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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Police: Palace Guards and Counter-Insurgents

Thanks to the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras, police racism is now apparent to even the most disinterested citizen. The recorded police murders of African Americans at work, in their cars, committing minor traffic violations, or at leisure, are widely known. The unwarranted shootings of unarmed African American youth, women, elderly, or the impaired, have been seen via the media by nearly everyone. There is no longer much public denial of the existence of police violence against Black people.

There remains, however, a continuing debate on the extent of the violence, its causes, and its meaning.

At one pole are the apologists. Apart from the blatant racists who salute the violence, deniers argue that the incidents are rare or that the violence is only the result of a few “bad apples.” The emerging facts belie the belief that police violence is uncommon. And the “bad apple” metaphor collapses in the face of the insular solidarity of virtually all police forces; “professional” law enforcement and its political overseers refuse to professionally discard the “bad apples.” If the supposed “good” cops will not step up to repudiate the racists, they are racists, too.

In profound opposition to the apologists are the Marxists, who see the police as a structure or institution that is inseparably bound up with service to those who rule. Yes, police serve and protect, but primarily they serve and protect the propertied class and its interests. The reason “protect and serve” rings so hollow to minorities, trade unionists, and other groups is that the police are a part of a larger criminal justice system devised solely to keep order for wealth and power. Police violence, to the Marxist, is not personal, random, or pathological, but systemic.

As a corollary, racist police violence serves to contain a group that has historically challenged power and authority. African American resistance to New World ruling classes begins with the subjugation of Africans, their forced departure from their homelands, and their enslavement as laborers. African Americans fought unsuccessfully to hold onto the gains of Reconstruction, fought against inequities of segregation, struggled for voting rights, for economic and for social rights, and have been in the vanguard of virtually every broad-based US struggle for justice. It is for these reasons that the African American people have suffered a special, targeted relationship with the protectors of ruling-class interests-- the police. The mass insurrections that have frequently erupted in recent decades have spurred the police to serve as a veritable occupying army in Black neighborhoods.

“Just the Facts…”

Of course the Marxist charge of systemic police violence and abuse is not an easy pill for many people to swallow, particularly if they live in communities distant from or walled off from urban neighborhoods where the police concentrate their violence.

So, facts are needed. For this, we turn to an unlikely source: a lengthy essay/book review by a conservative academic in The Wall Street Journal. Professor Edward P. Stringham (Is America Facing a Police Crisis?, July 30-31, 2016) notes that opinion polls show that confidence in police is at a 20-year low “among Americans of all ages, education levels, incomes, and races…,” but is even lower for African Americans. All citizens agree overwhelmingly that police should wear body cameras. Such is the general mistrust in police credibility.

To give perspective to the “crisis,” Stringham offers the vital statistics on police killing and police killed. He cites a “victimization” rate of police officers, thought to be risking their lives protecting us, as 4.6 deaths per 100,000 officers. But the “average American faces a nearly identical homicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000 and the average male actually faces a homicide rate of 6.6 per 100,000.” So much for the notion that “protecting” the public is more dangerous than being “protected” by the police.

By contrast, the police kill “134 [disproportionately Black] Americans per 100,000 officers, a rate 30 times the homicide rate overall. Police represent about 1 out of 360 members of the population, but commit 1 out of 12 of all killings in the United States…. In England and Germany, where the police represent a similar percentage of the population as in the US, they commit less than one-half of 1% of all killings.”

Any argument that explains police killing civilians as a response to the dangers incurred in police work falls before the facts.

Stringham goes on to explain that police killings cannot be justified because of a rising crime rate or conversely as the deterrent responsible for the drop in crime.

Even though the hysterically sensationalist media portrays crime as rampant, the truth is far different. In 14 of the past 15, years most citizens surveyed thought that crime was on the rise when the opposite was true. Actually, the homicide rate dropped in the 1990s to the level of today, the same as in the 1950s (4.5 per 100,000). In 1900, the homicide rate was 6 per 100,000 and 9 per 100,000 during prohibition. So, police killings are not a defensive reaction to rising crime.

But neither is the recent drop in crime a reaction to the draconian crime-prevention schemes of the last few decades (zero-tolerance, militarization, mass incarceration). The Canadian criminal justice system experienced virtually the same drop in crime without resorting to any of the medieval tactics served up by the US ruling class.

Thus, police violence is neither justified as a response to rising crime, nor a cause of the drop in crime in the US.

Further, it is not only physical violence that epitomizes the US criminal justice system, but also mass incarceration (again, inordinately afflicting African-Americans). Today, the US leads the world in per capita criminalization of its citizens, jailing at a rate seven times greater than in 1965.

Professor Stringham also points out that New York incarcerated 48 citizens per 100,000 in 1865; now, New York imprisons 265 people per 100,000. It is hardly credible that New Yorkers now pose a threat to society today more than five times greater than 150 years earlier.

The intensification of police repression is not inexplicable, but is coincident with political policy. The Johnson-era Omnibus crime bill of 1968 that expanded and funded policing, militarization, and surveillance, was clearly a reaction to the mass actions and insurrections of the 1960s.

The Clinton administration further escalated police reach and militarization with the 1994 crime bill that funded 100,000 more police and vastly more prisons. To fill the prisons, mandatory sentencing and expanded criminal charges were enacted. In addition, the Clinton administration gave police billions of dollars of military equipment-- assault rifles, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, etc.

Currently, police departments receive $1.6 billion per annum for military equipment from the Department of Homeland Security.

Swat teams-- the special ops of the militarized police-- now conduct 50,000 raids per year.

As Glen Ford recently reported in Black Agenda Report, the Obama Administration has nearly tripled the annual direct military transfer of weaponry from the Pentagon to the police since 2010.

And to what purpose?

The militarization of the police in the US, a process that accelerated from the late 1960s to today, coincides with the intense concentration of wealth for the rich, the stagnation and deterioration of living standards for the rest, and the stripping of personal rights in the United States. The authorities justify police aggression on the basis of contrived wars on crime, drugs, and terrorism. They stoke fears to rally support for the arming of the forces of counter-insurgency against an increasingly angry populace.

Because of their historical militancy, African Americans have been subjected to the brunt of militarized police violence. The suppression of Black youth is the particular focus of law enforcement, a testament to the group’s revolutionary potential. The devaluation of African American lives and their arbitrary murder are part of the ruling-class campaign to intimidate. The police are the agents of the campaign.

Zoltan Zigedy

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Searching for the “White Working Class”

The Wall Street Journal calls them the “forgotten Americans.” Others see them as racist and xenophobic. Then aspiring-President Obama characterized them in 2008 in the following way: "And it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Whether they are forgotten, dismissed, or demonized, the “white working class” has been discovered this election season.

As with any new species, researchers are scrambling to probe, dissect, and analyze white workers; pundits are spinning theories about their habits and dispositions; and politicians are searching for keys to unlock their votes.

Arguably, no social segment has been under the sociological microscope this intensely since US elites and their intellectual courtiers “discovered” African Americans some sixty years ago. Class, like race, must force itself on to the stage before notice is taken.

In the case of the “white working class,” the surprising success of Bernie Sanders on the left flank and Donald Trump on the right flank-- successes that, in part, are believed to owe something to white workers-- sparked the new interest.

Even a decade ago, it was widely believed that there was no working class in the US-- only a vast middle class and the poor. Fostered by social scientists, mainstream politicians, and union functionaries, the fiction prevailed that, apart from the very rich, everyone was either middle class or poor. Of course this illusion began to shatter in the wake of the 2008 crash and the ensuing economic stagnation. Likewise, the rebellion against corporate, cookie-cutter candidates in the 2016 primary fights exposed a class division that poorly fit the harmonious picture of one big class with insignificant extremes at the margin.

Whatever else the 2016 electoral campaigns have revealed, they surely have shattered the illusion that the US is largely a classless society.

But US elites and their opinion-making toadies struggle to find the “white working class.” Some accounts refer to them as “white males without a college degree,” still others, “middle-aged white males.” The Brookings Institute takes a small, but confused step closer to insight, by adding “the additional qualification of being paid by the hour or by the job rather than receiving a salary.”

Vulgar, crude characterizations reach heights of stereotypicality and ignorant simplicity: “Moreover, the political stuff they like – bombastic attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, and Megyn Kelly – can turn off minorities and college-educated whites, particularly women.”

Just as the mass media has fostered caricatures of African-Americans, the media and cultural/entertainment corporations craft an unflattering image of white, working class citizens. Where Black people are saddled with imagery of violence, idleness, promiscuity, and criminality, white workers are portrayed as bigoted, socially, culturally and intellectually backward, superstitious, and conservative.

One would never know from “hood” movies, talk radio hysteria, and the crime-obsessed news readers, that most African Americans are a significant part of the working class, maintain stable households, and work diligently for a better life.

Similarly, most white workers are neither gun fanatics nor Bible-thumpers. Most white workers do not attack gays, abuse their spouses and children, raze mosques or lynch Black People. 

Nonetheless, both caricatures are part of the baggage borne by elites, including liberal elites.

The common perception dished by the mass media is that white workers constitute the electoral base for Donald Trump, when the truth is that the median household income for Trump’s primary voters was $72,000. In truth, the nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments associated with Trump are more typical of the white petty-bourgeoisie than the white working class.

Certainly media elites, pundits, and politicians do not want to talk about the latent rebelliousness of the white working class-- a large majority of white workers believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction, an opinion that should not surprise anyone given the fact that the median household income in the US has declined by 7% since 2000. Unfortunately, the current crisis of political credibility shows that they, like most of the rest of the population, have yet to find a way out.

Social scientists have begun to acknowledge the toll that corporate pillage has taken on the working class, very dramatically of recent in the case of the white working class. Death rates, especially from alcoholism, drug use, and suicide have risen sharply among white workers. The institutions that formerly traded a measure of privilege to white workers for their compliance and docility have now abandoned them. The Democratic Party, for example, is so thoroughly corrupted by corporate money that there is little more than gestures for the causes of workers of every ethnicity.

Yes, there is an element of lost privilege that fuels white working class anger and despair. At the same time, the economic advantages that separated white from Black workers in the past are diminishing in many sectors and afford a rare opportunity to unite workers against their common foe. Until the left and workers’ organizations undertake that task, working class rebellion may well succumb to false friends and bombastic demagogues.

Nothing reveals the distance of the upper classes from the realities of working class life like the current media fascination with the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Writing as one of their own, J.D. Vance-- a principal at an investment firm-- relates his unhappy working class childhood to book club liberals and country club conservatives. 

Feeding the stereotypes, Vance exposes a dysfunctional childhood spared from ruin by an enlistment in the Marine Corps, a stint at Ohio State University, and a climb to the summit, Yale Law School. Looking down from the rarified air of Yale, he feels qualified to speak of “the anger and frustration of the white working class” and the hunger to “have someone tell their story.” The thirty-one-year-old investment executive’s rags-to-riches tale urges “people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices. ‘Those of us who weren’t given every advantage can make better choices, and those choices do have the power to affect our lives…

There are echoes in Vance’s biography of the many “hood” oracles that depict Black life as, without exception, dysfunctional and unbearably ugly. But in this case, it is white, working class life that is soaked in alcoholism and threatened by senseless violence.

This profile, like the book title’s derogation of white workers as “hillbillies,” is deeply offensive to anyone growing up in a working class family or community. Vance’s addicted mother and sometimes absent father are neither exceptional nor common in white working class families anymore than they are unique to or absent from families of different ethnicities or socio-economic classes. To believe otherwise is to feed the ugly monsters of racism and class arrogance, the twin beasts nurtured by every ruling class.

Growing up in working class communities, we see the ravages of exploitation, the divisiveness of racism, and the despair of joblessness and poverty. Of course, these occasion harmful, counterproductive behavior. They wreck the lives of many. But they are not remedied by self-help bromides the likes of which Vance advances. 

Capitalism produces and reproduces wholesale misery that may no longer fall as unevenly as it has in the past. While African American workers are continually and relentlessly victimized by racist practices and denied access by exclusionary craft unions, capital today offers white workers little reward for supporting or tolerating racist policies. The twenty-first century global economic turmoil has devastated workers’ standards of living regardless of race or “choices.”

The future lies in the hands of those who reject divisive, elite-fashioned stereotypes and unite to face their common enemy.

Zoltan Zigedy