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.”