Revolution #241, July 31, 2011
The Plague of Violence Among the People—and the Real Solution
Posted August 1, 2011
A new documentary film titled The Interrupters opened in New York City on July 28, the first stop on a scheduled theatrical run across the U.S., UK, and Canada. Directed by Steve James (director of Hoop Dreams and other films) and produced by Alex Kotlowitz (author of There Are No Children Here and other books), The Interrupters follows over the course of a year three people who work with the Chicago-based CeaseFire organization. The film focuses on, and will provoke discussion on, the question of violence among the people. We think that the following article, which originally appeared in Revolution #146, October 25, 2008, is an important contribution to that discussion.
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The Plague of Violence Among the People—and the Real Solution
Revolution #146, October 25, 2008
Right now, in Black and Latino neighborhoods all over this country, children are being robbed of their childhoods, afraid to go to the corner store or outside to play or to ride the bus to school. Some studies have shown that the number one fear among school children is getting shot. 36 Chicago Public School children have been killed since last September as a result of violence among the people. These shootings come on top of (and are largely used as a justification for) widespread terrorization and brutality on the part of the police, including a recent murderous rampage by the Chicago police who shot 12 people in 4 weeks this summer, 6 fatal and at least 6 shot in the back.
How did we get into this hellish situation where parents watch young children shot down in crossfire, kids grow up haunted by nightmares of gunfire, sure they won’t make it past 18? This is a horror for the people—with a feeling of desperation that comes from knowing it’s your neighbors, cousins and friends doing this to each other. And it gives rise to a deep despair that this is an endless spiral with no way out.
People from different perspectives are seeking out answers and solutions to this, from research projects to marches to intervention groups. In a New York Times article last May, “Blocking the Transmission of Violence” (5/4/2008), Alex Kotlowitz makes one such argument, likening violence to an epidemic disease plaguing many communities.1 Kotlowitz clearly has great concern for the lives and conditions of the people locked to the bottom of society. But despite his best intentions, his argument concentrates a dangerous logic that reverses cause and effect.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to speak to everything Kotlowitz raises, we want to speak here to his central argument—that stopping the violence among the people is the necessary first step to changing the larger economic and social conditions among the oppressed masses. An underlying assumption in the article is that this can be done without changing the fundamental economic and political relations of society which, as we will go on to show, is the brutal source of this whole situation. This same line of thinking is echoed by many people who hate the ways in which they’re forced to live but feel the answer to this is for us to “clean up our own backyard” before there can be any positive change for the communities.
In discussing the position of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin (who, as the founder of the Chicago-based CeaseFire organization, is largely the focus of Kotlowitz’ article), Kotlowitz uses an analogy between stopping violence and curing an infectious disease which has a big source in a community’s water supply:
“Slutkin says that it makes sense to purify the water supply if—and only if—you acknowledge and treat the epidemic at hand. In other words, antipoverty measures will work only if you treat violence. It would seem intuitive that violence is a result of economic deprivation, but the relationship between the two is not static. People who have little expectation for the future live recklessly. On the other side of the coin, a community in which arguments are settled by gunshots is unlikely to experience economic growth and opportunity.”
Kotlowitz himself begins to explore some of the limitations of this argument on one level, but does not go further to examine what is “poisoning the water supply” in the first place. In talking about people who are trying to get out of the logic of gang retribution, he writes, “Leaving town is not an option for most. And for those who have walked away from a shooting…if there are no jobs, or lousy schools, or decrepit housing, what’s to keep them from drifting back into their former lives? It’s like cholera: you may cure everyone, you may contain the epidemic, but if you don’t clean up the water supply, people will soon get sick again.”
Kotlowitz does not pose the basic, and necessary question: why are the schools concentrated in the Black and Latino neighborhoods disproportionately “lousy,” why is the housing “decrepit,” or at this point, nonexistent? And to step even further back, why are Black people concentrated in urban slums in the first place? How did this develop, and what gave rise to a situation where there are now several generations of youth who have been criminalized—killed by the police, killed by each other or warehoused in prisons in the tens and tens of thousands? The violence people commit against each other is the symptom of a larger problem—but if you don’t diagnose the problem correctly and if you don’t know what caused it, then the treatment you attempt to come up with will actually make it worse.
What Is “Poisoning the Water Supply”?
The oppression of Black people, and other minorities, has been a feature of the development of capitalism in U.S. society from its founding—on the bones of slavery and genocide against Native peoples. After the Civil War and the short period of Reconstruction, instead of being integrated into the larger American society, a wave of terror was unleashed against Black people—they were in the main confined to the plantations in a new form of slavery, and African-American people were formed into an oppressed nation in the south within the larger, dominant Euro-American U.S. In the early 1900s, heavy industry began to greatly expand. In the North, especially with the gearing up for World War 2, the defense industry was booming, creating a demand for labor, while in the South, the mechanization of cotton production (and tobacco before it) made sharecropping less profitable. There was a push and a pull from the South that sent millions of Black people migrating to the North—the push of poverty, Jim Crow racism and KKK terror and the pull of work and hopes for a better life. But while the forms of oppression were different in the North, the fact of the oppression remained. Black workers who were brought into the workforce, on the basis of their oppression as a people, were put into the dirtiest and most dangerous, lowest paying jobs, they were the “last hired” and “first fired.” Black people were refused the housing subsidies that white people received to buy suburban homes and even when they had the money were prevented, either by unspoken agreements or straight-up mob violence, from buying homes in “white” neighborhoods. Instead they were shunted—by government policy—into poorly built high rise housing projects in the inner cities. Black people of all classes and strata faced segregation and discrimination everywhere they turned, and Black workers were super-exploited to give the capitalists extra profits.
The effects of all this—along with the situation internationally, where there were uprisings against imperialism and colonial domination and where socialist countries like China posed the prospect of a revolutionary resolution to oppression, and the U.S. was also locked in contention with other powers for a bigger share of the plunder of the formerly colonial world—gave rise here to the earth-shaking revolutionary movement of the 1960s. With this upsurge and especially with the powerful urban rebellions in over 100 U.S. cities, some barriers Black people faced did fall. Black people were brought into some better jobs, affirmative action enabled thousands of Black students to enter college and professional careers, social programs like welfare and early education programs were provided.
Many people, especially among the younger generation, began to see themselves differently in relation to the world. Through struggle, people were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of relating. There was broad unity among many that they weren’t going to fight and die for the oppressors, but to bring a whole new future for people all around the world into being. In fact, one of the most inspiring accomplishments of groups like the Black Panther Party and Young Lords Party (a revolutionary group based mainly among Puerto Ricans) was the way they got many former gang-bangers out of that life and into making revolution and serving the people, and the ways in which many prisoners (like George Jackson) went over from “criminal-minded” to “revolutionary-minded.”
But all of this ran up against limitations. Even the most advanced forces for revolution didn’t have a deep enough understanding of what a different future would or should be all about or how a revolution could be fought and won in this country against such a powerful enemy. There was not a leadership with a developed strategy of how to unite the many streams of resistance and radical sentiments politically, culturally, and ideologically into a powerful force behind that revolution. Or with an understanding of how to not just withstand, but advance through the brutal repression that came down with a vengeance from the state—over 20 members of the Black Panther Party (including leaders like Fred Hampton and George Jackson) were assassinated, hundreds of revolutionaries were jailed, the National Guard was called out against the righteous rebellions, students were shot down in the street and the movements broadly were surveilled and harassed. In addition, there were major changes and challenges going on in the revolutionary movement internationally and the global high tide of the ’60s was ebbing, which also had a powerful effect. It was in the face of the real limitations in understanding how to meet all these challenges, and of the brutal repression by the ruling class, that the majority of the movement of that time turned away from revolution.
By the early ’80s, most of what had been the movement of the ’60s had either been crushed, was directionless or co-opted. At the same time, there were tremendous changes going on in the world politically and economically. The revolutionary leadership of China had been overturned in a coup after Mao Tsetung died, and this demoralized and disoriented many who had seen in revolutionary China a source of hope and support. Meanwhile, many jobs were relocated to the suburbs or shipped overseas where people could be exploited even more brutally. The inner cities became economic wastelands. This was a result of both policy (including the conscious decision in many cases to locate jobs away from the now more rebellious and defiant Black workforce) and more fundamentally, the drive of the restless, never-ceasing compulsion on capital to constantly expand or die—to seek out higher rates of profit or go under to competition.
The concessions that had been wrenched through the struggle of the ’60s were being reversed—the end of affirmative action, integration to all intents and purposes dead and welfare was soon to be entirely gutted. Today, more than one generation faces conditions where many have never had a job and there is no prospect (through no action of their own) that they ever will. The government flooded the ghettos with drugs which became the main economic life in these neighborhoods, a certain foundation which “set the terms” for all other economic and social activity. At the same time, the so-called “war on drugs” was unleashed, which was nothing but a war on the people—with arrests and imprisonments skyrocketing. 330,000 were in prison in 1970 compared to 2.3 million in prison today. Today, nearly half of the people in prison in America are Black. In fact, the incarceration rate for Black people is the highest in the world.
Understanding all this, it becomes clear that these conditions were not caused by violence among the people. Nor is the violence among the people a “virus”—it is a reaction to conditions of relentless oppression where there seems to be no real hope of change. It is the system, with its dog-eat-dog mentality, that creates and perpetuates these conditions. This whole capitalist-imperialist setup is propelled by an endless drive for profit and more profit, with systematic super-exploitation and the oppression of Black and other oppressed peoples as a key dynamic element. Those two things—the capitalist system at the foundation of this country, and the white supremacy which runs all through this society and has been inextricably interlinked with it since Day One—are what caused the problem, not some make-believe “virus.”
And, these conditions don’t just “exist” in the air. They are brutally enforced by a whole state apparatus of cops, courts, and prisons. Some people out there tell us the cops are “just another gang.” No they’re not! Some individual cops may be in gangs, but as an institution, they are the hired enforcers of a whole system of exploitation and oppression.
Step back once again, what comes through is the utter criminality of this system, which keeps people in the inner city penned in and locked down, left to rot and kill each other off, and then to be killed and imprisoned when they walk into this trap.
Kotlowitz’ and Slutkin’s argument will not make anything better. And even worse, whatever the intent, it justifies and strengthens the hand of an oppressive state with its brutal, murdering police and prisons.
Two Questions for Alex Kotlowitz
We have two questions we’d like to ask Kotlowitz: First, if every young Black man in a gang in East St. Louis, or Chicago, or Harlem, or Oakland quit their gang affiliation, renounced violence and crime, and showed up at a community college to enroll in a digital design program or a computer networking certification program, what would happen? The simple fact is that there would not be work for the vast majority of them. In fact, a recent study showed that the rate and numbers of Black people in information technology declined relative to eight years ago—not because people were unqualified, but because, according to Gina Billings, president of the National Black Data Processing Association, globalization has led to outsourcing to third world countries, and Black professionals once again found themselves caught in the “last hired, first fired” trap.
So even if you were to suddenly qualify every gang member for a good job, they would only be hired if employing them would be profitable for capital. And those jobs are not out there—not because society doesn’t need them, but because they are not profitable. And precisely because the ruling class of capitalists knows this, they do NOT offer training programs, etc. in any serious way because they do not want to raise people’s expectations and risk social rebellion when those expectations are not satisfied.
And, second, conversely, what would happen if, after a revolution, with a new socialist economy that was based on transforming conditions to overcome the age-old oppressive divisions of society and meeting the needs of the people, while rendering support to revolution worldwide, society DID offer every young Black person a chance at education and a job with meaning that they could live on? In a revolutionary society, there would be no unemployment because employment would not be based on whether it was profitable for capital; people would immediately be given work, to deal with the many pressing problems facing society. In that totally new society, the violence that people lash out with against each other would rapidly diminish as a whole new ethos and view of one another took root.
Changing Conditions and Changing People…Correctly Understood
Only if we correctly understand the source of the conditions that people find themselves in, which Slutkin and Kotlowitz leave out, can we understand that the relationship between people’s conditions, ideas, and actions aren’t “static,” as Kotlowitz states, and even more fundamentally, that things do not have to be this way! It is in the process of confronting the real problem and radically changing conditions that people can transform qualitatively and in a liberating way.
Under this system, people are forced to live based on “what’s in it for me” and they are thrust into competition with others. This is the logic and dynamics of capitalism overall, and gets sharp when people are fighting over crumbs in a situation where every crumb counts. People are forced to hustle to survive, and while there are important examples of the ways in which people come together to help each other, how things are set up with people set against each other works to undermine even that.2
Just like in the larger society, there’s a whole culture and outlook bound up with this—“I got to get mine, I got to get what I can get within this.” And this logic has a pull and coherence.
A youth from Chicago's south side, who's been agonizing about the violence all around him, has been arguing that it's not just the economic necessity that leads youth to get into the gangs—this is also a deeply felt aspiration.
Yes, many do aspire to not just be part of, but to be on top of this game, and those aspirations are shaped by and confined within the larger material conditions that people are presented with.
The gangs and “the life” is just that—a whole way of life, with economics and morality which infuses whole neighborhoods with a “code of the streets” ethos and outlook. This divides sharply into two because on the one hand, this is a reflection writ small of the larger relations and dog-eat-dog dynamics and morality in society. But it has an “outlaw fuck the world” element—where people desire to be and are seemingly up against the system as a whole.
Within these dynamics, mirroring the dominant capitalist ethos of society, you’re prey or a predator—someone takes down one of yours, you have to take down one of theirs. In this gangster logic, if you don’t, you haven’t stood up for your people and you come out looking weak. The “code of the streets” comes with a “kill or be killed” mentality and a vicious cycle of seemingly never-ending shootings against others in the same conditions as you.
There’s also the attraction that you can “be somebody” in a way you can’t in any other part of American society. Besides making it in the NBA or in hip-hop (which is about as likely as winning the lottery), how else can you make your mark on the world? One youth on Chicago’s west side described “the life” as just another form of “chasing the American dream.” They see someone with a nice car and they want it because that’s how they can say something about who they are and “what they’re worth.” Again, reflecting a society where people’s value is measured by the commodities they do or don’t own.
All this is enforced and maintained a million times in a million ways by the broader culture and the workings of the system. In There Are No Children Here, Kotlowitz describes a young kid who gets arrested for nothing except for the fact that he’s Black, he goes on to talk about his experience with lawyers and unjust courts and the impact this has on him—“fuck it, they treat me like a criminal, I may as well get something from it too.” In the culture, this has been promoted in movies like Superfly in the ’70s and then Scarface in the ’80s which has an ongoing impact today. Along with this, the promotion of gangsta rap with the message that one should aspire to “get rich or die trying.”
This whole way of life and the outlook that comes with it is a trap. Even where people do “make it to the top,” this is still only the top of a game that’s been given to them by this system, which is at the expense of, and dripping with the blood of others who this system has cast off.
Kotlowitz is correct in saying “[p]eople who have little expectation for the future live recklessly.” Now once again, let’s ask, what kind of system, what kind of society is it which provides little or no expectation for the future to generations of youth?
What’s It Really Going to Take to Stop the Violence?
There is a way out of all this today—sweeping this system aside once and for all, through revolution and bringing into being a radically different system—socialism on the road to a communist world.
With state power in the hands of the people, society can be reorganized based on meeting the needs and unleashing the creativity and potential of millions of people that is destroyed by the kind of system we live under today. In this new society, the state—rather than being a force for exploitation, oppression, and repression—will back people up in working to solve all kinds of problems, not only for themselves but for all of humanity and as a part of the world revolution. As opposed to the society in which we live, which provides nothing but a hellish future or no future for the youth, in a socialist society, the youth will be a dynamic force for shaping the future. What they think and how they struggle will be valued, learned from, further unleashed…and led, with the aim of continuing to revolutionize all of society and bring a communist world, free of all exploitation and oppression, into being.
This is what is worth living and dying for. But it can only be based on FIGHTING the power, and not “working with it” to somehow keep a lid on things. There is an urgent need right now to bring forward a revolutionary movement which breaks out of the killing confines of the way things are, challenging the terms in the neighborhoods and society more broadly, and with it, leading the masses to forge a revolutionary movement and culture that can actually begin to change the tide.
The enormous potential for this must be wrenched from the horrors of today. The fact that these youth are largely alienated from this system and the whole “American way of life” and the very real sense that there is no future for them—is both part of why we need a revolution to sweep all of this away once and for all, and a critical part of where the basis for that revolution lies. All of these factors that especially young people are responding to—the fact that these youth really have nothing to lose, under this system—are the very same driving forces that could compel them in a whole other direction if that anger, alienation, and rebelliousness were channeled at the source of the problem and tempered and transformed with revolutionary science and a morality of liberation. Such a revolution can only take place when conditions radically change—when all of society is in a profound crisis and a revolutionary people emerge on to the scene, in the millions and tens of millions—but there is urgent work to carry out now, to hasten while awaiting such a situation, working now to bring forward a revolutionary people through waging political battle and carrying out ideological work, and transforming the current unfavorable political polarization in society through struggle.
This means that a minority has to be the first to step forward today. Even a relative handful with substance and revolutionary backbone can have an electrifying effect — not only in a neighborhood but in society overall. And it is in this process—of fighting to change the larger circumstances while learning about the underlying dynamics that gives rise to those circumstances, that people transform themselves.
The leadership, vision, science and organization necessary exists right now in the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. This Party came forward through the struggles of the ’60s and it persevered in building a revolutionary movement and seeking answers to the vexing questions. Its leader, Bob Avakian, has led the way in “charting the uncharted course” of how to make a revolution in a country like this—and more, he’s further developed the scientific theory and liberating vision of communism, deeply summing up the experience of the past, learning from the great achievements of previous revolutions, deeply interrogating their shortcomings and mistakes, and in doing all of this, he’s taken communism to a whole new place. And Avakian is leading a Party that is serious about revolution, serious about protecting its leadership, and seriously taking responsibility to lead the masses to make revolution in the real world.
Whether revolution will once again be in the air in this society (and around the world) in the way it needs to be, depends on people taking it up. The time is urgent for people from all walks of life to step forward. To all those who dare to dream of a better world where all of these horrors have been left behind for all of humanity: get down with the revolution, become an emancipator of humanity.
Fight the Power, and Transform the People, For Revolution
1. Kotlowitz is well known for his important book, There Are No Children Here, where he exposed the brutal living conditions for youth in Henry Horner Homes, one of the many since demolished housing projects. He wrote with great compassion about what it was like for two young Black children to grow up in these conditions and the ways in which the whole system was set up for these kids to fail—from the schools to the courts. [back]
2. For an inspiring example of where people help each other in brutal conditions, the film Trouble the Water shows how rival gang youth in New Orleans joined together to save people during Katrina, at the risk of their own lives. [back]
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