Neoliberalism and the New Lynching

Against the Current, No. 178, September/October 2015

Michael Brown

I REMEMBER AS a student several years ago at Cal State coming to symposiums like this, which really helped with my development. I didn’t necessarily jump out there in activism quickly. I was going to Cal State Fullerton when Kelly Thomas was killed — the homeless white man in Fullerton. That ended up being my first time getting into activism. It was me and a bunch of white folks. I just kept going from there.

I like the theme of this program — it’s called “Crisis, Rebellion, and Reaction” under the larger framework of Black Lives Matter.

I’ll start with “crisis.” I think it’s important to mention the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report again; and I really encourage people to read it (“Operation Ghetto Storm,” — ed.)

It was done independently in 2012, by people like Kali Akuno. A Black person is killed every 28 hours. When I looked at this in historical context, it surpassed lynching at its height in the late 19th and 20th century. Okay, this means that this is a new form of lynching. It’s all right there.

I think another part of the crisis is the neoliberal context in which all this is happening. If you look at cities like Baltimore or even here in LA, we used to have manufacturing jobs. You used to be able to graduate high school and live on one income — buy a house, buy a car, put the kids through college.

If you look at a place like Baltimore or whatever, it’s like the tale of two cities. That’s basically every city. You have this inner harbor area where they’ve built up Camden Yards. They built this big tourist attraction, all these hotels, which are all subsidized by taxpayer money, by the way. And then on the outer layers of Baltimore, the west side, that’s where Black folks are — I mean, it’s just like rubble.

All the jobs have been outsourced or, they shipped them somewhere where they can pay people three or four dollars an hour. Those jobs didn’t disappear. They’re still out there — all those manufacturing and shipping jobs.

That’s not just a Baltimore thing; that’s been happening in Detroit, where they deindustrialized that city. As I said, that’s been happening here in LA; people in Watts, all my people who grew up here, they were able to have jobs in the public sector, which is also under attack.

That’s another part of neoliberalism and what this capitalist system is doing. It’s going after public assets and turning them over to the private sector so they can jack up the prices, downsize it, and strip it of all meaning.

Think of the charter schools that they’re trying to implement in place of public education. They don’t want public education anymore. They see it as a big price tag. And that’s the thing about this system; it commodifies everything, whether it be human lives, the environment, the streets or the post office. It won’t stop at anything; it’s like a raging inferno.

Jails Instead of Jobs

I’m glad Michelle Alexander’s book was talked about here, The New Jim Crow, because it added a lot to my development, even though everybody around my way knew what that was.

I mean, we’ve all got somebody locked up. I’ve got people locked up now — and probably a lot of people in this room have family and friends who are locked up. But that book really synthesized it and really made it readable and understandable, and you couldn’t deny it anymore. So I think we gotta understand that as part of this crisis, this mass Black and Brown incarceration.

If you read prison writers like Mumia Abu-Jamal, and people like Russell Maroon Shoatz, they’ve come to the same conclusion; and I don’t think that’s something that they’re just pulling out of the air.

These are people who came from radical movements in the 1960s and ’70s, where some of the reforms that we enjoy were won as a result of people being on the streets and raising those demands, and asking real big questions about this capitalist system, about white supremacy, about reform versus rebellion.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they would raise mass Black and Brown incarceration as being a counterinsurgency tactic. I think we’ve seen that out there on the streets, out there in Baltimore and Ferguson lately.

Another thing that’s contributed to the crisis — and I think one of the reasons it’s been raised is just because of the ubiquitous nature of social media — are the videos that are out now. That’s one of the things we always scream in our protests. It actually started a lot of my protesting in 2012, in Anaheim when the city rose up there — after they killed two young Latino men, Manuel Diaz and Joey Acevedo, back to back.

They killed one on Saturday, and killed one on Sunday. Those two were part of eight men who were killed in the city of Anaheim in about a 14-month span. And then, you know, the shit just blew up after that. People just hit the streets and said, “Okay, enough is enough.”

We never know when it’s gonna blow. We always know that there’s gonna be a trigger, and it’s usually a police brutality case or a police murder. But the same socioeconomic conditions that poor Latino families are dealing with in Anaheim are the same conditions we’re dealing with in west Baltimore and Ferguson.

And that was the first time I really got out there and started protesting consistently. It was a beautiful thing to see; for two years after that, I don’t think Anaheim Police Department killed anybody. They saw that when it blew up, it got a little too close to Disneyland.

The Explosion Builds Up

The rebellion. I think this is the part that I’m really keyed into, because as the person who likes to get out here on the streets I’m always interested. Rebellion is not where people just have some epiphany all of a sudden. It’s not always necessarily a linear process, but there are steps that have to be taken. Somebody referenced the Communist organizing in the 1930s and ’40s, and that definitely preceded the civil rights movement in the ‘60s.

I think cases like the Jena 6, Hurricane Katrina, the controversy around Troy Davis, the fightback for Oscar Grant, the hoodies marches for Trayvon Martin — you know, a lot of these were somewhat viewed as flavor of the week, sort of social media events. Some of them were; they gained steam, they were spontaneous, and then they fizzled out.

But Black Lives Matter — I look at it as a continuum. It’s building up a crescendo to where it’s becoming more solid; it’s coalescing a little bit more, and as people continue to connect the dots between economics and the social aspects.

I think a key part of this rebellion, of course, has been just the rise of Black Lives Matter at the local and at the national level. It started off as a hashtag, but I think it’s still taking shape. I think people are still defining it. I think it’s sort of like “Black Power,” when people first started yelling that in the 1960s — because that separated into two.

You had the Stokely Carmichaels, the real radicals who were talking about how we need to tear this thing down and start anew. But then, you know, it kind of got co-opted, by all the Black mayors and the Democratic Party. Even Richard Nixon, who was no friend of Black people, was starting to talk about Black power.

Nixon framed it under the context of Black capitalism, which is what we have now. They basically co-opted a layer of Blacks who were struggling in the ‘60s and integrated them within the system. And that’s what we see today with (Baltimore mayor) Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Barack Obama and Eric Holder, and (state attorney general) Kamala Harris here in California, standing on the shoulders of the civil rights movement, but not pushing it forward.

Another part of this rebellion is “Black Lives Matter.” When we started our chapter in Long Beach, we invited a lot of people. And there were some white folks who came there, who I thought were gonna be down with it, but they asked “Why is it Black lives matter? Don’t all lives matter?”

Well, yeah, we agree all lives matter, but you better fight for the Black ones first, if you really want to tear down these barriers.

Why We Matter

Black Lives Matter is not asking anybody’s permission. We’re not looking to be validated. This is empowerment right here — when you raise your fist up and you say “Black lives matter,” it’s like, you know, I matter.

There’s a good basis for that too. I think you can look at all social and economic movements where everybody has benefitted, and one of the reasons they’d benefitted is because Black people were typically at the center. Whether we’re talking about the building of the industrial labor unions back in the 1920s and ’30s, when they were doing sit-down strikes and all sorts of militant actions, the CIO was the opposite of the more conservative AFL, which was a lot of the firemen unions, the building and construction trades, that would actually exclude Black people.

To this day, I mean, if you look at some of the building and construction trades, hiring is all “legacy,” it’s hard for a Black person to even get in there as an apprentice. That’s how we’ve traditionally been seen, as excess labor. “Last hired, first fired?” That’s always been our thing. They’ve used us as a weapon to break strikes and cross people’s picket lines.

But the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, organized Blacks and whites within their unions and the bosses weren’t able to use Black people as strikebreakers. And the CIO took up much of that approach.

The reaction. I’ll break that down into a few categories here. I think the reaction has been interesting from the state. Then you got the reaction from us out on the streets, who are protesting. And then you have also the reaction, which was touched on earlier, this Black middle class — I think it’s illuminated a lot of things for a lot of people, especially those youngsters in Ferguson last year.

I saw when these young people ran Jesse Jackson out of there. I saw when they ran Al Sharpton up outta there. That was a big move, you know? And they weren’t necessarily revolutionaries or any type of vanguard or whatever, it was just like: “What do you mean, go back home? They just set a curfew on us, what do you mean, go in the house and go register to vote? I mean, what is that gonna do? We’ve been voting all these years and nothing’s changed. So why are we doing that?”

So the respectability politics of that Black middle-class layer is becoming more and more discredited as the days go by. What kind of respectability politics could 12-year-old Tamir Rice have played to save his life? He was just a little boy out there, playing in a playground like everybody here. It didn’t matter if his pants were sagging. But that’s not why the police stop you.

It’s not about sagging your pants or speaking the King’s English correctly, and enunciating all your verbs and pronouns and all that kind of stuff. No — this is about police violence, state-sanctioned terror as directed against us. And no amount of coonin’ and buck-dancin’ will save you.

You can keep thinking that. We have to understand, too, that the media aren’t neutral on this. I think we’ve seen that with Baltimore. It’s insane. You can look at video coverage somewhere, and then look at it covered on CNN, and it’s like you’re living in a different country. It’s insane.

I think the media have been exposed, too; I think a lot of people have understood the meaning of us being our own media. That’s why I write sometimes, when I’m able to have some time, about our protests, whether we’re in Compton, or Reseda, or Anaheim, or Downey. I try to cover all that stuff myself, and shop it out to different outlets, because I figure I’m in the trenches, I know the people involved, I work directly with the families — so  who better to tell our stories than ourselves?

Another aspect of this kind of reaction from this Black middle-class layer has been this labeling of “thugs” and “criminals.” So when Barack Obama gets up there and starts calling people “thugs” and “criminals,” I mean, this man is drone-bombing people all over the place. He’s got kill teams. I mean, who you lecturing?

Strategies of the State

As far as the state and armed force, their reaction I think has been pretty obvious, from what we’ve seen in Baltimore. They seem to have learned their lesson from Ferguson, where you may remember, they waited a few days before they called in the National Guard, and the people defied that curfew and broke it for two days in a row, so the mayor lifted it, but then they sent in the National Guard.

This time in Baltimore, after one day they came right in with the National Guard. I think that’s important for us as activists to learn and grow. We have to understand that the opposition is doing homework too. We always have to stay a step ahead of them.

The other piece has been to try to placate people with indictments, with grand juries; but I think what happened after the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown pretty much blew that whole process up. Even in Baltimore, and even with this cop who got charged in Charleston, who would really be surprised if these guys got off?

The closest we’ve come to any sort of win was here a few years ago in the state of California, with Johannes Mehserle who killed Oscar Grant. And he didn’t even do a year. In the case of Kelly Thomas out there in Fullerton, they got three indictments against three of the six cops who killed him, but the DA totally threw the case out there in Orange County.

I think another part of the reaction — I’m going to go to the protesters now — as I said, is the rejection of respectability politics. I think that’s a big ideological hurdle that we’ve cleared, particularly with our young people, who’ve had nothing but trash thrown on them by the likes of Bill Cosby for the past decade and a half.

You want to blame these kids for throwing rocks, but they didn’t gentrify the community. You could blame me for sagging my pants, but I didn’t close the after-school programs. I’m not downsizing the little measly welfare state that we did have in place. So don’t always try to point the finger at us; look at these structures.

Voting can be part of the process — maybe if we have a real independent party — but for the most part, if voting worked, they would ban it. With voting rights under attack with restrictive ID laws, it shows that the system is always in counterattack mode. That’s a reform that was won in blood in the 1960s and it’s already being turned around.

I think it’s important to understand that things like voting, and going through the “proper channels” is not really where our power lies. Our power lies on the streets, in mass mobilizations, in direct action. That’s what the system can’t deal with.

There’s a reason they put the tanks and the armor and the snipers out there when we hit the streets. There are so many social and economic antagonisms in this society that it’s bound to blow up. And it’s gonna keep blowing up — we don’t know which city it’ll be next, but it could be anywhere.

I think some good things that are going on now is that BLM is reaching out to movements like Fight for 15 and the union that the fast-food workers are organizing. I support sending delegations internationally and trying to build those ties with Palestinians and other oppressed peoples — if we can’t get support from the majority of the white working class in this country, then we need to reach out to our allies, just as William Patterson and Paul Robeson did.

I liked the sentiments of the May Day marches — I was out there Saturday in downtown LA, and police brutality was being raised as a real top issue. Another good example is ILWU Local 10 in Oakland; they shut down the ports on May Day with Black Lives Matter. We need more of that; that’s just one local, one example, but we need more of that.

There are people out here mobilizing, but we could use a whole lot more. I hope people will walk away from here today saying “hey, how can I get involved?”

September-October 2015, ATC 178