50 Years after Civil Rights Movement, U.S. Law and Practice Remain Racist to the Core …
It’s post-verdict Day 6, and demonstrations continue all over the country against the racist outcome of George Zimmerman’s trial for killing Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in February 2012. People are in the streets protesting in Florida, Los Angeles, Oakland, Washington, DC, New York, Newark, Chicago, Atlanta, and hundreds of smaller cities. Young people and parents of young people, and other people who are repulsed by state-sanctioned cold-blooded murder, all are in the streets. They know that any African-American or Latino youth may be killed just as easily as 17-year old Trayvon Martin was, whether by cops or vigilantes or ordinary racists looking for a fight, and that these killers will not be punished, at least not in Florida and other states with “stand your ground” laws. George Zimmerman escaped even a manslaughter conviction when a jury containing no Black people reached its verdict on July 13. The jury bought his version of his murderous activities: he carried a gun and followed Martin because there had been some burglaries in the neighborhood, and here was a Black youth; they got into a fight and he shot the unarmed Martin through the heart because Zimmerman felt that he was in danger. The state of Florida did not even prosecute Zimmerman until months after the killing, when it was pressured by nation-wide protests and demands to take action.
We are glad to see loud, persistent protests of the verdict. In New York City, many of the marches have been well integrated; one that stopped traffic in Times Square last Sunday appeared to have an equal number of Blacks and whites. In Los Angeles, there has been some destruction of property—horror of horrors! We note that the high point of the urban rebellions of the 1960s occurred in Detroit in 1967, where the causes and targets were broad-based, and participation was widespread and integrated.
We hope that the current movement will continue and grow; we encourage people to come out to local demonstrations and to a national one in Washington on Aug. 24.
The Right-to-Kill Laws
A license to beat and kill Black and Latino youth is exercised widely by police across the country, and we’ve been protesting that for decades. It is exactly 21 years since the police who viciously beat Rodney King were exonerated at their trial, setting off a rebellion in the same area of Los Angeles where people are now protesting the Florida verdict. Since then, thousands of people who presented no physical threat have been killed by overzealous and racist law enforcement officers.
But what is new is that states are increasingly enabling civilians to do the same thing with impunity, by passing laws protecting those who exercise the supposed “right” and opportunity to carry concealed weapons and to “stand your ground,” that is, to kill someone if you feel threatened by him–regardless of who started the fight, who was minding his own business, who was stalking whom, or how little justified your fear was. There cannot be the slightest doubt that these laws are designed to allow white people to kill Black and Latino people.
In response to the Zimmerman verdict protests, some “liberal” media are calling the protesters naïve for blaming the jury for the outcome of the trial, because the jury was only carrying out the laws of Florida. This can’t be compared to lynching, they say, because the jury system is a good thing. Well, not if the jury applies irrational, racist laws when white people are tired for killing African-Americans, with absurd results like in this case: Martin was doing nothing but walking home when he was followed, confronted, and executed by Zimmerman.
Moreover, the protesters are not condemning the jury’s action alone; they are very aware of how thoroughly racist the whole “justice” system is. The more civil rights that minorities won in the past 50 years, the more new ways have been found to continue this racist society as is. The recent “stand your ground” and gun protection laws are the logical culmination of a counter-revolution against the civil rights gains of the 1960s; they are a modern form of legalized lynching.
“No Justice, No Peace”
We are supposed to be living in a “post-racial” society, and in fact, race was never mentioned during the trial. The prosecutors maintained, even after losing, that the case was not about race, although they admitted it did involve “profiling,” since Zimmerman assumed that any Black youth was a criminal. Profiling is apparently considered bad if used in this way, but not an evil like racism. Profiling is institutionalized by the law enforcement system and so appears not to be the fault of any individual. Thus, the word makes an abstraction out of a very real practice, makes it seem like a procedure with unfortunate side effects rather than the latest version of age-old racism, with very specific consequences like in this case.
In another method of reducing this very real injustice to an abstraction, we are told by everyone from the President to the Florida Attorney General that it’s OK to be “sad” or “disappointed” at the verdict, just as they are. But what they imply by this is that it’s not OK for us to be furious or willing to devote our lives to transforming this society by the means necessary to do so. Similarly, widespread calls for “dialogue,” “peace,” “love,” and “reconciliation of Black and white,” all make abstractions out of the effects of governmental licenses to kill young Black men. And the ubiquitous calls for prayer seem to mean that we should give up on trying to create a just society through our own actions, and leave the task to God.
These sorts of words and injunctions annoy the hell out of us at MHI. They belong to a popular touchy-feely aspect of capitalist culture today, one that urges us to resolve our pain and outrage over injustice by blaming people’s attitudes—“all you need is love”–instead of fighting to destroy and overcome it. Let’s instead live the words of the chant, “No Justice, No Peace.”
Prisoners are tortured and executed; obstacles to voting rights are sanctioned; affirmative action is gutted
A racist counter-revolution against civil rights can be seen all over our “post-racial society.” The on-going hunger strike by 29,000 prisoners in California, overwhelmingly Black and Latino men, has exposed the horrendous conditions under which they live, including months and years spent in solitary confinement without even a window to look through. The persistence of the death penalty, eliminated in many other countries, is another manifestation of racism, since most of its victims are Black.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have also opened the door to revival of the bad old days. In striking down major parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Court cleared the way for states to disenfranchise Black people by imposing requirements like having government-issued ID in order to vote. In the pre-Civil Rights Movement days, Southern states used to require Black people to pass impossibly difficult tests before they could register to vote. The new tricks to inhibit African-Americans from voting are not “just” motivated by racism; they are a systematic effort to make permanent the Republican majorities that prevail in certain districts and states.
The Court has also raised to new heights the standard for universities to legally practice affirmative action in student admissions, a move sure to knock out many if not most such programs. All in all, the trend in laws and court decisions continues to be reactionary in the areas of race and workers’ rights. (We can guess that the Court made some good decisions on gay and lesbian rights only because its reactionary members feared that the Republican Party would lose all gay voters––or else because the Justices know some gay and lesbian people these days.)
50th Anniversary of March on Washington
These events and the Zimmerman acquittal come 50 years after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. A high point of the Civil Rights Movement, some 250,000 people, Black and white, participated in the then-largest demonstration in the history of the U.S. capital. The event bespoke the Civil Rights Movement’s growing strength and nationwide support. At that march, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, which propelled him to leadership of the movement and put forth a positive vision of the future for Black and white America.
King’s speech there did more than make his name. With that march, the “Freedom Now!” movement for African-American rights turned into a national movement for a radically different, just society. Left organizations grew, Black and white; discussions of Marxism and revolution flourished. Shortly before he was assassinated in 1968, King became an advocate for workers’ rights and joined the opposition to the war in Vietnam. It was a period of breath-taking change, a time when masses of people were in motion, pushing forward toward the country’s transformation.
But when a movement is cut short without a thoroughgoing revolution, it retrogresses. You may want to listen to MHI’s two recent discussions on “Why Do Popular Movements Vanish? And do They Have To?” These discussions have only scratched the surface of this vital topic. We invite you to join in.
Today, the ruling class attempts to make Martin Luther King, Jr. into nothing more than a symbol of nonviolence and of dreaming. It is high time we turned the national discussion around, to what it would take to actually end racism in all its forms, and whether that could happen within capitalism, a system that thrives on keeping the working class divided against itself. Only the mass activity and ideas of working people can transform the entire society, and struggles against racism and injustice are part of the process of that transformation.