On Saturday, August 8th of this year, an 18-year-old African-American named Michael Brown was murdered by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, a working class suburb of St. Louis. Less than a month before, Eric Garner, also black, was choked to death by New York City police while his hands were raised in surrender. Just a couple of days ago, the guy who caught Garner’s murder on his cellphone camera, was mysteriously found to be carrying a weapon and was arrested (I suspect the official charge will be a weapons violation, because “recording police murder” isn’t yet a violation of any ordinance). Meanwhile, the police in Ferguson are using rubber bullets, tear gas, attack dogs, and indiscriminate beatings against those who dare to suggest that something might be wrong with all of this.
These are only a few of many such incidents, and, amid the horror and outrage we feel, we can find one silver lining: The role of the police is becoming clear to broader and broader layers of society. As the police militarize themselves with automatic weapons, drones, and tanks, and feel more and more free to fall back on plain, simple murder, we become more aware of exactly what they are protecting and who they are serving. Though hardly a consolation for those who’ve lost a loved one, it at least is a cause for hope that this increased awareness will, sooner rather than later, translate into effective action. The police are the defenders of capitalism, and the more blatantly they demonstrate this, the clearer it becomes to masses of people in general, and the working class in particular.
But this increased awareness, itself, is a threat to capitalism; the working class is not helpless–far from it! Every wheel that turns in our complex, international society, is, at the end of the day, turned by the working class; the ruling class is not so blind as to be unaware of this, nor so complacent as to not be threatened by it. What then to do? The bourgeoisie has more than one weapon in its arsenal. While using the police as domestic terrorists with its right hand, with its left, it brings us–the Left. That is, those who use leftist-sounding rhetoric in order to make sure our outrage remains harmlessly channeled back into support for the system that commits these atrocities.
One must be a fool or a scoundrel to say that race is not a factor in these killings: the racism of police departments is well-known. But one must be a different sort of fool, or a different sort of scoundrel, to say that race is the only factor. The Al Sharptons of the world are delighted to take this opportunity to raise support for the Democratic Party, and close on their heels come the supporters of identity politics who want, above all, to remain in their comfort zones, if not in their comfortable positions. “This is about racism, that’s all. There is no need to discuss the mad drive for profit, the protection of private property. This has nothing to do with the appalling and ever-increasing income disparity, or with imperialist wars prosecuted against the will of the people. That this is happening at the same time the US helped engineer a fascist coup in Ukraine and is cheering on Israel’s open slaughter of Palestinians is pure coincidence, just as it’s coincidence that as the president orders murders without due process beyond our borders the police carry out exactly the same thing within our borders. It’s just those darned congressional Republicans. Capitalism itself is not the issue. And don’t look behind the curtain.” But the curtain is getting thin, and all that is required to see behind it is to open one’s eyes. That dark shape just past the gauze is called the class struggle. May I make the observation that the chief law enforcement officer of the United States is African-American? May I point out that we have yet to see these police murders take place in Baldwin Hills, California or Mitchellville, Maryland?
Yes, indeed, racism is a factor. But–a factor in what? A factor in the evolving police culture, a culture determined in the immediate sense by interactions among individual cops: what jokes they tell, comments about how willing they are to shoot, mutual encouragement for the worst excesses, the subtle pressures inevitably exerted by and on those who work closely together. But that is, as I said, in the immediate sense. What determines that culture in the last analysis is the needs of the job. The job is protecting capitalism, and the more terrified the bourgeoisie is by the anger they are stirring up against themselves, the more repressive their armed servants need to be. We saw that in the police response to the Occupy movement, harmless though that movement was, and now we are seeing it ever more sharply. Those who cry loudest that racism is the only factor are, by and large, those with something to gain from it; either sleazy politicians like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, or academics who can freely write “anti-racism” essays as a publication credit for their tenure track positions but dare not speak out against capitalist property relations.
It is absurd to claim that we are living in a police state: we still have the right to protest, at least within certain limits, and I still have the freedom to write this blog post without undue fear of official harassment, and Obama and the NSA still feel the need to justify domestic spying: the rights and freedoms we have won are still largely intact. But it is naive to think that movements toward a police state are not taking place. This is the lesson of what is happening in Arizona, and the “constitution-free zones,” and what happened in Boston after the marathon bombing, and the way the cops increasingly feel at liberty to take our lives without a second thought. Police state measures are being prepared, and we need to be aware of it. Failing to go beyond the question of racism is to leave us ideologically prostrate and theoretically helpless as the enemy forces gather at our border.
Let’s not do that.