Revolution #99, August 26, 2007
Katrina, Jena, and the Whole Damn System
The Need for Revolution and the Urgent Need for Resistance
Two years ago Katrina hit New Orleans. The whole world watched as hundreds of thousands of people—mostly Black and mostly poor—were trapped in New Orleans. Katrina shined a glaring light on the fact that masses of Black people are trapped in extreme poverty, with fewer and fewer jobs and worse and worse education and health care and housing, and a future of prison or early death for the youth. The lies and the failures of this system and its leaders were on display for everyone to see; they could not be denied or suppressed as they are in “normal times.”
America’s rulers and America’s media acted as if they were shocked. When his vacation was finally over, Bush flew to New Orleans and solemnly declared that the government would come in and help everyone rebuild their lives, and make things better than before. The Democrats made noises about all kinds of new aid for the people living in the ghettos. The 47th—or was it the 48th?—“national conversation on race” was said to have begun. And then, after about a month, the promises turned to dust and reality set in.
The reality, as this issue of Revolution shows, is that for the survivors of Katrina, their troubles were only just beginning. The system didn’t just fail them; it betrayed them.
Katrina concentrates and, in a deep sense, stands for the larger reality facing Black people in the U.S. In the two years following Katrina:
- New York police killed Sean Bell on his wedding day. This shocking murder and the protests that followed broke the silence about the widespread police murder since 9/11 and brought to light many similar cases;
- The Supreme Court effectively removed the government from any role in enforcing school desegregation. While court-ordered school integration had ended up to be yet another “dream deferred” and promise betrayed, for the Supreme Court to outlaw any further attempt to overcome the confinement of African-American children in segregated, inferior, prison-like schools amounts to a major attack;
- A report from the New York Civil Liberties Union exposed widespread police brutality within New York high schools, including routine police insults, assaults and unjustified arrests of students, and even attacks on teachers and even principals who dared to verbally defend their students;
- In Jena, Louisiana six Black youth face years in prison for a schoolyard fight that followed white students hanging nooses in a “white-only” shade tree on school property—an outrage that people have resisted and thereby drawn international attention to.
One common thread in all of the above is that the targets are African-American youth. In words, the system promises these youth one thing; in actual deeds, they make their message clear: Black youth have no future under this system.
To give a sense of where things have gone, in 1954—the year the Supreme Court back then decided there should be school integration—there were 98,000 Black people locked down in prisons. 50 years later, in 2004, the figure was...910,000! Nearly ten times as many. That is the “progress” given by this system. That is the future they promise. That is the “answer” this system has to the centuries-old oppression that it created and continually reinforces.
This Is a System—A Capitalist System
America is a capitalist-imperialist system. This basic and brutal fact has set the terms for Black people’s fate in this country.
It was capitalism’s expansion into America, and the growth of a world market 400 some years ago, that created the huge demand for cotton, sugar, and other agricultural products. To produce and sell these products, at massive profit, the early capitalists kidnapped millions of Africans, put them in chains and sold them into slavery. Millions died in hellish ocean voyages before even reaching America. Those who survived suffered in unimaginable ways and over the generations produced much of the foundation of the great wealth that this country’s rulers love to brag about.
It was capitalism’s need to “grow beyond” the bounds of the slave economy, along with the rebellions of the slaves themselves, that brought on the Civil War. (And, the ex-slaves themselves fought for their own freedom in the Union Army once they had the chance—and they took casualties way out of proportion to their numbers.) It was capitalism’s need to re-establish order—and profitable accumulation—afterward that led to the exploitation of the newly freed slaves as sharecroppers and the institution of Jim Crow segregation and lynch-mob justice in the south.
It was the battle for empire that was World War 2—and capitalism’s need for workers to build up the defense industries, as well as auto, steel, rubber and the rest and then, later, the mechanization of farming in the south—that led masses of Black people into the urban proletariat. This was the “great migration”—where the masses of Black people went from being sharecroppers to being workers, pushed off the land and into the cities.
But today capitalism has moved its heavy industries to the suburbs and to other countries. And, even though Black youth in the inner cities want jobs, the capitalists judge them to be too “defiant” to employ in the few jobs that remain. They have different plans now for these youth. So over the past decades they have let the schools rot and the dope trade flourish in the inner cities. They have set up a dynamic where millions of Black youth have no real alternative but prison or death. They have stepped up their vicious portrayals of these youth in the media as “savage” and “beyond redemption.” (It is true that during this time a few doors were also opened—but only part way—to allow a small section of Black people to “make it” into the middle class. But their position is very precarious, and they too still suffer discrimination and oppression at the system’s hands, in all kinds of ways—including risking their lives for “driving while Black.”)
For Black youth, this is not the time of rising expectation—these are the days of mass incarceration, ugly demonization, and full-out criminalization.
Revolution and Resistance
Time is up and past up for this system. We have seen how this system has betrayed the masses of Black people. What it has in store is not just “turning back the clock.” It is even worse—a program with truly genocidal implications. This is what it means when the number of Black people imprisoned grows by nearly ten times in 50 years, when people like Pat Robertson talk about the prison population being a “stain on the land,” when others talk about “cracking down further” and deem these youth to be “super predators, incapable of rehabilitation,” and when the few opportunities that did exist are systematically shut down.
There can be no real and lasting change for the better under this system.
This is one big reason why we need a communist revolution and a new system. Li Onesto’s article on Katrina in this issue contrasts graphically how a socialist system would have handled the needs of the people in such a disaster with how this system did. Of course, the communist revolution is the most radical and all-encompassing revolution: its goal is to get humanity to a stage where all class divisions, all relations of exploitation on which those divisions rest, all social relations and political institutions that reinforce those relations, and all the ideas that correspond to them are abolished, and where people interact with the world and each other as freely associating human beings. And from the very beginning stages of that revolution it would mean a fundamental change for the better in every sphere—with one very key component and task of the communist revolution being wiping out the oppression of peoples and nations, and overcoming the scars of the past.
To get to a situation where this can happen, many things would have to change. And one big change is this: the people must politically fight back, in their millions. There must be a new upsurge of political resistance to all this oppression, uniting many different kinds of people with all kinds of views. Without this, there can be no fundamental change; without this, the people will be ground down and suffer even greater horrors.
Some of this is beginning to happen. The protests against the police murder of Sean Bell, as well as the recent protests in Chicago against the police murder of 18-year-old Aaron Harrison; the struggle to free the Jena 6; and some of the different protests in many different forms against the continuing outrage of Katrina—all these are significant and positive. Many teachers, writers, artists and other folk in the Black middle strata are stepping out in different ways. There are stirrings among other people of color, and some whites are beginning to take a stand as well. But these are still only the seeds of what the people really need—a new upsurge declaring this is intolerable. All this must be strengthened and expanded, to whole other levels, and the links drawn between these fights and other key battles against the system, and the overall need for revolution.
This fall must witness much greater political resistance to these outrages and, yes, horrors. This newspaper must be a vital part of such resistance. This must be true on August 29, when the second anniversary of Katrina is marked. This must be true in the case of the Jena 6, both now and when the sentencing hearing of Mychal Bell happens on September 20—people must be very broadly united to Free the Jena 6. And this must be true as well on October 22, the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation.
[To get deeper into what is covered in this article, check out the following: Cold Truth, Liberating Truth and the Black History Month series on-line at revcom.us. And check out the DVD of Bob Avakian’s speech, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About.]
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