Against the Current, No. 174, January/February 2015

Against the Current, No. 174, January/February 2015

Why We Can't Breathe

— The Editors

THE BRUTAL INJUSTICE and the social eruption in Ferguson, followed by nationwide outrage over the on-video murder of Eric Garner and police impunity, are suddenly reshaping the U.S. political climate. “We Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” express the righteous anger, especially of young people of color, in response to an unresponsive system — a system that’s politically blocked and utterly indifferent to the desperate conditions facing those at the bottom in capitalist America.

The targeting and routine police abuse and humiliation of African-American youth, and communities of color in general, is an everyday manifestation of the deeper politics of repression and economic austerity that throw those communities onto the scrap heap. Mass incarceration, police impunity and the epidemic of killings by “law enforcement” are only the visible and inevitable products of an unfolding social disaster....

Whose Lives Matter in America?

— Malik Miah

People need to know that Black lives and Brown lives matter as much as white lives. We are all responsible now. The weight of history can’t be our excuse.

—New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio after the Staten Island grand jury on December 3, 2014, refused to indict the cop who murdered Eric Garner.

RESPONDING TO MAYOR de Blasio’s obvious point, the New York City police “union” head said the mayor had thrown all cops under the bus by implying that police practices are racially based. mayor de Blasio, a white man with a Black son, expressed a bitter truth that most white people deny — race and racism underpin police practice and U.S. society.

Significantly, the “Black Lives Matter” campaign is

We Are All Ayotzinapa

— Dan La Botz

“THEY TOOK THEM alive and we want them back alive” demanded the families of 43 students kidnapped from Ayotzinapa in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The cry was taken up everywhere, even though many believed they must by now be dead.

At this writing on December 5, students, labor unionists and community groups had taken over the Sonora State Legislature, while teachers blocked the Highway of the Sun that links Mexico City to the resort city of Acapulco with the Christmas holiday season just about to begin. [The charred remains of one of the students, Alexander Mora, were confirmed a day later — ed.]

Mexico has not seen such a crisis at least since the election protests of 2006. Indeed, perhaps it has never seen anything quite like the wave of social protest that has engulfed the country since, on September 26, police working with gangsters killed....

The Politics of Mass Incarceration

— an interview with James Kilgore

JAMES KILGORE IS is a longtime activist, writer and researcher. He currently lives in Urbana, Illinois, where has been involved in local movements to pass a Ban the Box initiative (taking questions about criminal background off employment applications) and opposing the building of a new county jail. He spent six and a half years in prison (2002-09) for his participation in political violence in the 1970s. He has published three novels, all of which were drafted while he was incarcerated. His next book is A People's Guide to Mass Incarceration, to be published by The New Press in 2015.

In the course of the past year, James has been involved in a struggle to maintain his job as a contract lecturer and hourly employee at the University of Illinois. In early 2014 the ultra-conservative local newspaper published a sensationalistic major feature article about his past and demanded that his actions and criminal convictions mandated his dismissal from the University. At first the University authorities gave....

What's Behind Detroit Happy Talk?

— Dianne Feeley

DESPITE HAPPY TALK of Detroit “rebounding” from bankruptcy, the basic problems remain: lack of jobs, deep poverty, the state takeover of the public schools and a 28% decrease in state revenue sharing over the last decade.

If one statistic could sum up the problem, the median Detroit family income is $19,800 while the national average stands at $60,700. How can such inequality exist? How can the city’s maternal death rate be so high? During 2008-11 it stood at 58.7 per 100,000 babies — higher than Libya, Uruguay or Vietnam, and three times greater than the U.S. average.

We know the answer: Detroit is 83% African American, with more than 40% in poverty and an official unemployment rate double that of the state. Detroit is a city redlined by racism....

Rasmea Odeh's Long Struggle

— David Finkel

A MONTH AFTER her conviction and imprisonment for “unlawful procurement of naturalization,” Rasmea Odeh’s release on $50,000 cash bond was secured on December 11, 2014.

Observers and supporters of the 67-year-old Palestinian community leader were stunned immediately after a federal jury in Detroit returned a guilty verdict on November 10, following two hours of deliberation, when Federal District Judge Gershwin Drain ordered her jailed until a sentencing hearing that’s scheduled for March 10, 2015.

Odeh was handcuffed and shipped to the St. Clair County Jail in Port Huron, Michigan, 400 miles from her community in Chicago where she serves as associate director of the Arab American Action Network and director of the Arab Women’s Committee....

Introduction to The Two-Party System, Part II

— The Editors

WE PRESENT HERE the second of a four-part series by historian Mark Lause on the history and evolution of the two-party system in the United States. The first installment in our previous issue, “The Other Peculiar Institution,” discussed the system from its British-derived origins through the U.S. Civil War (ATC 173, online at The present essay is a conversation on the American Two-Party System from post-Civil War Reconstruction to the Crash of 1929.

The relevance of this discussion is increasingly evident in the wake of the November 2014 midterm elections, with the Congressional ascendancy of rightwing Republicans, the continuing debacle of the centrist corporate Democrats,...

The Two-Party System, Part II

— Mark A. Lause

RECONSTRUCTION OF THE two-party system became essential to the general Reconstruction after the Civil War, establishing some features that remain clear today. As such, the arrangement of the parties became an essential aspect of the betrayals of associated with the Reconstruction of the post-war South.

Over the 67 years from the murder of Abraham Lincoln to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, most participating voters cast Republican ballots. In fact, over this long expanse, only two Democrats won the presidency, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, both victories the result of splits among the Republicans. Despite the dominance of a Republican Party, very little happened over these years to extend the idea of representative government beyond the limitations it had for generations.

While the Republicans prevailed throughout,...

Black Struggle Then and Now

March to Freedom, 1963 and Beyond

— Charles Simmons

I REMEMBER DETROIT’S 1963 Walk to Freedom with Martin Luther King, Jr. [on June 23, a preparatory march for the historic March on Washington later that summer — ed.] I was part of a youth organization, UHURU (meaning Freedom in Swahili). We had taken this name because throughout the 1950s UHURU had been the battle cry of the people of Kenya struggling against British colonialism.

I had just returned from serving in the U.S. Air Force, where I had experienced the brutal, barbaric and inhumane treatment of African Americans in Mississippi and Georgia. I had begun to oppose the U.S. war in Vietnam and the invasion of Cuba. I was a third-generation factory worker on the line in the auto industry and a first generation student at Wayne State University.

As we young folk marched to Cobo Hall in 1963 for fundamental democratic rights,...

Introduction to Shaping 20th Century America

— The Editors

THIS ESSAY CONTINUES ATC’s ongoing feature on the centennial of World War I, for which Allen Ruff is serving as our special guest editor. Contributions by Ruff, William Smaldone and Yassamine Mather have appeared in previous issues.

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, rhetorically framing the mission as a struggle for “the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life…”

Few African Americans aware of Wilson’s message were likely to have missed its absolute hypocrisy and cynicism. Black observers by 1917 clearly understood who Wilson was and what to expect from him — none of it positive....

Shaping 20th Century America

— Allen Ruff

STATING THAT “THE world must be made safe for democracy,” president Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917. The United States formally entered World War I four days later.

To some extent by that time, all of U.S. society had come to experience the effects and impacts of what already was a global conflagration, underway since August 1914. Among those directly and profoundly affected by the “Great War” from its start were millions of African Americans. Their lives, for better and worse, would be dramatically affected if not utterly transformed by the war and its aftermath.

In 1910, nearly 90% of some 10 million African Americans lived in the South, four-fifths of them in rural areas....

Wilson's Open Door to World War I

— Allen Ruff

DESPITE RHETORIC OF “liberty”, “freedom” and “democracy” and charges regarding German violations of America’s claimed neutrality, the United States entered World War I for basically the same imperial reasons as the other major belligerents. The war, at its base a German challenge to an older order dominated by British imperial power, threatened a global realignment and redistribution of spheres of influence and territorial and colonial spoils. In that sense, U.S. ruling circles certainly understood what was at stake and could not sit it out.

At its heart, World War I was an imperialist war — the result of escalating competition for the world’s resources, markets for goods and capital investment opportunities, access to raw materials and colonial possessions. U.S. involvement was certainly driven by capitalist imperatives of expansion, profit and accumulation....

If We Must Die

— Claude McKay

If we must die — let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die — oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for...

African-American Self-Defense

— Malik Miah

This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed
How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible
By Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Basic Books, 2014, 294 pages,
$28 hardcover.

CHARLES COBB’S PROVOCATIVE title poses a serious question: did armed Blacks play an essential role in the southern Freedom Struggle and the victory of the civil rights movement?

Popular narrative says that the tactic of nonviolent direct action defeated Jim Crow segregation. Yet, as Cobb shows in this brilliant book, that tactic though decisive was at the center of a much more complicated reality.

Nonviolent field organizers in the Deep South....

Reckoning with Apocalypse

— Robbie Lieberman

Reckoning Day:
Race, Place, and the Atom Bomb in Postwar America
By Jacqueline Foertsch
Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013, 251 pages, $24.95 paper.

THE ANTIWAR MOVEMENT has become noticeably more diverse since the Iraq War, and many communities cry out “no justice, no peace” as they respond to incidents of police violence against people of color. Yet there is still a dearth of scholarship that examines the links between racial equality and peace issues, broadly defined.

In this context, Jacqueline Foertsch’s Reckoning Day: Race, Place, and the Atom Bomb in Postwar America offers a welcome look at a historical moment in which these issues were often inseparable....

A Folklorist of Black America

— Brian Dolinar

African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics:
The Lawrence Gellert Story
By Bruce Conforth
Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013, 265 pages plus illustrations, $75 cloth.

THIS NEW BOOK explores the curious career of a white collector of Black music. The kid brother to Hungarian-born Hugo Gellert, probably the best-known Communist artist in his day, Lawrence Gellert was a folklorist who collected some of the earliest field recordings of African American music in the South. Written by Bruce Conforth, one-time curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and professor at the University of Michigan, this is the first published biography about a man who also helped popularize the “protest” song several decades before the 1960s....

Continental Cultural Communication

— Kim D. Hunter

Africa Speaks, America Answers
Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times
By Robin D.G. Kelley
Harvard University Press, 2012, 272 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

WHY HASN’T SOMEONE turned Guy Warren’s life story into a movie? That’s the question that circled my head as I read about the extraordinary Ghanaian musician in the opening chapter of Robin D.G. Kelley’s Africa Speaks, America Answers.

The book, which takes its title from Warren’s first album, unearths African and African-American jazz fusions primarily through the lives of four musicians: Warren, Randy Weston, Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Sathima Bea Benjamin. (Its structure is an implicit tribute to a seminal study of modern jazz, A.B. Spellman’s Black Music: Four Lives in the Bebop Business published in 1966,...

Labor and Socialist Strategy

Unions and the Road to Socialism

— Milton Fisk

THE FAMILIAR MODEL of union struggle has been ineffective in attempts to change capitalism. I will try to explain why unions have not shaken capitalism’s foundations. The explanation will point to the failure to challenge inequalities in returns to labor and capital from production.

A new model, developed by labor in conjunction with other radical social agents, has the possibility of being effective. This new model depends on extending boundaries of earlier views of fairness to make them effective in joint struggles.

Marx on Unions

Karl Marx was one of the early thinkers who linked unions and socialism. What kind of link did he have in mind?...

Life Support for Labor?

— Meredith Schafer

Save Our Unions
Dispatches from a Movement in Distress
By Steve Early
New York, Monthly Review Press, 2013, 344 pages, $19.95 paperback.

THE DEBATE OVER how to save the labor movement suffers from a serious deficit of books written by organizers. Rarely do we get an entire book by someone who has been organizing for four decades, and is still actively engaged with union members, staff and leaders. Steve Early’s Save Our Unions doesn’t suffer from the luxury of being a memoir, but it is chock full of rich first-hand experience, as well as research, interviews, book reviews and labor history, followed by 26 pages of meticulous endnotes.

Save Our Unions begins with stories of union reform battles....

Queer Activism in the Labor Movement

— Sara R. Smith

Out in the Union:
A Labor History of Queer America
By Miriam Frank
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014, 240 pages. $54.50 cloth.

IN THE 1970s, Teresa Rankin kept her sexual orientation private while organizing textile workers at J.P. Stevens in North Carolina, relying on the lesbian social scene in nearby Washington, D.C. for community. When the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) offered her an organizing position in a small town in Virginia, Rankin, turned down the opportunity fearing isolation due to her sexual orientation. (Out in the Union, 59-60)

At the same time in San Francisco Howard Wallace campaigned for the boycott of Coors beer because of its anti-union and anti-gay policies....


How Much Does Climate Change Change?

— Janice Cox and Michael Gasser

This Changes Everything:
Capitalism vs. the Climate
By Naomi Klein
Simon & Schuster, September 2014, 576 pages, $30 hardcover.

NAOMI KLEIN’S LATEST book is well on its way to becoming a bestseller. Deeply and meticulously researched, well-written and engaging, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was timed to come out a week before the September 2014 UN Climate Summit and the People’s Climate March in New York City.

The march of over 400,000 vastly exceeded the attendance expectations of (of which Klein is a board member) and the other groups that organized and built it....

Socialism Taken Seriously

— Shannon Ikebe

Taking Socialism Seriously
Anatole Anton and Richard Schmitt, eds.
Lexington Books, 2012, 276 pages, $90 cloth.

AS THE CAPITALIST crisis rages and inequality continues to soar, fewer and fewer people are satisfied with the status quo. But the powerful ideology of “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) has constrained many people’s political imagination and consigned them to political apathy; our task as socialists is to convince them that there is, indeed, an alternative to capitalism.

But what exactly is an alternative to capitalism? When we talk of “socialism,” what does it actually mean? Taking Socialism Seriously, edited by Anatole Anton and Richard Schmitt, raises questions on what socialism concretely is and how we can get there, and examines these questions in detail while eschewing fantasies and wishful thinking....