The racist murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin as he walked the streets of the Florida town in which his father lived (a/k/a ‘home’) is proving a Rorschach test for race ‘relations’ in the U.S. The acquittal of his murderer, George Zimmerman, who first stalked the young Trayvon and then disregarded police instructions to remain in his car as he proceeded to accost and murder him, is testament to the power of denial of the institutional racism that haunts America. Under Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, the product of corporate-state lobbyist ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), it was Mr. Martin who by law had the right to use deadly force to protect himself from Mr. Zimmerman. That Mr. Martin lacked the necessary weapon to do so raises an unproductive conundrum for any black, male youth living in America. And it is deluded to believe Mr. Martin would have been acquitted had he killed George Zimmerman in similar fashion.
As the fate of blacks across American history who have taken up arms to protect themselves from white racists has taught, the ‘right’ of self-defense is the right by whites to murder blacks with impunity. When the original Black Panthers took up arms to protect themselves, their families and communities from racist murder at the hands of the police and white racists they were murdered in their beds, fire-bombed, spied on, infiltrated, and many spent decades in prison on charges the Federal government subsequently admitted were bogus. More broadly, the argument around self-defense in America is a racist canard put forward by privileged whites to maintain race and class hierarchy from which they materially benefit. Put another way, if ‘self defense’ is the right, white America is the greatest threat, and has always been, to the lives and livelihoods of black, brown and indigenous peoples.
The meta- storyline coming from the acquittal of George Zimmerman is that there is no meta-storyline—‘we’ already knew America is racist and confrontation could have been avoided if everyone involved had stayed in ‘their’ place, that ‘black-on-black’ violence justifies increased attention by ‘law enforcement’ on black youth, that re-hashing past ‘arguments’ over race will ‘get us nowhere,’ and even the antique diversion ‘we’ need to have a new ‘dialogue’ about race in America. To the first, George Zimmerman apparently knew his ‘place’ as a racist thug free to intimidate, harass and murder Trayvon Martin and other black youth with impunity. To the second, any discussion of ‘black-on-black’ violence requires a supporting explanation backed by evidence and the evidence is black youth in America are largely descendents of kidnapped Africans forced into slavery and exist today as a residual underclass living with the violence white America taught it. To the latter, the only ‘discussion’ of race in America that need be had is the redistribution of political and economic power so that American blacks can take care of themselves.
The idea of ‘place’ in a hierarchical society requires explanation of why the hierarchy is just, and therefore socially stable, or is a formula for political economic struggle. Given the history of race in America– kidnapped blacks forced into slavery by British and European whites followed by post Civil War strategies using ‘law’ to maintain the political economy of slavery without direct chattel relations, hardly suggests the racial (and class) hierarchy is just or stable. With the empty babble by American whites about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ ever-present in the context of historical strategies of domination, control and exclusion from democratic ‘processes’ of blacks, American whites claim rights and privileges for themselves they have no intention of granting to ‘others.’ As the ‘stand-your-ground’ law used to excuse the murder of Trayvon Martin, the racist policing under policies like New York City’s ‘stop-and-frisk,’ and the for-profit prison industrial complex illustrate, the political economy of racism is alive and is as destructive to human lives and dignity as ever.
The issue of ‘black-on-black’ violence intersects with the role of ‘law enforcement’ to the extent it is framed as criminality. The canard is thrown up by both black and white ‘officials’ under the confusion the violence inflicted on blacks, particularly on poor blacks, is intrinsic to race. Unless one wishes to go the Charles Murray route of using garbage science to argue blacks are genetically predisposed to violence, the causes of black-on-black violence derive from social conditions related to the history of the black underclass in America.
Conversely, the link of race and violence can easily be recast using the great slaughters of the Twentieth Century—the thirty or so million slaughtered in WWII, the three and one-half million Koreans killed in the Korean War, the three and one-half million Vietnamese killed in the Vietnam War and the over one-million Iraqis killed in America’s war on, and occupation of, Iraq. And let us not forget the millions of Africans who died either en route to forced slavery in America or in slavery once here. Correlation suggests if there is a genetic predisposition to murderous violence, white people possess it in its most potent form.
However, the point is granted that people have a fundamental right to freedom from violence. The young Trayvon Martin most certainly did. But when regarding black-on-black violence as a ‘law enforcement’ issue, the Federal, state and local police in America possess the opposite of credibility as the solution. The history is of law being used as a tool for political economic repression against blacks, browns and indigenous peoples. Michelle Alexander, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Angela Davis and others have written and spoken eloquently on this history. George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s murderer, was acting in the capacity of ‘auxiliary’ police when he murdered Trayvon. Who could Trayvon have appealed to for protection when the police didn’t even charge Mr. Zimmerman with Trayvon’s murder after it occurred?
In fact, what black or brown youth in their right mind would appeal to the police for help given the role of the police in racist policing strategies like stop-and-frisk? For those who profess concern about black-on-black violence, racist laws, policing and incarceration provide several centuries of evidence against ‘law enforcement’ solutions. Given the social—political economic, nature of the problem, creating social justice in black communities through political economic redistribution and ending racist policing seems the more constructive route. So again, the concern of white racists with black-on-black violence is touching. But if you really cared, police-state repression as a mode of subjugating black communities would already be known to you.
The white narrative around black ‘criminality’ is remarkable in its selectivity. Were any black youth to approach Countywide Mortgage’s Angelo Mozillo to intimidate and harass him for committing financial crimes against black communities or past President George W. Bush for his War Crimes in the murder of over one million brown people in his war against Iraq, the race and class basis of George Zimmerman’s actions toward Mr. Martin would be plain for even white racists to see. George Zimmerman believed he had a free pass to engage in race repression under the guise of ‘crime’ prevention. However, unlike in the cases of Angelo Mozillo and George W. Bush, where there is overwhelming evidence of potential criminal liability for committing actual crimes with socially catastrophic results, there was no indication of any sort that Trayvon Martin was ‘suspect’ in criminal wrongdoing. George Zimmerman’s racist hallucinations only count as evidence to his fellow racists. Trayvon Martin’s ‘crime’ was no crime at all; it was his misfortune to live in a racist toilet where dim thugs like George Zimmerman have social sanction to take his life.
With respect to a ‘new dialogue on race in America,’ black America has several centuries of bad faith on the part of whites to overcome before fruitful dialogue might be useful. And more to the point, ‘dialogue’ assumes symmetrical social power of the participants, an absence brought home by ‘African American’ Attorney General Eric Holder’s milquetoast blather regarding prosecution of George Zimmerman on Federal criminal charges (please Mr. Holder, I heartily encourage you to do so). And America’s ‘first African American President’ Barack Obama framed the murder as a problem of gun violence when the political economic context is George Zimmerman assumed that he could murder Trayvon Martin with impunity while only the most deluded would believe Trayvon Martin had the same ‘right’ to murder George Zimmerman.
While ‘dialogue’ can only be detractive if it draws energy from more potentially fruitful strategies, black America, and increasingly all Americans outside the ruling class, might consider international coalitions against racist violence and associated economic exploitation. Some precedence can be found in the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s energy subsidies that provided discounted heating fuel for low income Americans. Political economic alliances that build economic power for black America without building even more power for the plutocrats who benefit from the continued existence of an economic underclass would reduce the social power of white racists to act on their racism. A ‘fair trade’ coalition outside ‘official’ channels and economic boycotts of the capitalist enterprises behind ALEC would be a start.
It likely seems a non sequitur to many that the corporate lobbying organization ALEC would have an interest in promoting ‘stand-your-ground’ laws like Florida’s where there is no apparent corporate interest. But ALEC’s interest, and that of the corporate power behind it, ties to the milquetoast, even irrelevant, responses of Messrs. Holder and Obama to what was clearly the racist murder of Trayvon Martin. The domination and repression of blacks in America has first and foremost been about economic exploitation—the theft of labor and any accumulated economic resources. From slavery through post Civil War prison and quasi-indentured labor to the for-profit prisons of the prison industrial complex, forced labor remains the imperial capitalist strategy of expropriation. Existing prison labor in the U.S. has analog in corporate-state factories in the ‘low wage’ countries of ‘former’ imperial colonies.
The history of imperial capitalism is of constructing circumstance—asymmetrical political economic power, to expropriate the economic production of labor. The prison industrial complex is recovered slavery, again, without the explicit chattel relation. ‘American’ factories in China, Central America and in American prisons rely on domination, power and control over workforces to earn ‘profits’ for American (multi-national) corporations—incarnations by degree of explicit slavery. ALEC (and Messrs. Obama and Holder) represents the interests of the gun manufacturers, the owners of for-profit prisons and the multi-national corporations whose owners and executives become wealthy stealing economic production from others. As seen by America’s ruling class, American blacks are among the classes to be exploited, hence the social technologies of exploitation behind racist laws, racist policing and racist incarceration.
The ‘stand-your-ground’ laws promoted by ALEC specifically support gun manufacturers through increasing demand for guns—were ‘the law’ colorblind one potential solution for blacks terrorized by racist thugs like George Zimmerman would be to arm themselves for self-defense. However, with history as a guide, any effort at systematic self-defense on the part of blacks (or any underclass) would meet severe state sanction because ‘the law’ is a tool of oppression and repression used to maintain political economic asymmetry. With the experience of Barack Obama in hand, destroying the system of hierarchy is likely to be more constructive than allowing cynical plutocrats to fill the ranks of hierarchy with useful tools selected from social taxonomy to provide the illusion of ‘progress’ toward social justice.
Despite windbaggery to the contrary from ‘official’ Washington, there is a lot that could be done to immediately improve the lot of American blacks, browns and indigenous peoples. The racist drug laws responsible for putting so many black and brown youth and men in prison could be repealed and sentences commuted as drug use is reframed as the public health issue it is rather than a tool of racist law to feed for-profit prisons. As part of the broader effort at economic recovery from the Lesser Depression, the Federal government could implement a guaranteed jobs program to provide jobs and benefits at a living wage for all comers that focuses specifically on communities long excluded from economic participation. The jobs program could remain in place to assure all communities are provided with employment for all who wish it. Federal money could be used to force equalization in funding for all public education. However, the point to consider here is that none of this is being proposed—the Federal government, in the service of corporate-state plutocrats, is working with all its might in the opposite direction.
To the point made by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover regarding the Black Panther Party—the most threatening (revolutionary) step the Panthers ever took was to provide free food, education and medical care to their communities. Think about this—feeding, educating and providing medical care outside of ‘official’ channels for people who need them is a revolutionary act. What is revolutionary about it, and threatening to the powers that be, is not only does it demonstrate the capacity to develop a competing political economy—one that values people over profits, but it has the potential to ‘steal’ the black underclass from the exploitative grips of cynical capitalists who see it as so much cheap fodder for its enterprise and as a release valve on rising wages—the reserve army Karl Marx referred to.
Seventeen is too young to die and every parent’s worst nightmare is to bury their own child. The young Trayvon was murdered in cold blood and the ‘complicating details’ of his murder are so much irrelevant noise. He was stalked and murdered by a racist thug and the radical delusion required seeing it otherwise requires ignorance of history, ignorance of existing political economic relations and fear of a carefully constructed ‘other’ that serves white fears of black and brown youth and men. If ‘dialogue’ could end institutional and casual racism it would have ended several centuries ago. It evolved from the explicit theft of the labor of kidnapped Africans forced into slavery that continues today in better-hidden strategies of domination and exploitation. The opportunity presents itself to build international alliances based on principles of political-economic participation and human dignity that explicitly exclude the capitalist economic exploitation that continues to burden all Americans to the benefit of the rich. And if providing food, education and medical care outside ‘official’ channels for those who need it is a revolutionary act, by all means let’s be revolutionary.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York. His book ‘Zen Economics’ will be published by Counterpunch / CK Press in Spring 2014.