The shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, followed by the breaking up of a protest march by police in riot gear and dogs, has let loose the pent-up anger and frustration of black youth in the otherwise quiet working class St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, which saw a night of looting and vandalism. These events above all show that huge pressures are building up in US society, just one scratch below the surface.
On Saturday, August 9th, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, there was a report to police about some candy being shoplifted from a local Quiktrip gas station. This prompted a patrol by the Ferguson Police Department. Some police officers came across an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, who witnesses say was on his way to his grandmother’s from the Ferguson Market, several blocks away from the Quiktrip. Brown was walking in the road when, according to witnesses, an officer yelled at him to “get the f*** on the sidewalk.” The police report differs from witness accounts as to what followed, with police stating that Brown pushed the officer and tried to take his gun, while witnesses who were present claim Brown was backing away. Witnesses all agree that Brown was unarmed and had his hands in the air when the officer shot him nine times. Brown would have begun vocational job-training college classes this week.
After the shooting, Brown’s body was left uncovered in the street for hours, despite the presence of around 60 police, while a crowd gathered. The mood soon turned from disbelief to angry indignation. Brown’s father, Louis Head, hastily made a cardboard sign that read “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son.” Spontaneous gatherings followed at the apartment complex later on Saturday, with protesters holding up their hands in mock surrender and telling the police “don’t shoot!”
On Sunday, a vigil was held at 10 a.m. with a crowd of around 1,000, made up of mostly Ferguson-area residents. As the day wore on, more police arrived, from nearly all the surrounding departments, including a SWAT team with an armored vehicle and assault rifles, and K-9 teams. The heavy police presence, instead of intimidating the protestors, angered them. The head of the St. Louis County government, Charlie Dooley, a black Democrat, spoke to the protestors, appealing for them to go home. But after he expressed his “confidence that the St. Louis County Police would conduct a fair investigation,” the crowd shouted him down. The police force Mr. Dooley is so confident in is the subject of a long-standing complaint in the federal courts for racial profiling. By around 8pm in the evening, police in riot gear began clearing the streets near the police station.
As police continued to advance, some of the youth got in their cars and began “mobile looting,” which lasted into the early morning. Many young people began breaking windows, stopping buses, and looting shops, culminating in the burning down of the Quiktrip. The riot lasted from late Sunday evening until slightly past midnight, leaving several smashed businesses, a smoldering gas station, and in all, 32 rioters arrested. Local news reports that gunshots were heard during the night as well, including some aimed at police, although no injuries were reported.
Since then, the mainstream media has put heavy focus on the arson, looting, and violence. As of Monday, shops and other public buildings in the area remained closed. The residents of this working-class area are appalled at the damage and that the demonstrations took such a turn. When the police and St. Louis County authorities decided to put an end to Sunday night’s march with riot squads and police dogs, they took away the only legal outlet for the youth to express their indignation and anger. The authorities badly misunderstood the mood of many on the streets, which is one of “enough is enough!” Enough of unemployment and poverty; enough of being terrorized by the police; enough of having no voice; enough of having no power over the forces bearing down on their lives. This is why the authorities are now taking a more “hands off” approach, calling for calm and allowing protests to continue.
Throughout these events, the capitalist media has once again shown no shame and continues to play the subtle game of blaming the victim. Especially in television media, the same single image of Michael Brown, wearing a red shirt and seemingly making a gang sign, has been used, as opposed to the majority of photos available, showing him in “friendlier“ poses. Interestingly, this led to the posting of photos on Instagram using the tag #iftheygunnedmedown, where people post contrasting pictures of themselves and you are left to make the easy “guess” of which photo the media would use if they were to be shot by the police. This shows not only that many youth don’t believe the capitalist media, but they are also able to mock it with a sharp sense of irony.
Now it has been announced that the FBI and the US Justice Department will take over the investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown, but this is cold comfort to many. In fact, even the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper had to print an editorial titled: “Disparity of due process—Michael Brown didn’t get any. The police officer who shot him will get plenty.” While the editorial included some pertinent information, such as the fact that black Missourians are 66% more likely to be stopped by police than whites, it unfortunately didn’t provide any pertinent answers. The paper limited itself to calling for “transparency” in the investigation, which will somehow serve as a warning to police to behave in the future.
We must understand that in a society divided into classes, the primary purpose of the police force is not to "serve and protect" ordinary people, but rather, to defend the property of the rich. This is why, in order to protect a few dollars' worth of property for multi-billion dollar corporation Quiktrip, a police officer was ready to end the life of a working class youth. This shooting is only the expression of the real role of the police in its most acute form. In the pursuit of profit, this society leaves millions out of work and in poverty, homeless, and without health care and education. As a result, nearly 1-in-100 Americans and nearly 1-in-24 black Americans find themselves incarcerated, which is another form of state terror and violence. It is said that possession (of property) is nine-tenths of the law—apparently the remaining one-tenth wasn’t enough to protect Michael Brown.
We, along with many others, demand that Michael Brown’s killer be tried in court, free from police interference and obstruction. But we must be clear: any trial in the capitalist courts will not prevent this from happening again. The problem is this: we live in a class society, with the workers on one end, and a tiny handful capitalists at the other. There is the majority—the working class of all colors—and the minority—the capitalist class of all colors—which rules society and controls the state through its ownership of the key levers of the economy.
In capitalist society, the laws are ultimately written to defend the interests of this minority. To enforce them they require a special machinery—the state—which includes the police and prisons, to impose their will on the majority. As long as we live under the capitalist system, the state will have to use brutal methods to make sure that the majority “toes the line.” So while bringing in the federal government may seem to lend impartiality and weight to the investigation, we must be clear that any investigation by the capitalist state into a crime perpetuated in the interests of capitalism can never provide real justice for Michael Brown and his family. As long as capitalism continues to exist, there will be more Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns—and the far-from-impartial “justice” system will treat their killers with kid gloves.
However, while we can sympathize with the reasons for the riots, reflecting as they do the profound contradictions in society, we must also explain that riots can never bring about fundamental change. They are an expression, above all, of frustration and impotence, and amount to what Huey Newton called “wasted energy.” The youth are frustrated and do not have a strategy to change things. It is the responsibility of the labor leadership to mobilize the youth and fight for jobs, education, housing, higher wages, and more. But the tops of the AFL-CIO have offered little more than calling for votes for Democrats and letter-writing campaigns to legislators—and this has solved nothing.
Furthermore, the looting and vandalism will only damage our own neighborhoods and give the powers that be a convenient excuse to dismiss the legitimate issues facing the youth. Riots provide a convenient distraction for the media, which can then focus their attention on the fires, looting, and behavior of the rioters, in order to detract attention from the majority of peaceful protesters and away from the rotten system, which enables these tragedies to occur.. Therefore, the question which should be asked is not why there was a riot, but rather, what has led young people, particularly black youth, into such a blind alley?
Economically, the situation in Missouri is similar to the rest of the country, and the crisis in working-class areas like Ferguson has been especially hard on a lot of people, with the real unemployment rate around 14% and over 20% for black residents. The rates for black and Latino youth are roughly twice these overall figures. According to the organization Young Invincibles, “Over the last decade, economic opportunity for young adults in Missouri has fallen dramatically and the recession has made it worse. As income and job prospects dwindle, more young people find themselves in part-time work, or out of the labor force entirely.”
The fact is, the “economic recovery” we’ve heard about is not for us—it is only for the big corporations and the wealthy. Despite rising profits, this money is staying in the bank accounts of the rich and is not being invested to create good, quality unionized jobs, or even low-wage non-unionized jobs. The working class—black, Latino, Asian, and white—is collectively being squeezed in the name of capitalism. There is no way forward for the working class and the youth within the limits of the capitalist system.
US capitalism has long relied on the policy of “divide and rule.“ Understanding this, the black revolutionary Malcolm X famously said “you cannot have capitalism without racism.” Black workers have long been treated like second-class citizens, channelled into second-class neighborhoods, second-class schools, and second-class jobs, all enforced by an invisible, yet all-the-more-powerful web of police repression, discrimination, and social perceptions. This oppression continues because the extreme wealth of the capitalists is based on scarcity for the working class. And as long as scarcity exists, it is easier for the ruling class to divide black against white, young against old, men against women, as we scramble over the crumbs left over from the capitalists’ table. As the crisis of the capitalist system continues, the system can provide the majority only low-wage and part-time jobs, and demand a further grinding down of living conditions, not just for black workers, but all working people and the poor.
The way to fight racism and police violence is through working-class unity and mass, organized action on the streets, in the workplaces, and in the schools and universities. The labor movement must put itself at the head of such a movement, fighting for genuine equality of opportunity for all, on the basis of political and organizational independence from the capitalists and their parties. Only by breaking with the Democrats and Republicans and building a mass party of labor based on the unions can American workers and youth gain a real political voice.
We agree with those who demand that police brutality and profiling must be ended. And it is understandable that many people are demanding community control over the police, as they instinctively understand that the police are not impartial and do not represent the majority's interests. However, we must explain that the police can never be truly separated from the capitalist state. Ultimately, only the workers in the community, organized as a democratically elected and controlled defense force, could really protect people from crime and police brutality. This, in turn, can only come about as part of a generalized and organized struggle by the workers to change society.
Temporary or cosmetic measures will not eliminate the root causes of inequality, poverty, and criminalization. What is needed is a massive program of public works to rebuild our communities and infrastructure, to provide quality housing, health care, education, and well-paid union jobs that can ensure a decent standard of living for everyone. None of this is possible on the scale required on the basis of the profit-driven system of capitalism. This is why, if we truly want to defeat racism and end inequality, we must fight for an end to the capitalist system itself and for socialism, which would give the youth a future they rightfully deserve!
Originally published in Socialist Appeal.