In every vibrant progressive social movement there comes a moment when a psychologically or emotionally disturbed person, an agent provocateur, or a political extremist commits an atrocious act that is seized upon by the State and/or the political Right as a means of attempting to discredit or outright repress the movement. The action, committed for whatever reason, is sufficiently heinous that confusion develops within the movement and the movement can lose both its momentum as well as a segment of its less committed or more ambivalent supporters.
In 1886, at the height of the Eight Hour Day movement, a bomb was set off at a worker’s rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago. The rally was called to both protest police killings of worker protesters as well as to support striking workers fighting for the 8 hour day. The rally was attacked by the police and a bomb was thrown at the police. To this day no one actually knows who set off the bomb, including whether it was an agent provocateur, or a deranged or infuriated activist. What is known, however, is that the bombing became a pretext for governmental effort to discredit the protests and the workers movement, and to suggest that the entire movement was led by cold, cruel anarchists who were only interested in violence. Charges were brought against key leaders of the movement and in a kangaroo trial, eight individuals were convicted for their alleged involvement in the bombing and four were subsequently hanged.
The reaction by police unions, the political Right and much of the mainstream media today, in the aftermath of Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s alleged killings of two NYPD officers, is eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of the Haymarket massacre. Intense and manipulative efforts are underway to paint those who have protested police violence, or even those who have simply spoken up against it, as allegedly having blood on their hands since they supposedly created the tension between the police and the community. New York City Mayor de Blasio, for instance, has been demonized by the Right, with the suggestion that he and Rev. Al Sharpton created the incendiary environment that resulted in the murders of the two officers.
In this moment it is critical that progressives counter these arguments actively, vocally and with immense vigor. These arguments and allegations are cynical and disingenuous efforts to discredit and derail one of the most important movements of the recent past. Let us be clear as to what has been unfolding.
An apparently mentally and/or emotionally disturbed career criminal allegedly carried out the attempted murder of his girlfriend followed by the murder of the two officers. This individual had no connection with any social justice movement, had no apparent connections with New York and was certainly not a leader of the movement against police violence.
Second, the tension that exists between the police and communities of color was not manufactured by any one. It was and is the result of YEARS of police lynchings carried out in African American and Latino communities. The fact that an African American man in his early twenties is 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than a white male of the same age was not invented by Rev. Sharpton, Mayor de Blasio, or the countless grass roots activists who have taken up the battle around police violence. It is, instead, directly related to a combination of the history of white supremacy along with police departments that are out of control. Like all lynchings, these murders in essence serve to instill fear and terror in the population, making them more than reluctant to advance demands for justice and progressive change.
The tensions between the police and the communities of color are also not in any way new. One can review the documents of the National Negro Congress, for instance, a united front organization among African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, only to see the demand against police brutality as one of its planks.
Third, as horrible and unacceptable as was the murder of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, Black America has been witnessing repeated murders of its youth at the hands of the police, yet the public is told that it should be understanding of such killings, regardless of the circumstances.
Fourth, the movement against police violence has not called for the killings of police. While there are certainly extremist elements who have inappropriate and provocative rhetoric, there are no factual indications that they have any base or any leadership of the movement. The movement has been militant and active, but it has gone out of its way to advance a non-violent approach.
While one could argue in favor of a temporary cessation of protests in New York until the funeral of the Officers, there is no basis for a cessation of the national movement against police violence. This national movement, in point of fact, is actually about much more than police violence. It is pointing to the continued and growing discrepancies in the treatment of African Americans and Latinos compared with whites. It is a movement that, through its actions, is posing the same question as posed by comedian and social commentator Chris Rock when he stated that he would like to ask white police in Ferguson, Missouri, why it is that white youth are not being killed by the police. Clearly Rock was/is not calling for white youth to be murdered, but he is asking a question that the mainstream media consistently wishes to avoid: how is it that we do not see police rampages through Russian, Irish or Italian communities, for instance, where there are histories of very violent criminal activity? How is this discrepancy in treatment to be explained?
Which all leads to a final point. This is not a moment for silence, though it is a moment for sadness. This is a moment that necessitates a genuine national discussion on race, racism, and violence. This is a discussion that must be joined by all institutions in US society. It is not a discussion to be held exclusively with African Americans or Latinos. It is a discussion that governmental authorities should organize, along with groups in civil society. We must ask ourselves how is it, nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War and nearly 50 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that disproportionate State violence against African Americans and Latinos not only occurs, but is actively tolerated by the so-called mainstream of US society. We must also ask, how is it that the differential in treatment for African Americans and Latinos not only persists, but continues to grow during what some commentators once described as a supposed ‘post-racial’ era.
We must learn critical lessons from the Haymarket massacre and its aftermath. Public opinion can be quickly, and rather easily, manipulated against progressive mass movements in the aftermath of the actions of a lunatic. If the movement does not stand strong and especially pay attention to segments of the population that appear to be wavering in their support for the objectives of the movement, there can be major setbacks. At the same time, there is nothing inevitable about what happens next. This is why good leadership, organization and a sophisticated approach to strategy and tactics is so necessary.
I have absolute confidence in the young activists leading today’s movement. I do hope that they pay attention to the lessons of history as they continue to battle for justice. They have refocused the attention of much of this country on something that was all but ignored. Now they must press on to translate attention into a victorious moment.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and at www.billfletcherjr.com