More than a month after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black youth from Ferguson, USA, the police officer who shot him multiple times remains free and safely in hiding. Michael Brown’s killing was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” opening up a new stage in the changing consciousness of young Americans.
More than a month after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black youth, Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him multiple times despite Brown having raised his arms in surrender, remains free and safely in hiding. The St. Louis region is tense in anticipation of the grand jury’s ruling on whether or not to file charges against Wilson. Brown’s shooting has drawn attention to the chilling fact that an average of two black men are killed by police every week in the United States. Michael Brown’s killing, however, is not just another repetition of this tragic cycle. In many ways, it was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” opening up a new stage in the changing consciousness of young Americans, and young blacks in particular.
According to The Sentencing Project, as of 2013, “one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.” This state of affairs has only intensified in recent years, and, coupled with the grinding down of living conditions and lack of jobs and prospects for the youth, has reached an intolerable level. The protests in Ferguson and across the country have been qualitatively different than similar events in the recent past. A new generation of youth is being politically awakened and has gained a sense of our collective power. Hemmed in on all sides by institutional racism, police intimidation, brutality, and a bleak economic future, many are saying “enough is enough!” and are looking for an alternative to what little capitalism offers.
“Like an Occupying Army”
Events in Ferguson picked up in the last two weeks of September after hitting a lull earlier in the month. Earlier in September, the first public meeting of the St. Louis County government since the killing of Michael Brown was disrupted by nearly 100 protesters, who told the head of the local government “you are ISIS for black people!” An earlier attempt by protesters to block a busy area highway was prevented by police. Following the burning of a Ferguson service station which maintains the police department’s cars, a makeshift memorial for Michael Brown in the Canfield Green apartments where he once lived was also burned down. Soon afterwards, riot police deployed to the area, further inflaming the mood when several of the police were spotted wearing “I am Darren Wilson” armbands. This led to further protests and looting on the night of September 27, with shots fired at police, including one which hit an officer in the arm.
Roadblocks, with police in helmets, bullet-proof vests and armed with assault rifles have made reappearances at area intersections. Ferguson, which in recent years was given the title “Playful City USA” by a local business association, in recognition for its parks, street festivals, and free concerts, these days bears more resemblance to another name, “Baghdad USA,” given by the Huffington Post. This is what life under capitalism in the 21st century looks like.
Once again, the local authorities made a tense situation worse, when Ferguson police Chief Tom Jackson issued a video apology to Michael Brown’s parents. Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, was not moved and told an AP interviewer that Jackson should be fired, and Michael Brown Sr. said that instead of an apology they would rather see Darren Wilson arrested for killing their son. Afterward, Chief Jackson, in plain clothes, walked out of the Ferguson police station and attempted to join a protest march. But a scuffle broke out and several protesters were arrested. Since then, small day-time protests have enlarged into larger night-time protests.
The sight of police armed to the teeth, with tear gas, sound cannons, helicopters with spotlights beaming down, and armored vehicles on the streets of an American city has shocked many people. Truly, seeing these things at close range, the feeling is like being under a foreign military occupation. From President Obama to Rand Paul to various “experts” in the media, many have expressed apprehension at this state of affairs. Some have called into question the Pentagon’s decade-old policy of providing local police departments with military equipment. But despite Obama and Paul’s rhetorical objections, it is the need to maintain the system they defend—capitalism—that has led to the bulking up of the police forces.
As we explained in our document, Perspectives for the US Revolution, the crisis of the capitalist system has had a major impact on the ruling class’ ability to rule and maintain its position in society. US capitalism reached the apex of its power at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, and since then, it has been going through a period of protracted decline. The economic crisis of 2008, as well as the current jobless “recovery,” has only widened the huge gap between a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority of capitalists at one pole of society, and the vast working class majority at the opposite end. Even organizations such as Stratfor are worried about the future, predicting social upheaval in the US. As we noted in our perspectives document:
“In response, one wing of the ruling class would like to offer a few modest concessions—but there is no money with which to do this. On the other side, we can see the rise of what can be best described as mild parliamentary Bonapartist tendencies, with a creeping encroachment on basic civil liberties, increased surveillance and police presence, a clampdown on protests, etc. However, unlike those who cower in an almost superstitious awe of the power of the state, we understand that laws like the Patriot Act and the NSA’s dragnet of any and all communications is a sign of weakness, not of strength.”
Do we agree with those who demand that the Pentagon stop the militarization of the police? Yes, but not without pointing out that with or without this type of military gear, the role played by the police forces in society remains unchanged. For example, the police forces in the Civil Rights era “only” had clubs, pistols, dogs, and fire hoses, yet they viciously suppressed the movement nonetheless. The police forces are a part of the capitalist state machine, and will be used to break strikes, criminalize whole segments of the population, break up protests, and in general be used as a battering ram used to keep the working class “in line.”
In response to the police’s heavy-handed tactics, many have called for “community control” of the police, with even some left groups echoing the same demand. While we understand what many people seek to achieve when calling for “community control,” we have to point out that this idea is in fact misleading. Before we can seriously talk about control of the police, we have to ask, who controls the state? To Marxists, the state includes the police, courts, prisons, military, all the departments of the government, as well as the US Congress, state and local governments. The state does not exist in a vacuum, but is brought into being by the society around it. We live in a class society, where at one end there is a tiny minority, the capitalist class, which through its ownership of the banks and large corporations has tremendous power concentrated in its hands. At the other end there is the vast majority, the working class. In capitalist society, it is the capitalists who form the ruling class, with support from the tops of the military, civil service, and others, meaning that they are the ones who ultimately “call the shots.” In short, the present state is set up to serve their interests and maintain capitalism.
In the United States today, many officials, such as the members of Congress and the President are elected every two to six years. At the state and local level, local representatives, judges, school boards, mayors, and some police chiefs are also elected. However, these elected officials represent just a small minority of all the people who work in one form or another within the state. The majority are regular working people, like postal workers and teachers. But there is another layer at the top end of the civil service, an “unelected army” of people who are in charge of running many day-to-day aspects of society and who have a huge amount of power. They range from the Generals and Admirals on the Joints Chief of Staff and in the Pentagon, the FBI, CIA and NSA, to the state and local police departments and different agencies and departments of the government. Then there is the unelected and appointed-for-life Supreme Court. Make no mistake about it: these people are very closely tied to the capitalist class and they are experts in running society in the interests of the minority, against the interests and wishes of the majority.
In reality, despite electing some officials in the state under capitalism, who themselves are under no real “control” by the working class once they are elected, the vast majority of those with real power in the state are unknown and outside of any “control” whatsoever by the working class, which makes up most of the voters and the population. If we cannot really “control” Congress or the president, how can we “control” the unelected and unaccountable police, which are on the front lines of the capitalist state? Even if, for example, there was a mass labor party in the United States which elected many people to Congress on a socialist program, their ability to fully implement the will of the majority would be hampered and sabotaged by this state bureaucracy.
The police are an organized armed force. How can we, the working class, as an unorganized unarmed force, take control of the police? That has never happened in history, and it unfortunately never will. As Leon Trotsky once explained: “In questions of life and death, arguments based on reason have never replaced the arguments of force. This may be sad, but it is so. It is not we that have made this world. We can do nothing but take it as it is.” The reality is, we can never control the capitalist state and its police forces (or the Army or any other key part of the state).
Concretely, in those cities where something like what some have called “community control” has been won, these have mostly been “civilian review boards.” However, there is not much genuine “control” with these boards because they only are able to “review” cases after the fact. They do not exercise any real control over the police. In the case of Ferguson, so far the local police chief has not even been forced to resign, let alone there being any real possibility of “community control.”
Another idea put forward to change the way the police forces in Ferguson and other similar areas operate is to hire more black police officers, or at the very least, police officers who actually live in the communities they are supposed to serve. While we understand the motivation for this demand, we again have to point out that this will not fix the fundamental problem. The police in many parts of the country, especially in predominantly black communities, bear a lot more resemblance to soldiers patrolling a place like Fallujah, Iraq, than to Barney Fife walking a beat around the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina.
There is an “us versus them” mentality in many police departments, which is a reflection of material reality. Financially speaking, to cover their growing budgets—after all, they have to pay for that new armored personnel carrier!—many departments set demanding quotas for tickets and fines, adding a further burden on workers and the working poor, who often get ensnared by warrants for things like failure to pay traffic tickets or for a late vehicle registration. In Ferguson and the other municipalities surrounding it, “Court Night” feels like feudalism never really ended, with long lines of people waiting to pay off petty fees to the local robber baron (er, judge,) or to beg for a little more time.
These police departments “flex their muscle” on a daily basis, harassing residents in poorer neighborhoods with racially profiled “random” stop-and-searches, maintaining high arrest rates by going hard after even the pettiest offenses (or perceived offenses), patrolling like soldiers subduing an unruly foreign populace, and in general terrorizing residents, and especially the youth. Concretely, it is easier for these police departments to use “outside people” as the boots on the ground, because these officers have little or no direct connection to the people and communities they “serve.” It also makes maintaining morale among the police easier. If these same departments relied on officers from these same neighborhoods, it would be harder to maintain morale. But simply hiring more black police officers in communities like Ferguson won’t “solve” everything, because at the end of the day, the institution itself and its purpose remains at odds with the interests of the majority.
This does not mean that all or even most police officers are racist, un-feeling machines. To be sure, especially in institutions like the police forces, there can be found truly repugnant exhibits of human beings, poisoned by hate, racism, sexism and “isms” that have yet to be categorized. However, these are a minority. In the case of Ferguson, for example, after the first week of big clashes between police and protesters, several area police departments who came in as reinforcements pulled out of the area, all citing different reasons, despite the fact that “law and order” had not yet been established. One likely reason was the fact that as things intensified, many, or at least a few key rank-and-file officers, must have voiced doubts or opposition to being used in such a way. For example, since he has not yet been indicted or given any interviews, we do not even know if Darren Wilson himself is a racist, or what motivated him to kill Michael Brown. Possibly, what led Wilson to kill Brown was the same thing that leads individual soldiers to kill civilians in military occupations overseas—fear. When you place people in uniforms and give them guns and make them patrol daily, surrounded by people they are made to see as the “enemy,” tragedies like this will occur. In this sense, we must say that the killing of Michael Brown was a crime committed by capitalism, which uses police officers as attack dogs just to maintain the rotting system.
Demands like “community control of the police” may therefore be well intentioned, but in practice can only serve to disorient and mislead those who are trying to find an alternative. What we must explain is the need for a different kind of state, a workers’ state, in which the majority would control not only the key levers of the economy, but of the government as well. This would completely transform relations between people and the character of the state. The need for the police standing above the rest of the population is a function of capitalist society and scarcity. On the basis of socialist plenty, there would be no objective need for such a force.
McCulloch, a Democrat, ran unopposed, yet over 10,000 voters wrote-in candidates against him (presumably, many of these were for “Mike Brown”). In October, Zaki Baruti, a long-time area activist who was one of the public faces of the Ferguson protests, began an independent write-in candidacy for St. Louis County executive, focusing on the demand to remove McCulloch from office. Baruti received around 33,000 write-in votes out of approximately 275,000 cast in a low-turnout election. While his campaign was organized as a protest vote less than a month before the election, and lacked resources beyond word-of-mouth information and placards at demonstrations, the protest vote itself was split by parts of the local Democratic establishment and a wing of the Ferguson protest movement leadership.
The Democratic party has certainly been going through a crisis. In St. Louis County, which primarily votes Democratic, the local party has long taken black voters for granted. The local executive who sent in the militarized county police department was a Democrat, and the state governor who brought in the National Guard and Highway Patrol is also a Democrat. Not long after the announcement of Zaki Baruti’s write-in campaign, a group of area black Democratic elected officials announced that they were calling for voters to support Rick Stream, the Republican candidate for county executive. Their motivation for supporting the Republican, who among other things supports tougher voter-ID laws and restricting access to abortions, was to “send a message” to the local Democratic party leadership, and by doing so, somehow gain “leverage” in the party. Incidentally, both major party candidates were in agreement on one thing—that if protests erupt in the future, they are in favor of instituting martial law. In the end, the Democratic candidate, Steve Stenger, who is closely tied to Bob McCulloch, was able to win the election.
The struggle in Ferguson has upset the old dynamic, but it is impossible to create a real alternative to the “status quo” within the confines of the two parties who uphold the very same! Let’s be clear: this was nothing else but “greater-evilism,” and like its twin “lesser-evilism,” it brings the same result: evil. The only real alternative to the two parties who uphold the status quo of racism, inequality, and capitalism is to break with them and form a mass party of labor that fights for socialist policies.
One of the concrete demands of the protest movement was the stepping-down of Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County Prosecutor. Over the past decade, McCulloch’s office has brought cases of police killings to the courts only 4 times, and in each case failed to charge the police officers involved, including a 2011 case in which county cops were caught on video shooting two unarmed men to death while they sat in a parked car outside of a fast food restaurant.
Despite the unleashing of massive protests, and the uncomfortable spotlight of the media, making local authorities sweat, the state’s Democratic Governor, Jay Nixon, has allowed his fellow Democrat McCulloch to keep his job and direct the course the courts take in this case. A grand jury has been convened which will decide whether or not to charge Darren Wilson later in the year. However, instead of the Prosecutor’s office making a case to the grand jury for or against charging Wilson, they have simply dumped the unorganized mass of evidence on the jury and told the jurists to make their own decision.
This might at first seem “impartial,” but in reality, nine times out of ten in cases like this, when a grand jury is asked to “make up its own mind” whether or not to indict a police officer, they do not vote to indict. Jury members are in effect undemocratically “drafted” local residents, not legal “professionals,” and within the confines of the courtrooms can be susceptible to the lead given them by lawyers and judges. It is very clear that McCulloch is trying to steer the courts away from any trial of Darren Wilson, while trying to shield himself and the other professional, respectable hangmen in the “justice” system, from the ensuing popular anger if Wilson is allowed to go free. So far, it appears that yet another judicial farce is being prepared, and, as we pointed out in an earlier article, the courts will likely treat Darren Wilson with kid gloves.
Why is this happening? In the United States, many people place a lot of confidence in judges, prosecutors, and in the supposed “impartiality” of the courts. Television programs like “Law and Order” and “CSI” remain popular because of the “entertainment value” of a murder-mystery, but they also serve to reinforce the faith of many in the fairness and objectivity of the legal system. But the reality is far different. We live in a class society, and such justice as exists is justice for the wealthy minority, not the working minority.
Formally speaking, we are all “equal before the law.” For over 50 years, black workers and youth have also been guaranteed formal equality before the law. However, as the the Greek statesman Solon put it: “Laws are like spiders’ webs which, if anything small falls into them they ensnare it, but large things break through and escape.” Formal equality on paper does not mean genuine equality. What we call “the law” in capitalist society is not law in the abstract, and out of time and space, but bourgeois law. At the end of the day, Michael Brown was not killed for any “crime.” He was killed because in this unequal, brutal society, the machinery of the state—the courts, police, army—is used as a buffer between the haves and the have-nots.
The role of the courts under capitalism in situations like this is somewhat different than the role played by the police. Whereas the police use weapons like clubs, sound cannons, and tear gas to beat back the masses, the courts use the cloak of “impartiality,” focusing attention on minutia and arcane and time-consuming procedures. Their aim is to allow the movement to “cool down” and eventually ebb against the slow-moving rock of “justice,” as the “experts,” who are far removed from the vast majority of society, decide the big issues among themselves.
“Respectable” defenders of the status quo like President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, Jay Nixon and Robert McCulloch are unwilling to make any real concessions, despite the serious warning the protests and clashes represent. This is because in an age of austerity, the only way that they can defend the status quo is by force. As millions saw for themselves in the clashes in Ferguson, this means not just force but over-the-top, brutal force. Capitalism simply has nothing to offer the working class and the youth. The system can’t provide the youth with jobs or a future. They want to continue using the police force as a battering ram to atomize the working class, and to make sure that the majority stays in line and does not try to influence the course of events in society. The message they are sending is very clear, despite the window-dressing of a US Justice Department investigation into the events and Obama’s pleas for calm and restraint. However, as the eruption of the protests in August proved, black workers and youth in particular have reached the limits of their patience.
Socialist Appeal demands that Darren Wilson be indicted and tried in court free of interference from the likes of McCulloch. But we must be clear that, no matter how the proceedings against Darren Wilson go, unless we get rid of this rotten system, there will be more “Michael Browns” in the future.