This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
As the United States is rocked by protests over the murder of Black people by the police, many of us — especially Black people like myself — find we must do what any sane person would hope would never be necessary: demand recognition for the value of Black lives from a hostile political and law enforcement system. The scenes that fill the news today reflect the worst dystopian fantasies we have ever imagined, and yet they merely represent an escalation of the lived experience of people of color all over the US. In truth, the political machine, and its enforcement arm represented by the police, has never valued Black lives. The reason why is as important for understanding the current situation as it is for understanding the best action we can take to halt the train of unwarranted surveillance, brutalization, and murders by police officers.
To begin to fully comprehend the present situation, it is necessary to go back in time to 1676 to an event now referred to as Bacon’s Rebellion. At that time in Virginia, the divisions of race had not yet hardened into a caste system. Free Black men owned property, just the same as free white men, and both whites and blacks were subject to indentured servitude. This changed following Nathaniel Bacon’s attempted coup in which he utilized lower-class discontent over land use and issues on the frontier. This rebellion united lower-class whites and blacks in a movement that led to the colonial capital in Jamestown being burned to the ground. This rebellion was eventually suppressed, but such cross-racial unity over economic and political grievances utterly terrified the ruling class.
This ruling-class terror gave rise to a series of laws that made black enslavement hereditary — an unprecedented concept at the time — and granted lower-class whites minor privileges which gave them limited access to the political system and a stake in the still-forming plantation economy. Thus, the racial caste system was born as a method of maintaining ruling class dominance in a social order that they had been taught was incredibly unstable. This new system was at once a bribe and a veiled threat to working-class whites: “Take the crumbs we offer and be content, or we can do the same to you”. That policy has reaped nearly 400 years of ripe fruit for the ruling class through the plantation economy, Jim Crow, the manufactured drug war, and the modernization of slavery referred to as the prison-industrial complex. At each stage, not only has black self-determination been suppressed, but a sharp wedge has been driven between blacks and working-class whites to ensure that never again would they work towards shared goals.
The racial caste system is, and has always been, a sentinel against this unity among the working class.
In addition to their origins in slave patrols, police forces continue to serve as the enforcers of this caste system and the guarantors of ruling class dominance. The violence we see beaten into Black bodies is not merely due to the actions of a few members of the police with explicitly white supremacist ideologies, but the inevitable application of white supremacy written into law. It is the ruling class who wrote these laws, the ruling class who funded the politicians who voted for these laws and, in many cases, it is the ruling class themselves who entered office in order to bring these laws into being. The violence we experience is inherent to the structure of this society. It exists primarily to guard ruling class wealth and ensure disunity among the oppressed.
Today, as thousands upon thousands of white allies turn out in support of this Movement for Black Lives, the lesson repeats itself. For daring to stand together with us, they have been terrorized, beaten, shot, gassed, arrested on dubious charges, and effectively branded enemies of the state through a nebulous and broadly applicable presidential “suggestion” declaring Antifa domestic terrorists — all a depressingly familiar picture for those of us with dark skin. And why not? Is it not merely a repetition of old patterns with echoes of Nixon’s manufactured drug war in order to silence dissent?
To avoid misunderstanding, the point here is not to cry over the treatment of working-class whites in this situation. Even while my heart grieves for their suffering as they stand with us, it grieves even more for my dead and suffering Black kindred — some for protesting, many simply for existing. No, the point is to highlight the ugly, underlying core of this ongoing crime against humanity and find a path to its end. Understanding the class-driven nature of this conflict is not to de-center Black outrage over our continued subjection to police brutality. This moment in history must remain about the Movement for Black Lives, and any actions taken oriented towards Black liberation. However, it is important to see that the oppression of Black people in the United States has always been about control, and more importantly, profit. With this knowledge, an appropriate response presents itself:
At its core, white supremacy — and police enforcement of the same — has always been about power. Power for the elites, subservience for everyone else. Divide the dispossessed and thus rule. They use this system to ensure their economic dominance and the unceasing flow of our stolen labor unto themselves. If profit is the language they speak, then its absence will open their ears. The events of recent weeks have shown that if we protest quietly, they smile and ignore us. If we protest loudly, they call it a riot and escalate the very violence we are protesting. In either case, they find reasons not to listen. They find reasons to maintain this system that protects their power and their guardians in the form of the police. It is time to seriously consider stronger measures. When profits begin to shrink, the ruling-class will remember how to hear.
The strike is an expression of power, not a request. Ultimately, the power in this situation is ours. While the elites may have a monopoly on the use of physical force through the police, this civilization only exists at all through our effort. Particularly, the effort of black and brown people who provide most of the basic goods and services needed for us to continue breathing. It is we who maintain this society and it is we who can grind it to a halt until justice is enshrined in law. We have asked kindly, politely, and now, even rudely for this justice. We have been asking in various ways for nearly seventy years. The elites who control the police have not only pretended not to hear, but they have begun to deploy even the military to silence us. How long will we continue asking? Are we not human, just as they are? Is it not insulting enough that we should have to ask at all, only for injury to be added through rubber — and perhaps next, metal — bullets?
In a time of global pandemic and economic depression, a call for action as bold as a strike rightly provokes worry from those who have the most cause to protest. I understand this as well as anyone. In different ways, we are all on the brink. In the end, this is a decision each person must make for themselves and with their fellow workers. Yet, this very situation that would make us hesitate to strike, paradoxically, demonstrates its power. In the midst of the COVID crisis, and the quarantine intended to halt the spread of the disease, the ruling class has shown its willingness to spend however many lives it takes to restart the wheels of consumption. Their desperation to get us producing and consuming again shows how utterly necessary our economic activity is for their position and power. History has repeatedly shown, through the success of unions, that strikes force change when more moderate measures have been ignored. In this situation, it is a powerful tool of liberation that we’ve left to rust for too long. No one has the right to demand that you strike, but its power is undeniable.
It is not necessary to be in a union to strike. You do not need to be in a union to deny your labor to the corporations that benefit from this inhuman system and the continuation of your suffering. You do not need to be in a union to refuse to work any longer for a company that enables and continues to fund the rise of fascism and the reinforcement of white supremacy.
To those of you who are in a union, talk to your fellow union members. It was you who gave us the 40-hour workweek. It was you who gave us protection from unsafe working conditions. It was you who gave us employer-funded health insurance. It was your realization of your own power, and your willingness to exercise it, that gave us the working conditions we enjoy today (even if it remains far from ideal). Honor your history of struggling for justice and join us now in our struggle for existence.
Finally, for those of you who cannot strike yourselves, consider starting or contributing to a strike fund to support workers who can strike. This effort cannot succeed without community support, and it will take many different types of contributions to ensure that striking workers can do so with a sense of security and broad solidarity.
My friends, remember the power we have in the strike. Consider it, discuss it, and if the desire for justice and life for Black people (and all people of color) so moves you, strike to attain it. For too long, Black lives have been sacrificed to protect this machine and its enforcers, the police. For centuries, the ruling class has sown seeds of lies, hatred, and cruelty in a soil watered by Black blood in order to protect their ill-gotten wealth.
Strike, and give them a bitter harvest.