video cameras. Black Oakland exploded in palpable anger, with hundreds, then thousands of people taking to the streets, demanding justice. A local movement, led by Grant’s family and friends, sustained enough pressure to force local officials to charge Mehserle with murder. It was the first murder trial of a California police officer for a ‘line-of-duty’ killing in fifteen years. In the end, Mehserle spent less than a year in prison, but the local movement foreshadowed events to come.
Obama’s surprising electoral victory had begun to lose its luster by the end of his first term. He has and will always poll high among African Americans, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for blind support for him or the policies he champions. As long as members of the Republican Party treat Obama in a brazenly racist manner, Black people will defend him because they understand that those attacks against Obama serve as a proxy for attacks on them. Early in his administration, Black America was in the midst of an economic free fall, and as Black unemployment climbed into the high double digits, civil rights leaders asked Obama if he would craft policies to address Black joblessness. He said, ‘I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American. That’s my job as president of the United States. And I wake up every morning trying to promote the kinds of policies that are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people so that they can live out their American dream.’ It was a disappointing response, even if that disappointment didn’t manifest in his approval ratings. In 2011, with Black unemployment above 13%, 86% of Blacks approved of the overall job the president was doing, but 56% expressed disappointment in the area of providing proper oversight for Wall Street and the big banks, and only half of Blacks said Obama’s policies had improved the nation’s economic condition. For African Americans, Obama’s presidency was largely defined by his reluctance to engage with and directly address the ways that racial discrimination was blunting the impact of his administration’s recovery efforts.
Over the course his first term, Obama paid no special attention to the mounting issues involving law enforcement and imprisonment, even as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow described the horrors that mass incarceration and corruption throughout the legal system had inflicted on Black families. None of this began with Obama, but it would be naive to think that African Americans weren’t considering the destructive impact of policing and incarceration when they turned out in droves to elect him. His unwillingness to address the effects of structural inequality eroded younger African Americans’ confidence in the transformative capacity of his presidency. As one of them, Vann Newkirk put it: ‘The jubilation that I felt: the jumping for joy; the tears. They weren’t just my own, but those of people who’d marched before me. The experience was spiritual. But that idealism soon eroded. What we didn’t expect was the false dream of post-racism.’
One of the moments when Black America collectively came to terms with Barack Obama’s refusal to use his position as president to intervene on behalf of African Americans involved Troy Davis, a Black man on death row in Georgia. In the fall of 2011 he was facing execution, even though it was widely believed that he’d been wrongfully convicted. For years Davis and his sister, Martina Davis-Corriea, had joined with anti-death-penalty activists to fight for his life and exoneration, and by September 2011, an international campaign was under way to have him removed from death row. As the death date neared, there were protests around the world, inlcuding pleas from the European Union and the governments of France and Germany to halt his execution. People from around the world waited for Obama to say or do something, but he never even made a statement, instead sending press secretary Jay Carney to deliver a statement on his behalf, noting that it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ for the president to intervene in a state-led prosecution.
The day after the state of Georgia murdered Davis, Amnesty International and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty called for a ‘Day of Outrage’ in protest. More than a thousand people marched in New York City, eventually making their way to a small encampment on Wall Street that was calling itself ‘Occupy Wall Street.’ The Occupy encampment had begun a week or so before Davis was killed, but it was in its fledgling stages. When the Troy Davis activists converged with the Occupy activists, the protestors made an immediate connection between Occupy’s mobilization against inequality and the injustice in the execution of a working-class Black man. After the march, many of the Davis protestors stayed, becoming a part of the Occupy encampment on Wall Street. The Occupy movement would develop into the most important political expression of the US class divide in more than a generation, its 99/1% slogan offering a structural understanding of American inequality. Support for Occupy was higher among Blacks than among the general population, with 45% expressing a positive view of it and another 35% saying it had been good for the American political system. Oakland Occupy activists named their encampment after Oscar Grant, and Atlanta activists named theirs after Troy Davis. Occupy Wall Street in New York had a ‘people of color working group,’ and Occupy Chicago organized teach-ins on ‘Racism in Chicago,’ ‘Our Enemies in Blue,’ and ‘Evictions and Foreclosures.’ The vicious attack and crackdown on the unarmed and peaceful Occupy encampments over the winter and into 2012 provided a lesson about policing in the United States: the police were indeed servants of the political establishment and the ruling elite. Not only were they racist, they were also shock troops for the status quo and bodyguards for the 1%.
The murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida by white vigilante George Zimmerman in the winter of 2012 pierced the delusion that the United States was postracial. Marches, demonstrations, and protests demanded Zimmerman’s arrest, while President Obama deflected questions, saying only that it was a local case. Finally, he admitted that ‘if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids,’ but still kept the federal government out of the matter. Forty-five days after George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin in cold blood, he was finally arrested. More than a year later, he was found not guilty of murder, with the judge having forbidden the use of the term ‘racial profiling.’ President Obama addressed the nation, saying, ‘I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us.’ Obama’s call for quiet, individual soul-searching was a way of saying that he had no answers and that Black political power had seriois limits. Almost two years after Zimmerman was acquitted, the federal Department of Justice quietly announced it would file no federal charges against him.
Out of despair over the verdict, community organizer Alicia Garza posted a simple hashtag on Facebook: “#blacklivesmatter.” Garza would go on, with fellow activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, to transform the slogan into an organization with the same name. In a widely read essay on the meaning of the slogan, Garza described #BlackLivesMatter as ‘an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.’ Zimmerman’s acquittal also inspired the formation of the important Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), centered in Chicago. In Florida, the scene of the crime, Umi Selah (formerly known as Phillip Agnew) and friends formed the Dream Defenders; for 31 days they occupied the office of Florida governor Rick Scott in protest of the verdict. The Black political establishment, led by President Barack Obama, had shown over and over again that it wasn’t capable of the most basic task: keeping Black children alive. The young people would have to do it themselves.
Few could have predicted that white police officer Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown would ignite a rebellion in a small, largely unknown Missouri suburb called Ferguson. For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson, as well as for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States. Perhaps it was the inhumanity of the police leaving Brown’s body to fester in the hot summer sun for four and a half hours after killing him, keeping his parents away at gunpoint and with dogs. Maybe it was the military hardware the police brandished when protests against Brown’s death arose. With tanks and machine guns and a never-ending supply of tear gas, rubber bullets, and swinging batons, the Ferguson police department declared war on Black residents and anyone who stood in solidarity with them. Since then, hundreds more protests have erupted. As the United States celebrates various 50th anniversaries of the Black freedom struggles of the 1960s, the truth about the racism and brutality of the police has broken through the veil of segregation that has shrouded it from public view. There have been periodic ruptures in the domestic quietude that is so often misinterpreted as the docility of American democracy: the brutal beating of Rodney King, the sodomy of Abner Louima, the execution of Amadou Diallo. These beatings and murders didn’t lead to a national movement, but they were not forgotten.
During the hours after Brown’s body was finally moved, residents erected a makeshift memorial of teddy bears and memorabilia on the spot where he died. When the police arrived with a canine unit, an officer let a dog urinate on it. Later, when Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, laid out rose petals in the form of his initials, a police cruiser whizzed by, crushing the memorial and scattering the flowers. The next evening, McSpadden and other friends and family went back to the memorial site and laid down a dozen roses. Again, a police cruiser came through and destroyed the flowers. Later that night, the uprising began. Ferguson police, a 95% white and male force, obscured their badges to hide their identities, wore wristbands proclaiming ‘I AM DARREN WILSON,’ and pointed live weapons at unarmed civilians engaged in legal demonstrations. The municipality resembled a rogue state, creating arbitrary rules governing public protests and assaulting the media. In the twelve days following Brown’s death, 172 people were arrested, 132 of whom were charged only with ‘failure to disperse.’ At one point during the demonstrations, a Ferguson officer pointed his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in the direction of a group of journalists and screamed, ‘I’m going to fucking kill you!’ When someone asked, ‘What’s your name, sir?’ He screamed, ‘Go fuck yourself!’ For a moment, the brutal realities of Black life in Ferguson were exposed for all to see.
Just weeks before Mike Brown was shot, the world had watched video of New York City cop Daniel Pantaleo choking Eric Garner to death. Four days before Brown was killed, the police in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio murdered John Crawford III, a 22-year-old, unarmed African American man, in the aisle of a Walmart while he talked on the phone with the mother of his children. He’d been holding a toy gun. Two days after Brown’s murder, police in Los Angeles shot unarmed Ezell Ford three times in the back as he lay face down on the sidewalk. The following day, elsewhere in California, Dante Parker, a 36-year-old African American man, was detained by police and tasered multiple times before dying in police custody.
The Ferguson rebellion became a focal point for the growing anger in Black communities across the country. For almost the entire fall, the Ferguson movement focused on winning an indictment of Darren Wilson. Prosecutors dragged the grand jury proceedings out, hoping colder weather would discourage protestors. But activists and others from around the country helped sustain the local movement. In late August 2014, Darnell Moore and Patrisse Cullors of #BlackLivesMatter organized a ‘freedom ride’ to bring people from all around the country to Ferguson, and more than 500 came. Continued police harassment was also critical to sustaining the movement. In late September, Mike Brown’s memorial was doused with gasoline and ignited. The flames revitalized the protests: more than two hundred people gathered in an angry protest that saw five people arrested. In October, a multiracial protest erupted in the solidarity song ‘Which Side Are You On?’ during a performance of the St. Louis Symphony. When the protestors marched out, chanting ‘Black lives matter,’ many in the audience, including symphony musicians, applauded. On October 8th, an off-duty St. Louis police officer fired at Black teenager Vonderrit Myers seventeen times, hitting him with eight bullets and killing him. Days after Myers’s death, two hundred students marched from Myers’s neighborhood, called Shaw, to join hundreds more students in an occupation of St. Louis University (SLU). For several days more than a thousand students occupied the campus, in tandem with Ferguson October, in which hundreds of people traveled to Ferguson, in solidarity with the local movement, but also to register their own protest. As protestor Richard Wallace from Chicago put it, ‘Everybody here is representing a family member or someone that’s been hurt, murdered, killed, arrested, or deported.’ Ferguson officials continued to stall in announcing Wilson’s fate, but the resilience of the Ferguson movement was inspiring people far beyond the Midwest.”
Taylor then discusses the attempts of Jesse Jackson, Sr. and the Reverend Al Sharpton to take over the leadership of the Ferguson protests. But “the town’s young people, whose future was being stolen by the never-ending cycle of fines, fees, warrants, and arrests were fighting for their rights. They had experienced their own collective power and were drawing strength from outlasting the police. And they weren’t about to stand down or move aside to accommodate Sharpton’s September arrival. Sharpton’s first speech blamed protestors for the violence that had been the central theme of the mainstream media. He told the group, ‘I know you are angry. I know this is outrageous. But we can’t be more outraged than Mike’s mom and dad. If they can hold their heads in dignity, then we can hold our heads up in dignity. To become violent in Michael Brown’s name is to betray the gentle giant that he was. Don’t be a traitor to Michael Brown.’ Even though Sharpton had just arrived in town, he was describing Mike Brown’s character and personality to his friends and peers. It was condescending and presumptuous. When the protests continued, Sharpton amplified his criticism of ‘violent’ protestors. As he delivered the eulogy at Brown’s funeral, he reserved his harshest words for the young Black protestors who’d stood up to police violence and provocations. ‘Blackness was never about being a gangster or a thug. Blackness was no matter how low we was pushed down, we rose up anyhow. Blackness was never surrendering our pursuit of excellence. When it was against the law to go to some schools, we built black colleges. Now, in the 21st century, we get to where we got some positions of power. And you decide it ain’t black no more to be successful. Now you want to be a nigger and call your woman a ho. You’ve lost where you’ve come from.’ In one fell swoop, Sharpton not only condemned the young people of Ferguson, but invoked stereotypes to do so. It confirmed a sense among the new activists that Sharpton and those like him were out of step. There was a lingering, if unspoken question: What gave Sharpton or Jackson or the NAACP or the Justice Department the authority to tell protestors how they should respond to the violence of the Ferguson police? What, really, did any of them know about the daily harassment local residents experienced? What had any of these officials ever done to stop police murder and brutality? ‘I feel in my heart that they failed us,’ Dontey Carter said of contemporary civil rights leaders. ‘They’re the reason things are like this now. They don’t represent us. That’s why we’re here for a new movement. And we have some warriors out here.’ Johnetta Elzie said, ‘It’s our time. For so long the elders have told us our generation doesn’t fight for anything, or that we don’t care about what goes on in the world. We have proved them wrong.’ During a ‘Ferguson October’ forum, hip-hop artist Tef Poe said, ‘This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.’ Addressing the NAACP and others assembled on the stage, he added, ‘Y’all did not show up…Get off your asses and join us!’
#BlackLivesMatter demands more than the removal of a particular officer or the admonishment of a particular police department, but calls attention to the systemic forces that allow individuals to act with impunity. Moreover, these organizers are ‘intersectional’ in their approach to organizing, starting from the basic recognition that the oppression of African Americans is multidimensional and must be fought on different fronts. The analytic reach of these organizers is what really underlies the tension between the ‘new guard’ and the ‘old guard.’ In some ways, it demonstrates that today’s activists are grappling with questions similar to those Black radicals confronted in the Black Power era, questions bound up with the systemic nature of Black oppression in American capitalism and how that shapes organizing. Placing police brutality into a wider web of inequality has largely been missing from the more narrowly crafted agendas of the liberal establishment organizations, like Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN), which have focused more on resolving the details of particular cases than on generalizing about the systemic nature of police violence. This has meant that mainstream civil rights organizations tend to focus on legalistic approaches to resolve police brutality, compared to activists who connect police oppression to other social crises in Black communities. The policing of African Americans is directly tied to the higher levels of poverty and unemployment in Black communities through the web of fees and fines and arrest warrants trapping Black people in a never-ending cycle of debt. The gravity of the crisis confronting Black communities, often stemming from these harmful encounters with the police, also allows people to generalize from police violence to the ways that public funding for police comes at the expense of other public institutions.
Not only do the ‘new guard’s’ politics stand in sharp contrast to those of the ‘old guard,’ so does their approach to organizing. Beyond being led by women, the new guard is decentralized and is largely organizing the movement through social media. This is very different from national organizations like the NAACP, NAN, or even Jackson’s Operation PUSH, whose mostly male leaders make decisions with little input or direction from people on the ground. This strategy isn’t simply the product of male leadership, but of an older model that privileged leveraging connections and relationships within the establishment over street activism – or using street protests to gain leverage within the establishment.
On November 24, 2014, a grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown. Angry protests ripped through the suburb when the decision was announced in the dead of night. Rows of riot police protected City Hall and the police department while the commercial section of Black Ferguson was allowed to burn. There was little surprise about the decision not to indict, but there was anger at the completion of a legal lynching. President Obama returned to the airwaves to counsel patience and respect for the law. He reminded his audience that ‘we are a nation built on the rule of law,’ a concept rendered hollow and meaningless by months of witnessing the lawlessness of the Ferguson police department.
Two days before the Wilson decision was announced, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, playing with a toy gun, was shot and killed by police in a playground in Cleveland, Ohio. Nine days earlier, Tanisha Anderson, also of Cleveland, had been killed when an officer slammed her head into the concrete. Days later, a Staten Island grand jury returned a decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death. Obama quickly organized a meeting of some of the more visible activists from Ferguson and around the country to discuss police violence. James Hayes from the Ohio Student Union was one of the participants. ‘We appreciate that the president wanted to meet with us, but now he must deliver with meaningful policy,’ Hayes said. ‘We’re calling on everyone who believes that Black lives matter to continue taking to the streets until we get real change for our communities.’ As waves of protests washed across the United States, the first national protests against police brutality were called for the following week: one in New York City and one in Washington, DC. The march in New York was organized on Facebook by activists, the Washington march by Sharpton’s NAN. The emergence of the national movement was immediately confronted by the reemergence of the political tensions that had surfaced in Ferguson. Sharpton had intended to stage-manage the entire affair, featuring himself as keynote speaker. Activists from Ferguson that had traveled to Washington were dismayed to see the stage filled with people who had no organic connection to the movement. Security guards were demanding VIP badges to gain access to the stage, where the opening rally for the march would take place. When Sharpton made it to the stage, he called the Ferguson activists who were demanding to address the crowd ‘provocateurs.’
Both marches were wildly successful, bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets and giving the movement its first profile as a national phenomenon, but the different paths forward were becoming clearer. Days after the march, Sharpton wrote an article that revealed as much about the tremendous pressure he was under as it did his extremely vague view of how the movement would ‘reform the system.’ His vision of ‘big change’ didn’t look like much: the two ‘major’ reforms he named were body cameras for police and independent prosecutors to investigate police misconduct. The smallness of his demands perfectly distilled the difference between the ‘old guard’ and the growing youth rebellion. He made no mention of racism, mass incarceration, or any of the broader issues for which younger activists were arguing. Jesse Jackson also weighed in on this question: ‘To go from protesting to power, you need demonstrations, legislation, and litigation. Sprinters burn out real fast. These young people need to be in it for the long run. And it must be an intergenerational coalition. A movement that’s mature requires clergy and lawyers and legislators.’ Jackson was less offensive than Sharpton, but not only did his comments reflect a different conception of what the movement should focus on and look like, his coalition of ‘clergy, lawyers and litigators’ has failed miserably over the last forty years. Counseling the youth to pick up the tools of a failed strategy only served to reinforce the perception that the old guard was out of touch and out of its element.
Sharpton’s frustration at the questioning of his leadership and his role as the conduit to Black America eventually boiled over. Weeks after the December marches, Sharpton compared the ‘new guard’ to ‘pimps’ and to the people following them as ‘hoes.’ In the days after the big December protests, Ferguson Action, the central body of the various activist formations located in and inspired by Ferguson, released a statement that included some of the activists who had been barred from speaking in Washington. Titled ‘About This Movement,’ its breadth and optimism made Sharpton’s tantrum seem even pettier: ‘This is a movement of and for ALL Black lives – women, men, transgender, and queer. We are made up of both youth AND elders aligned through the possibilities that new tactics and fresh strategies offer our movement. Some of us are new to this work, but many of us have been organizing for years. We came together in Mike Brown’s name, but our roots are also in the flooded streets of New Orleans and the bloodied BART stations of Oakland. We are connected online and in the streets. We are decentralized, but coordinated. Most importantly, we are organized. We stand beside each other, not in front of one another. We do not cast any one of ours to the side in order to gain proximity to perceived power. Because this is the only way we will win.’
In December and January, ‘Black Lives Matter’ was the rallying cry from every corner. Black professional athletes, then high school and college students, wore T-shirts adorned with the slogan ‘I Can’t Breathe.’ Thousands of college, high school, and even middle school students began organizing and participating in die-ins, walkouts, marches, and other forms of public protest. At Princeton University, more than 400 students and faculty participated in a die-in. Students at Stanford blocked the San Mateo Bridge across San Francisco Bay. Students at 70 medical schools organized die-ins under the slogan ‘White Coats for Black Lives.’ Protests were sweeping the nation and politicians raced to keep up. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who’d never publicly mentioned Mike Brown’s name, was forced to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ when she spoke in New York three days after the march there. Even Obama began to change his tune. When talking about young African Americans, he was speaking less about morality and instead focusing on African American concerns about unfair treatment and calling them part of the American family.”
Taylor then expresses her concerns about the lack of organization in #BlackLivesMatter, indicating that she believes it’s necessary in moving “from protest to a movement.” #BLM describes itself as “a decentralized network aiming to build the leadership and power of black people.” Patrisse Cullors describes its members as working “within the communities where they live and work. They determine their goals and the strategies that they believe will work best to help them achieve their goals. We are deliberately taking a cautious and collaborative approach at developing a national Black Lives Matter strategy because it takes time to listen, learn and build.” Taylor says, “#BLM has reinvigorated the Occupy method of protest, which believes decentralized and ‘leaderless’ actions are more democratic, allowing its followers to act on what they want to do without others weighing in. But the larger the movement grows, the more need there will be for coordination.” Why? One of the reasons Occupy eschewed “organization” that Taylor neglects to mention is that it’s harder to suppress a ‘leaderless’ movement.
“The Ferguson Action website has compiled the most comprehensive list of movement demands, including demilitarizing the police, passing anti-racial-profiling legislation, and collecting data documenting police abuse, among other measures. Hands Up United, based in Ferguson and St. Louis, has called for the ‘immediate suspension without pay of law enforcement officers that have used or approved excessive use of force.’ #BLM has called on the attorney general to release the names of police who have killed Black people over the last five years ‘so they can be brought to justice, if they haven’t already.’
The long-term strength of the movement will depend on its ability to reach large numbers of people by connecting the issue of police violence to the other ways Black people are oppressed. This process is already under way, with the best example involving the struggle of low-wage workers to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Twenty percent of fast-food workers are Black and 68% of them earn between $7.26 and $10.09 an hour. In Chicago, fast-food restaurants employ 46% of Black workers; in New York it’s 50%. Twenty percent of Walmart’s 1.4 million workers are African American, making it the largest employer of Black Americans.
The fight for educational justice in Black communities has also gained momentum in the last several years and could be another entry point for collaboration between movements. The education justice movement has focused on three issues that disproportionately affect Black students: efforts to privatize publicly funded schools, the school-to-prison pipeline, and high-stakes testing in public schools. [According to Wikipedia, “the school-to-prison pipeline is the disproportionate tendency of minors and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated, because of increasingly harsh school and municipal policies.”] Police presence in public schools has resulted in the criminalization of childhood antics that in an earlier era were handled in the principal’s office, and Black students bear the brunt of this punitive turn.
Developing alliances with organized labor could lead to workers exercising their power to shut down production, services, and business as usual as pressure for concrete reforms concerning the policing state. On May 1, 2015, tens of thousands of activists rallied across the country under the banner of Black Lives Matter, and in Oakland, California, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 10, conducted a work stoppage that halted the flow of millions of dollars’ worth of goods and prevented them from being loaded onto cargo ships. This was the first time a major union had initiated a work stoppage in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The coalition that helped to organize the action said in a statement: ‘Labor is one sector of the community that can truly shut this country down. If workers refuse to work, product doesn’t get made, and money doesn’t exchange hands. The only way this country is going to take us seriously is if we interrupt their commerce and impact their bottom line. Simply appealing to their humanity doesn’t work. If that was the case, the epidemic of Black genocide at the hands of police would have ended decades ago.’
Another important frontier involves the movement’s capacity to develop solidarity with other oppressed groups. This means building networks and alliances with Latinos in opposition to attacks on immigrant rights, connecting with Arabs and Muslims campaigning against Islamophobia, and organizing with Native organizations fighting for self-determination” and the protection of their lands and tribal soveeignty.
“Eighty-three percent of Americans now say racism ‘still poses a problem,’ up 7% from 2014. Sixty-one percent of whites and 82% of Blacks agree that ‘there’s a need for a conversation about racism in American life.’ In less than a year, the number of white Americans who view police killings as ‘isolated incidents’ has fallen from 58% to 36%. At the same time, in July 2015 alone, the police killed an astonishing 118 people. By mid-August they had killed another 54.
Four million Black children live in poverty, one million Black people are incarcerated, and 240,000 Black people lost their homes as a result of the foreclosure crisis, resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in Black savings. The aspiration for Black liberation can’t be separated from what happens in the United States as a whole. Black life can’t be transformed while the rest of the country burns. The fires consuming the United States are stoked by the widespread alienation of low-wage and meaningless work, unaffordable rents, suffocating debt, and poverty. The essence of economic inequality is borne out in a simple fact: there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty. These are not parallel facts; they intersect: there are 400 American billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty. Profit comes at the expense of a living wage. Corporate executives, university presidents, and capitalists in general are living the good life because many others are living a life of hardship. The struggle for Black liberation, then, isn’t an abstract idea in isolation from the wider phenomenon of economic exploitation and inequality that pervades all of American society; it’s intimately bound up with them, just as Black liberation is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.
Capitalism is an economic system based on the exploitation of the many by the few. Because of the gross inequality it produces, it requires various political, social, and ideological tools to divide the majority, and racism is one among many oppressions intended to serve this purpose.
Black people are overrepresented among the ranks of the poor, but the sheer number of poor white people also destabilizes assumptions about the nature of American society. The poverty rate among working-class whites has grown from 3% to 11% since 2000. Even though the recession increased Black poverty, the gap between white and Black poverty has narrowed – not because Blacks are doing better, but because whites are doing worse. Despite white privilege, most ordinary whites are or feel economically insecure. Similarly, though African Americans suffer most from the blunt force trauma of the American criminal justice system, the rate at which white people in the United States are incarcerated is still higher than the incarceration rates of almost every other country in the world. Blacks and Latino/as experience death at the hands of police at much greater rates than whites, but thousands of white people have also been murdered by the police. This doesn’t mean the experiences of whites and people of color are equal, but it does mean that there’s a basis for solidarity among white and nonwhite working-class people.
If it isn’t in the interest of ordinary whites to be racist, why do they accept racist ideas? First, the same question could be asked of any group of workers. Why do men accept sexist ideas? Why do many Black workers accept racist anti-immigrant rhetoric? Why do many Black Caribbean and African immigrant workers think that Black Americans are lazy? Why do most American workers of all ethnicities accept racist ideas about Arabs and Muslims? In short, if most people agree that it would be in the interest of any group of workers to be more united than divided, why do workers hold reactionary ideas that are an obstacle to unity? There are two primary reasons: competition and the prevalence of ruling-class ideology. Capitalism creates false scarcity, the perception that needs outstrip resources. When billions are spent on war, police-brutality settlements, and publicly subsidized sports stadiums, there never seems to be a shortage of money. But when it comes to schools, housing, food, and other basic necessities, politicians always complain about deficits and the need to curb spending and cut budgets. The scarcity is manufactured, but the competition over these resources is real. People who are forced to fight over basic necessities are often willing to believe the worst about other workers to justify why they should have something others don’t.
The political and economic elite shape the ideological world we all live in, to their benefit. We live in a thoroughly racist society, so it shouldn’t be surprising that people have racist ideas. The more important question is under what circumstances those ideas can change. As long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction – at the plutocrats who live well while the rest of us suffer. The key question is whether or not in those moments of struggle a coherent political analysis of society, oppression, and exploitation can be articulated that makes sense of the world we live in, and that champions the vision of a different kind of society and a way to get there.
The next stage will involve progressing from protests aimed at raising awareness or drawing attention to the crisis of police violence to engaging with the social forces that have the capacity to shut down sectors of work and production until our demands to stop police terrorism are met.
There will be relentless efforts to subvert, redirect, and unravel the movement for Black lives, because when the Black movement goes into motion, it throws the entire mythology of the United States – freedom, democracy, and endless opportunity – into chaos. The challenge before us is to connect the current struggle to end police terror in our communities with an even larger movement to transform this country in such a way that the police are no longer needed to respond to the consequences of that inequality.”