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The Police Murder of Kenneth Harding

Dozens of people were arrested last night in San Francisco in a protest over the recent police shooting of Kenneth Wade Harding, a 19 year old black man who was shot down on Saturday afternoon while attempting to flee from police who had confronted him for failing to pay a public transit fare. A gory youtube video shows him writhing on the ground in agony for minutes as San Francisco cops establish a perimeter around the scene in the largely African-American neighborhood of Hunters Point. His death at the hands of Bay Area cops in transit-related, police-initiated altercations is the latest in a string of incidents, including the recent shooting of a 45 year old transient Charles Hill who was shot several times by transit cops while stumbling around drunk, allegedly wielding a knife, and the regionally more high-profile murder of Oscar Grant, who was shot on New Year’s Day 2009, in the back, while pinned down on a station platform by two cops. The officer who killed Grant, Johannes Mehserle, was recently released from prison, having served less than 18 months.

The Hungarian-Marxist Philosopher Georg Lukacs once remarked that economic crises have a demystifying and revealing effect on the class relations of a capitalist economy. Capitalism is predicated on the indirect domination of the majority of people in society by a relatively small minority of the owners of the means of wealth; the indirect-ness of this domination results in a situation in which the domination itself doesn’t necessarily appear as such. In a crisis, the violent social relations that undergird the system are laid bare.

Of course the truth of this observation has recently been on display worldwide, almost since the beginning of the economic crisis that erupted in 2008. From Greece to the UK, from California to the Arab world, street battles and their necessary consequence, state murder, are on the rise. The scale of them may be different but the problem is the same: capitalist social relations, the social relations that determine who gets what, who lives and dies, who is free and who is incarcerated, are ultimately backed up by extreme violence. When the “ideological apparatuses” that maintain the normal reproduction of social relations fail, the cops step in.

On the ideological front, The San Francisco Chronicle’s reporting of Harding’s murder has been nothing short of cowardly. Harding is alleged to have had a gun with him and shot at the cops while fleeing. He was apparently on parole in Washington and wanted for questioning in a recent killing. The Chronicle has shamelessly paraded these details over the course of the last several days, taking every chance that it can to exonerate the cops, who eyewitnesses say shot Harding in the back between seven to nine times before he died, and did absolutely nothing to keep him from dying in the several minutes that he lay bleeding to death on the street. The fact that the officers would obviously not have known that Harding was on parole is never questioned. The idea that we could live in a society in which cops would simply not be allowed to begin firing away in a residential neighborhood, whose residents they are supposed to be “protecting”, even less so. The problem of the deep structural racism that throws literally millions of poor and black or brown young people into America’s brutal gulags is not even imagined.

Oscar Grant’s death was responsible for a watershed of political activity in the Bay Area. Protests in the aftermath of his murder were largely responsible for Mehserle’s prosecution in the first place, and last summer downtown Oakland witnessed numerous demonstrations over the lenient treatment that Grant’s murderer received. Recently area activists have staged events which have aimed at striking back against savage cuts to public services, including public schools and libraries, and in support of hunger striking inmates in the infamous SHU of Pelican Bay supermax prison and many other California state penitentiaries. The protests over Harding’s tragic death are a part of this lineage. The crisis that began in 2008 will not be over anytime soon, and as austerity measures deepen and the battles over the still undetermined future of society unfold, we can only hope that these events will continue to give momentum to the movement.

Patrick Madden lives in Oakland and can be contacted at patrickjmadden@hotmail.com