Revolution #105, October 21, 2007

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Revolution received the following letter from a reader. We offer it this week as a “guest editorial” on a very urgent question.

There was (and actually continues to be) so much that went on in relation to Hurricane Katrina that can be classified as world class outrage—all the suffering and even deaths that could, and actually should, have been avoided. Suffering and deaths that happened not for lack of material wealth and resources in this nation or even manpower at the time of crisis, given that volunteers came from all over the country only to be kept out by government troops. There is one incident though that to me especially captured and concentrated the human atrocity all bound up with that natural disaster. And that is when a fairly large group of Black people from New Orleans who somehow had managed to escape the flood area, walking miles to reach higher and safe ground in Jefferson Parish were met at the parish’s border by armed local law enforcement and white vigilantes who would not allow these people escaping the catastrophe entry into “their” parish and quite literally forced these people back into the flooded, life-taking area. You would think that if you had a human bone in your body you would be welcoming people into areas that were safe from this flooding of gigantic proportions. But just the opposite was the case. As far as I have heard, no charges or even public censure were ever levied against these “fine public servants and citizens” who with the force of arms kept people from walking into safety on a town’s public streets and instead drove them back into harm’s way. What a concentrated example of the relations of inequality and oppression that persist!

Two years time has not erased from my memory in the least that particular Katrina incident—and many others I won’t go into here. These haunting memories only added to why I, and I am sure many others, were so very heartened to read the coverage of the outpouring September 20 in the October 1 issue of Revolution. Tens of thousands converging on Jena, Louisiana with various walkouts, marches and other forms of protest taking place around the country in solidarity. The essence of the Jena 6 case is that Black students at Jena High School had dared to challenge the bastions of white privilege in their school and town and the authority of the state came down on six of these students who refused to back off in the face of racist taunts, threats, and intimidation with a holy vengeance reminiscent of not only classic “Southern justice” but also the profound present-day reality of our U.S. injustice system where nationwide today Blacks, who are 12.3% of the U.S. population, make up 43.9% of the current prison population and where Black youth are more than twice as likely to be charged as  adults for the same crime as white youth! (See The Covenant with Black America by Tavis Smiley, page 53.)

As word spread of this travesty going down in Louisiana, it struck a deep, deep nerve. People rallied, marched, walked out and wore black in Jena and around the country on September 20 not to beg for “more suitable or appropriate punishment” for Mychal Bell and the others (who have already collectively spent many months in jail!), but to demand FREE the JENA 6. Enough is Enough! And this had everything to do with Mychal Bell finally being released on bail. This was a righteous initial victory but we can’t let down our guard—the battle is not over and in fact it needs to broaden and actually intensify. (Shortly after I wrote the above, I found out that Mychal Bell has now been thrown back into jail—which only serves to drive home the point that this battle is not over!)

But from looking at the photos and avidly watching the national news that evening, one troubling question stood out to me in what otherwise was a most beautiful and welcome event. And that was, where were the people of other nationalities joining together with the Black people of various ages and backgrounds (including proletarians from as far away as NewYork and California!) who made history on that day? There were certainly more than a few white individuals scattered in the Jena protest crowd and other events, but it seemed that not very many of the progressive-minded whites, young people as well as veterans of the ’60s, to put it bluntly, bothered to get involved in this battle, at least not in any significant number.

Taking up this fight to free the Jena 6 is not some kind of diversion from what is really troubling the world. The whole history of the oppression of Black people goes very much to the core features of this system. Black people have stood up in relation to this case against an injustice that truly concentrates a whole history as well as present-day reality that is oppressive, unjust, systemic and needs to be ended. On one level, the issue is as simple as that and, whatever your nationality, if you know about this case, where do you stand in relation to it?

So I have been thinking and studying about this, talked to a number of people and got online to see what folks were saying too, and I want to speak to some aspects of that. From news coverage and the dialogue on the Internet, it is clear that there are more than a few stone-to-the-bone racist reactionaries whipped up against the Jena 6. But then there also seemed to be significant broader confusion and ample inane commentary, especially among some white people. I am sure some of this was fostered by distorted or incomplete news coverage, but more fundamentally, it seems to be propelled by a propensity to, consciously or not, view things like this Jena 6 case through the prism of the white supremacist society we live in. The typical logic I ran into goes something like this: “Yes, it was wrong that there was a de facto ‘whites-only’ tree at Jena High School, it was wrong when nooses were hung in the tree in response to Black students challenging this racist status quo—BUT you can’t ignore the fact that Justin Barker was beat up, Mychal Bell is ‘no choir boy,’ and all the fuss about the Jena 6 is ignoring these ‘basic facts.’” This is also the crux of the argument of Reed Walters’ (the prosecutor of the Jena 6) op-ed piece in the New York Times.

These “basic facts” leave out a lot of other extremely relevant facts: That after the nooses were hung in the tree; the Black students did not back down but instead protested by standing under that tree. In response to that protest, Reed Walters spoke at an assembly, warning students to settle down and, clearly directing his comments to the Black students, threatened, “I can make your lives go away with a stroke of my pen.” The school board reversed the expulsions of the students who put put the nooses in the “whites-only” tree. The authority of the state in this way openly backed up the racist status quo. Attacks ensued against Black students by some white students and other citizens of Jena that resulted in, at most, simple wrist slaps. It was in the wake of all this that the fight with Justin Barker took place and, true to his word, the prosecutor levied the outrageous initial charges which included attempted murder against the Jena 6—charges which were later reduced to still very serious felonies.

But the most fundamental “fact” that these arguments leave out is the bigger context that all this is taking place in and reflects and why it hit such a responsive chord among so many Black people—the reality of the grotesquely unequal oppressive social relations and institutions today that are literally quite brutally enforced. Not only is all this still alive and well in these United States but the advances that were made off of the ’60s have been under heavy attack with a concurrent fostering of a culture of extreme bigotry. What do you think it means that the major Republican candidates have out-and-out boycotted any debates sponsored by Black organizations or media? That orders are given to “shoot to kill” those seeking provisions to save lives during Katrina? Or when the Supreme Court basically has reversed itself on court-ordered desegregation, when the incarceration rate for Blacks increased ninefold from 1954 to today, and when the prosecutor states with a straight face, speaking of the September 20 rally in Jena, “I firmly believe that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened,” confessing to all via CNN his fear of “Negro Hordes” and faith in his white supremacist god.

While I don’t here want to divert into a philosophical or even political discussion of the overall limitations of identity politics in general (for a discussion of this, see Bob Avakian Speaks Out, Interviewed by Carl Dix: On War and Revolution, On Being a Revolutionary and Changing the World—in particular “Part 7: Who Can Understand Oppression—And What’s Necessary to Really Put an End to Oppression” and “Part 8: More on ‘Identity Politics’—And Why We Need to Bring Forward Revolutionary Politics,” available online at, I would like to focus on the specific that there is no “identity” as a white person that isn’t objectively, in its essence, reactionary. Let me quote from an article by Bob Avakian that was part of a series run this year for Black History month since he describes and analyzes this in a very clear, succinct and pretty profound way:

Within the U.S. itself, one of the main and most ugly features of the capitalist-imperialist system is the great division between people of the European-American nation (white people) and peoples of color. This great division is not just a matter of racist ideas and attitudes, among white people in particular—although that is one expression of it. This division is deeply rooted in the historical development and the present-day economic and social structure of U.S. society. In imperialist America, with its whole foundation of slavery and genocide, with its whole history and continuing reality of white supremacy, the European-American nation is the oppressor nation. People of European descent, even those who are poor, powerless, and exploited—and even those who may have faced certain aspects of discrimination and prejudice, at least for a certain time, as part of immigrant “ethnic groups”—still share the status of being “white” in America, with everything that means. They enjoy certain privileges in relation to people of other nationalities who are the oppressed nationalities. To put it simply, if you are “white” in America, you may be treated badly, you may even suffer horribly at the hands of the system, particularly if you are without wealth and power, but you will not be subjected to certain kinds of discrimination and oppression that people of color cannot escape, even those who do accumulate a certain amount of wealth.

There is actually a material reason for the propensity of the “average” white person, even liberals as well as some otherwise very progressive people to easily get pulled (or whipped up) into a mindset of looking to see where some minority “got away with something” or got some unfair advantage because “they aren’t white” when the real history and current-day reality is frankly just the opposite. Conscious or not (and frankly there is a lot more consciousness to this than people are willing to admit), this represents aspirations to hold onto that position of privilege and satisfaction with the oppressor/oppressed state of affairs. And current calls for reconciliation going on right now in Jena are calls to actually settle back down into the white supremacist status quo.

Who are you standing with—those standing up against oppression, or with the oppressor? While the vast majority of white people, even those caught up in reactionary things, are not actually the same as the relative handful who actually owns, controls and runs this society and fundamentally benefit from exploitation and oppression, in a basic sense, you can be part of the solution or part of the problem.

I heard about one story in Jena where a poor white woman who had been gravitating towards supporting the prosecutor in Jena raised, in the wake of watching the John Mellencamp video on Jena, “but you don’t understand, I face oppression and abuse by the police too.” Undoubtedly, she does face oppression but that is all the more reason for her to throw in on the side of the Jena 6. Poor, oppressed and exploited whites back in the slave days were actually drawn into the horrific job of catching runaway slaves—because they, after all, were “freemen.” There is a current-day equivalent where for the benefit of, in some senses, pretty minuscule yet tangible advantage, even many very poor white proletarians identify with and join in support and sometimes militant defense of the white supremacist setup and the ruling class instead of siding with those with whom they fundamentally have much, much more in common.

All this needs to be challenged today. While it will take a revolution to truly uproot the oppression of Black people, the above terms are what you have to judge your involvement—or not—in struggles like the battle to free the Jena 6. And if you were clear on the terms here but did not get involved, why was this so? It would be good to hear from other readers on what were the factors that contributed to this passivity. Was it the pull of identity politics in the sense of seeing the protests as good and correct but that it was a “Black people thing” and didn’t concern you? Was it fear about stepping out and possible repercussions and repressions from the state? Preoccupation with your own daily pressures? Indifference out of self-satisfaction that you personally “aren’t a racist”? Or what? Whatever the answer, to be neutral or inactive is to support the racist status quo.

Ok, so acting like this case doesn’t involve you and standing aside from it is a big negative. But let’s look a moment at the positive side—of the difference it makes if people of all nationalities including many, many white people step forward actively in this fight.

The Unity We Don’t Need and the Unity We Do Need

I mentioned earlier the calls for “reconciliation” and “all coming together” that have been going on in Jena. This is definitely not the unity needed since it is a call to get people to come together on the basis of the current relations of inequality and oppression in Jena—and beyond. Instead, people of all nationalities speaking out and throwing in with the struggle to Free the Jena 6, which is a concentrated example and actual dividing line around the oppression of Black people, would be an important step in forging the capacity to actually win this battle and take the overall struggle against national oppression further. The authorities are very determined to pursue the prosecution of these youths and there have been threats made against the defendants and their families. Those who understand what is at stake need to be no less determined and in this vein draw in broader forces and spread this battle far wider.

A great step was taken by the thousands who came out on September 20 and this has already had far-reaching impact. Drawing forward far greater numbers of people of all different nationalities, would be an important further step in beginning to forge the kind of unity needed to not only win this battle, but to bring into being a world without oppression and exploitation. In particular, white people “breaking ranks” and totally refusing to side with the authorities and the supposed “white side” of the situation in Jena and instead standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Black people who have stepped on the political stage can have very, very important impact on challenging the relatively broad section of whites in this country caught up in or influenced by the essentially racist justifications of this, or just confused or complacent about the situation.

Despite the perks or crumbs of privilege (depending on your status), it actually is in the real interests of the vast majority of people, including the majority of white people, to live in a society free of white supremacy, inequality and all other oppression. But spontaneously, people tend to go with the flow—the way things are and have been and with especially the dominant “me first” mentality that flows from the structure of our society and which that structure also thrives on. The “crumbs” of white privilege are material—but the material impact of the ideological and yes, moral, stand of people of all different nationalities standing strong together demanding “no more” to national oppression can be very powerful. In short, it helps people see what is right and where their interests fundamentally lie and helps break them away from the thinking and grip of the ruling powers.

And even beyond, many more people of other nationalities, Latinos and other oppressed groups as well as many whites, wholeheartedly joining the righteous side of this battle will have a heartening impact on those who are already actually clearer on the terms here and outraged over what has happened and have even stepped out already on history’s stage. It can even serve to strengthen the resolve of those who already yearn for revolution. Unity among different nationalities, including in the proletariat but also among broader allies, based on fighting against white supremacy and inequality, is crucial and precious. It helps cut through any feelings of isolation of the advanced who have stepped out and helps combat the conservatizing and demoralizing weight that such feelings can have on people. It is added confirmation that those that have stepped out have right on their side and aids their resolve, including in the face of inevitable counter-attacks. And it helps show, in embryo, actual revolutionary possibilities and could be an inspiration of how we could bring forward a truly different world. This struggle and unity on this basis is an important element of preparing the ground for revolution.

Discrimination, lack of opportunity, abuse, brutality and lives stolen by the police have been a daily reality for Black people in this country. Even the few who “make it” often get singled out for public censure over any weakness or mistake that comes to light to the point where sometimes it feels like it’s a fucking national pastime to verbally flog Black athletes in the media. Nooses in schoolyards, and now proliferating around the country. The human potential of literally millions smothered and crushed. This and much more is the oppressive reality of what it means to be Black in the United States. We may look back and find that September 20, 2007 turned out to be a major turning point where after more than a decade of relative quiet in the face of all this, a sleeping giant began to stand up and declare “no more!”

If you missed out in participating in the events of September 20 for any reason it is time to step forward now, take up the fight to Free the Jena 6 and also get involved with October 22nd National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation. Attend or organize demonstrations on October 22; wear black on that day. Stand up and challenge the powers-that-be and the epidemic of state-sponsored brutality throughout the ghettos and barrios of this country. Contest for the hearts and minds of people, including those who either think this doesn’t affect them or are pulled to identify with the white supremacist status quo. What you do—or do not do—in relation to all this could very well have a bearing on how we will look back on September 20 and what potential there is for the future.

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