Revolution #80, March 4, 2007
An Urgent Question in the Protests Against NYPD Murder
of Sean Bell:
“Where Are the White People in this Struggle?”
Revolution received the following correspondence from some comrades in New York:
"[I]f he was walking along minding his business, like he was that night of his bachelor party, why did he have to be followed? Why that night did he have to be circled by all those cops? Do they know why they surrounded him? Do they really know? That comes back to all these questions I have. Why?"
William Bell, father of Sean Bell
Revolution #78, Feb.11, 2007
November 25, 2006: 23-year-old Sean Bell was shot 50 times by police as he and his two friends, Jose Guzman and Trent Benefield, were leaving Sean's bachelor party just a few hours before his wedding. Sean died. His two friends were critically injured. All of them were handcuffed on the ground, including Sean, who was already dead. When they arrived at the hospital, Jose and Trent were handcuffed to their beds.
Many Black people, pained and outraged by Sean's murder, have marched and protested, demanding justice. And some people have asked the revolutionaries and each other, where are the white people in this struggle? Why are we fighting this alone?
Some of us writing for the paper in New York City have been talking to people of different nationalities and from different walks of life about how to understand and change such an urgent and intolerable state of affairs.
Those who are coming up now from all nationalities, along with some who are forgetting what they learned in the 1960s, need to take a deeper look at the reasons for this shameful blindness and complicity among white people, as part of understanding and acting on the potential today to go much further in uprooting the oppression of Black people and all oppression. Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, once commented that there’s nothing wrong with white people that a good proletarian revolution couldn't cure.* To understand all this more deeply, we have been digging into Bob Avakian’s talks from summer 2006--especially “Why We’re in the Situation We’re in Today…And What to Do About It: A Thoroughly Rotten System and the Need for Revolution” and “Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy” (these talks and five others are available as audio files at bobavakian.net and revcom.us)--in addition to the current Revolution series “The Oppression of Black People and the Revolutionary Struggle to End All Oppression.” Other important sources are also cited in this letter.
We think that to get at this question requires going back to the very beginnings of this country, to the economic and ideological foundation of slavery and exploitation. Much of this has been systematically hidden and distorted by those who control the media and education in this country. People are told that the history of slavery has no impact on the situation today, that yes, there was discrimination in the past, but now there is a level playing field, that if Black people can't get ahead it is their own fault--when in fact the whole history and continuing conditions of systematic national oppression are woven into the very fabric of the economic, political, cultural life in the United States.
Especially for those wishing for a "return to the original ideals" of this country or who embrace "getting back to Jeffersonian democracy" as you look with alarm at the extreme fascist agenda of those at the core of power in the U.S. grouped around George W. Bush and his regime, we suggest a closer and more objective look at what those concepts--such as the "equality of man" and "universal freedom"--rested upon in reality, how this capitalist/imperialist system has actually evolved from that reality--and the kind of liberating world that is actually possible, and necessary, to uproot all exploitation and oppression.
People really need to know about the tremendous human cost in misery, pain and deaths in this history, starting with the slave trade and Middle Passage, looking through this history right down to today. (See the historical chronology we have included with this letter, "Slavery ... Lynching ... Prisons ... and Police.")
Sean Bell and thousands more lost over generations are the victims of armies of police, soldiers, and slave-catchers who have enforced and maintained the exploitation of tens of millions, from the plantations of early American slavery down to literally billions of impoverished and destitute people worldwide today.
What is needed is massive resistance to police murder and the genocidal direction it is part of in modern-day America. White people and others who consider themselves well-informed people of conscience who have been sitting this out have to open their eyes wide to where this comes from, where it is going, and what kind of society they want to live in--and then take steps to act accordingly.
There is deep historical precedent to the shameful ignorance and complicity of large sections of white people. And there is rich experience that shows how this can break down when white people have joined others of all nationalities in historic battles to overturn vicious subjugation and oppression. Slaves rose up again and again, and many risked death to escape to the northern states and Canada. Thousands of free Blacks and former slaves took up arms as part of the Union Army to defeat slavery in the Civil War. White abolitionists hid escaped slaves, and some took up armed rebellion against slavery. White southern women joined the anti-lynching movement, refusing to allow the "protection" of their "virtue" to be the pretext for vicious murder and mutilation of Black men. In the '60s and '70s millions of white people were among those who learned the truth about the history of American society starting with the enslavement of Africans, the theft of one-third of Mexico, and the annihilation of Native Americans. A generation put down textbook lessons of happy slaves and the “horrible tragedy” of the Civil War and went into the streets to join the struggle against the oppression of whole peoples and the imperialist war against the people of Vietnam. In an interview with Revolution newspaper, William Bell, Sean Bell's father, points to the significance of white people like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who made great sacrifices in the fight against the oppression of Black people. (Schwerner and Goodman were killed by the KKK, along with James Chaney, when they went to Mississippi in 1964 to join the civil rights movement.) He says: “I've gotten calls from people around the world, which is good. I think maybe for a lot of others they're afraid that if they try to show support now... it's like what happened back in the '60s when white people showed support for Black people--they would kill them. Mississippi Burning--a perfect example. They killed those white kids and burned their car. Put them under the rug, like they were nothing, no one.”
The upsurge of the '60s-'70s rocked this country to its foundations--but it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t lead to a revolution that overturned the whole system founded on this genocide and misery. Now those who are coming up from all nationalities, along with those who are forgetting some of what they knew in the 1960s, need to take a deeper look at the reasons for this shameful blindness and complicity among white people, as part of understanding and acting on the potential today to go much further in uprooting all of this.
It's not only that Thomas Jefferson and many of the other "Founding Fathers" personally owned slaves--although that's certainly worth noting! But beyond that, what these "fathers" fathered was an exploitative economy and relations between people of different classes and strata, which meant that "universal" and "inalienable rights for all" were inalienable rights of white men. Even white small farmers, while not part of the master slave-owning aristocracy, were nevertheless white and therefore imbued with certain entitlements. On the other hand Black slaves, as well as Native Americans, were invisible to the early philosophizing of universal human rights by virtue of being considered less than fully human.
Today's U.S. "freedom and prosperity" comes down to the imperialists' "freedom" to prosper by exploiting the world's labor, resources, and markets--and wouldn't be possible without the exploitation of Black people under slavery, and then after slavery through the sharecropping system, through the "great migration" to jobs in the factories of the northern cities through the 1950s. While legal segregation has by and large been overturned, de facto segregation in many arenas of public life has actually increased. Unemployment for Black youth is twice that for whites. And on top of this, Black people face the worst housing, the worst health care, and the worst apartheid-like education and other social services.
Edward Ball, an author who researched his own family's slave-owning and slave-trading history for his book Slaves in the Family, discussed America's caste system with Sonya Fordham, one of the descendants of slaves owned by his own family, in a conversation featured in the publisher's book club guide:
"Fordham: Ed, suppose a person says to you, 'My family didn't own slaves. We're not responsible for slavery' or 'We came to America after the Civil War, and we were poor immigrants who suffered prejudice just like black people.' How would you answer that person?
"Ball: I would say, yes, many millions of white Americans came here poor, tired, homeless, yearning to breathe free. In fact, 40 percent of white Americans come from families that entered the United States at Ellis Island, and they were rejected peasants, poor Irish, Italians, Germans, or Jews that had fled from Russian pogroms. They did suffer and their suffering should be commemorated. But when those families set foot on Ellis Island, they entered a two-tier society that had already been established before they arrived, with white people on the upper tier and black people on the lower tier. They got better education, they got better housing, and they got better jobs before native-born black Americans. So they were soon lifted up into the middle class, while African-Americans remained destitute. They benefited, in other words, from the legacy of slavery which had created a lopsided society. And their descendants still benefit from it indirectly. I would respect the stories of family suffering, but point out that the inheritance of slavery is one that we all share."
Is a revolution to transform all of this possible? Yes it is, when the right kind of conditions emerge.
The revolutionary unity of all nationalities against this system will be an essential part of politically preparing for millions of people to seize an opening to overthrow the system when such a situation emerges. This revolution can begin to uproot the oppression of Black and other oppressed people right away--which trying to "heal" differences, or build up a Black economy--within a network of American empire--can never do.
This kind of revolution will lift the U.S. empire off the backs of the great majority of people in the world--and is in the interest of the great majority of people in the U.S. itself, including the great majority of white people who need to understand and break with living in a new Roman empire--bent on world domination, resting on modern-day slavery, and founded on the enslavement and genocide of millions of Africans and Native peoples.
Another world is possible and it's up to us to bring it into being. And one vital first step in this is for whites who want that better world – or who oppse the injustice of this one – to step forward against outrages like the murder of Sean Bell. This is the way to build revolutionary unity between people of color and white people.
* This article, 'What's Wrong with White People?' appears in Reflections, Sketches & Provocations by Bob Avakian (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1990). [back]
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