A black liberation movement is being reborn in the US

By Neil Keenan

In the closing weeks of 2014 the US saw the beginnings of a nationwide movement against police repression of the black communities. A series of local struggles in the United States against a number of high profile cases of cop killings of black youths and men exploded into a national black struggle on a level not seen since the civil rights movement.

If these types of protests were to keep re-emerging with any frequency and scale they could lead to a rebirth of the black liberation movement in the US. Such a development would have the capacity to transform politics in the United States. Even at the current level it is already proving to be an inspiration to black and anti-racist struggles everywhere.

Such a movement in the United States is urgently needed, because while the civil rights movement of the 1960s achieved some very important advances, the organised discrimination against the majority of African Americans continued and racism remained endemic. Racist discrimination against black Americans is systematic across all areas of human existence and by every conceivable measure.

The numbers tell the shameful story.

One of the most telling figures for the social position of any particular group in society is life expectancy. Not only, in the final analysis, is it that life is all we humans have, but average life expectancy is extremely sensitive to variations in standard of living, education, health provision, housing and other conditions of life.

In America, while average life expectancy overall in 2009 was 79 years, for black people it was only 75 years. Infant mortality is similarly racially skewed with the mortality rate at 5.5 (per 1000 live births) for whites and 12.8 for black infants (2007-09).

Underpinning this is a deeply embedded oppression whereby African Americans are disproportionately confined to poverty and lower living standards. In 2013, while 10% of white Americans lived in family units with an income below the federally defined poverty level, 27% of African Americans did. In 2006 (last available figures) this translated into 15.8% of black households living on less than $10,000 a year compared to 6.2% of white households. The median income for black households in the same year was $31,969, compared to $50,673 for whites.

Relative poverty, education, jobs, pay, incomes and wealth have all shifted significantly against the black population since the recession. A recent report shows that median net household wealth (accumulated net assets less liabilities) for whites was $141,900 in 2013, an astounding 13 times greater than that of black households at just $11,000, which itself has fallen 33% from $16,600 in 2010, suggesting black households are accumulating vast levels of debt.

In 2010 the US unemployment rate for whites was 8.7% while for Black people it was almost double that at 16%. City authorities have placed the main burden of austerity on the poor and primarily black populations. Thus it was mainly the black population of Detroit that was affected by the 27,000 water cut-offs for payment arrears imposed by the city authorities attempting to recoup the costs of upgrading its aging water supply.

However the most grotesque reflection of the institutional racism of US society is the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system. The fundamentally illiberal character of American society is reflected in its overall incarceration rates which are the highest in the world (with the exception of Seychelles which hardly counts). The US in 2012 was on average imprisoning 707 adults per 100,000 of the population. This compares to China for example – which is widely criticised for its penal system – which on highest estimates imprisoned 174 people per 100,000 of the population; or Iran that imprisons 284.

Such a high rate of imprisonment says a lot about the true nature of American society – the superficial nature of the so-called liberal American dream. But the veil is stripped away even further when looking at the racial composition of the prison population. The US does not operate an equal opportunities’ incarceration policy; that average of 707 per 100,000 adults breaks down to 2207 black adults compared to 380 whites. In other words the incarceration of African-Americans is running at six times the rate of incarceration of white Americans.

Between 1999 and 2005 research showed that African Americans were about 13% of drug users (about the same as their presence in the population as a whole) but were 46% of those convicted for drug offenses. The ‘War on Drugs’ is in reality a ferocious assault on non-white communities.

African Americans and Latinos are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once

arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely

to face stiff sentences. One in every three African American males can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. This amounts to the criminalisation of an entire community.

The figures for those on death row are even more shocking. In 2009 there were 3297 people on death row in the United States, of these 41.58% were African-Americans (1371), despite African-Americans forming only 12.6% of the US population. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 to end 2014 there have been 1,389 executions in the US, and of those executed 33.8% (470) were black, compared to 55.6% (772) white.

Moreover this reflects a differential justice for crimes committed depending on whether the victim was white or black. Killers of white victims get stiffer sentences than killers of black people, with those who kill whites (excluding Latinos) three times more likely to receive a death sentence those who kill African-Americans.

However the issue that has led new upsurge in black struggle in the United States has been the ‘judicial’ killings of black people by the cops.

An FBI report into police homicides between 2005-12 also found that upwards of 400 such killings take place each year – however this is accepted to be an underestimate as not all police forces provide figures for the FBI. However, on the basis of the data it did have the FBI found that an average of 96 each year of these were killings of a black person by a white police officer – around 2 a week. Not all these victims were unarmed, but this number includes some of the most grotesque and unjustifiable cases.

This level of judicial killing by the police is unlike that of any other advanced nation. In 2013 police in America’s shot and killed 458 people, while in Britain police shot and killed no one.

The facts of unbelievable prosperity side-by-side with “Third World” levels of poverty in black ghettos of American cities is inevitably accompanied by an increasingly militarised police presence.

The American police are not just fully armed – perhaps unsurprising the country with such liberal gun laws – they are increasingly paramilitary in both equipment and operations with many forces supplied with grenade launchers and armoured cars. According to the Economist: “The number of raids by heavily armed SWAT teams has risen from 3,000 a year in 1980 to 50,000 today….”.

This militarisation of the US police has been deepened by the impact of the US’s wars abroad, where the full extent of the federal military budget has been disguised and subsidised through encouraging police departments to buy surplus army kit, including heavy weapons. Stiglitz and Bilmes have previously detailed this process in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War.

Ferguson is just such a case where the repression of black people and austerity America have come together in a toxic combination of an alienated population and a brutal police force. This is reinforced by a system where the city authorities in St Louis and elsewhere increasingly fund local services, including the police, from fines and other exactions on the predominantly black population. The police are incentivised to impose fines and seize ‘criminal assets’ to aid the city finances, with a deepening cycle of discrimination and police brutality an inevitable consequence.

The protests that erupted against the recent police killings have themselves confronted remarkable levels of police repression. In Ferguson protestors and even some media noted that the police response was more like an army of occupation, with the police deploying armoured personnel carriers, hi-tech weaponry and aerial support as well as using combat weaponry and high-grade fatigues. Protests elsewhere braved similar weapons of repression.

The resistance that emerged at the end of last year was focused on police killings, but was at root an eruption of anger at the entire treatment of America’s black communities. The demonstrations were inspiring.

These state-imposed outrages against African-Americans are not going to end without a massive movement to challenge the entire system of discrimination. Although the demonstrations against police killings have receded for now, a new death or new indignity is round the corner, and new protests are likely to emerge.

Even the very beginnings of a movement to challenge the institutionalised, state organised discrimination against African-Americans is so profoundly inspiring that it encourages the struggles of new generations of young people not only in the US itself but beyond.