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Workers Vanguard No. 999
30 March 2012
Capitalist State Fuels Racist Vigilantes
Trayvon Martin: Killed for Being Black in America
MARCH 26—The racist killing one month ago of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a vigilante in Sanford, Florida, has touched off a wave of protest that continues in cities and towns coast to coast. Trayvon’s anguished parents have spoken a bitter truth known to all black families: what happened on February 26 could happen to anyone like him—at the hands of either lone-wolf racists or police thugs-in-blue. Nearly 50 years after civil rights legislation established formal legal equality, a young black man had his life stolen simply for being who he was in this sick, racist society. And his killer to this day remains free, his act sanctioned by a state law that gives free rein to such vigilantism.
The basic story is well known. Trayvon departed from his father’s girlfriend’s home in a gated community to purchase Skittles and an iced tea at a 7-Eleven store. He did not return. Trayvon had been spotted by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed Neighborhood Watch enforcer. When Zimmerman called police, he described Trayvon, who had put on his hoodie in the rain, as a “real suspicious guy.” A frightened Trayvon was aware that he was being followed by a white male stranger in a car, a really suspicious guy. So he ran for safety after seeing Zimmerman stop and exit the car. Zimmerman pursued Trayvon, complaining to the police department that “these assholes...always get away.” The cops say that when they arrived, they found Trayvon dead with a gunshot to the chest and Zimmerman armed with a 9mm pistol and splattered with blood.
Trayvon’s parents then faced sheer contempt from Sanford police. Tracy Martin, the father, believed his son was missing after he didn’t return from the store. The following day, he called to report a missing person, to no avail. He then called 911 and was asked to describe his son. Police officers eventually arrived to show him a picture of his dead son with blood dripping from his mouth. Police had listed the slain teen as a “John Doe” and made no attempt to identify his body or locate his family on the day of his death.
Police who were at the crime scene helped build an alibi for Zimmerman, himself a cop wannabe. Zimmerman claimed that he fired in self-defense when Trayvon, three inches shorter and nearly 100 pounds lighter than himself, gained the upper hand in an alleged scuffle. At least three witnesses heard the “desperate wail of a child, a gunshot and then silence.” So the cops “corrected” one witness to claim that the cry for help came not from Trayvon but from Zimmerman. The officer in charge was also in charge in 2010 when cops covered up the assault on a homeless black man by a police lieutenant’s son. (The white assailant was charged only after videotape of the assault appeared on YouTube.) In 2005, a black teenager in Sanford was fatally shot in the back by two white security guards, one of them a police volunteer and the other a cop’s son. A judge dismissed the charges against them for “lack of evidence.”
When the facts of Martin’s killing and the cop cover-up eventually came to light, masses of people demonstrated their outrage, from a student protest at historically black Florida A&M University on March 19 to a “million hoodie march” in New York City two days later and another round of demonstrations today. LeBron James and his Miami Heat basketball teammates made a powerful protest simply by being photographed in hooded sweatshirts with their heads bowed. An editorial in New York’s Amsterdam News (22 March) linked the killing to the everyday hell black people endure in this country:
“We are prejudged every day in almost every way, from the neighborhood watch captain to the rookie cop to the sales clerk who works on commission to the taxi driver who won’t pick us up to the guidance counselor who steers our children away from AP classes because they are not ‘college material.’
“We are prejudged. And that prejudice means all too often the difference between life and death, a future or a grave.”
Black Democrat and TV host Al Sharpton called it a “paradox” that a black man could be elected president while young black men were still viewed with suspicion for wearing hooded sweatshirts. What paradox? For this country’s capitalist rulers, Barack Obama’s election provided a facelift for murderous U.S. imperialism and its capitalist profit system. The day-to-day functioning of American capitalism is measured in mass unemployment, home foreclosures, cop terror and other brutalities that come down heaviest on blacks and other minorities. Putting Obama in the White House meant only that now there is a black overseer for a system that criminalizes young black men in maintaining the racial oppression that has been embedded in this country since the days of slavery. It will take nothing less than a socialist overturn of capitalism by the multiracial working class—a third American Revolution—to finally achieve black freedom and provide a decent life for all.
Vigilantism in Racist America
Zimmerman’s Neighborhood Watch was organized in September 2011 by a homeowners association under the auspices of the Sanford Police Department. Zimmerman, who was studying to be a cop, was its sole volunteer. He was well known to the cops, having made 46 calls to 911 this year. As one of his black neighbors described it, it was always: “A black guy this. A black guy that.” A Zimmerman supporter claimed with sheer racist contempt that problems in the area began when foreclosures forced homeowners to rent out property to “low-lifes and gangsters,” so that the housing complex now has a slight majority of non-whites. The Sanford police chief declared that cops working with Neighborhood Watch types must determine “who in that community is not supposed to be there.”
Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense is based on a Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, an open invitation to racist vigilantism. The law was passed in 2005 amid a “get tough on crime” campaign—code for targeting black people. The 2005 law supplanted an earlier Florida law that, like those in many other states, traced its roots to English Common Law. That standard held that self-defense is justified if a person faced with attack first tries to remove himself, if feasible, from immediate danger before using deadly force. Florida’s 2005 law allows for the use of deadly force by anyone who claims a “reasonable belief” that such force is necessary, without even attempting to disengage. And in racist America, a black kid in a hoodie is enough to claim “reasonable belief” of danger. The law also promises criminal and civil immunity for people who claim to have acted in self-defense.
As Marxists, we oppose gun control laws, which are most often promoted by Democratic Party liberals and black politicians, and uphold the right to armed self-defense. But we oppose the “stand your ground” law, which, in removing retreat as a criterion for self-defense, sanctions vigilantism, including murder.
The working class and the black population must zealously defend the Constitutional right to bear arms, a product of the Revolutionary War against British colonial rule. Gun control kills, and it kills blacks in particular. It is a means to enforce a monopoly of violence in the hands of the capitalist state. Gun control leaves guns in the hands of cops, criminals and Klansmen while making the country’s black, poor and working people defenseless. Trayvon Martin might be alive today if he had been carrying a gun. But as the Martin family’s attorney said, had Trayvon been the shooter, “he would have been arrested day one, hour one, and wouldn’t have been given bail.”
In capitalist America, black self-defense against racist terror has historically been met with frenzied state repression. The earliest 20th-century gun control laws were passed in states like South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi as a way to disarm blacks in the face of KKK terror. In 1965, the New York City Council passed a bill especially to keep Malcolm X from carrying a carbine for his protection; he was assassinated shortly afterward. In 1967, the California legislature banned the carrying of a loaded gun after legally armed Black Panthers began patrolling ghettos where police terror was rampant. The state’s ban was followed by gun control laws nationwide, especially after the ghetto upheavals that broke out following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
From day one, liberal political spokesmen have tried to steer the outrage over Trayvon Martin’s killing into the timeworn call for the federal government to step in to make things right. At a town hall meeting in Sanford on March 21, dozens of black residents told of being profiled, humiliated and physically assaulted by the cops. National NAACP leader Ben Jealous took that occasion to say that the local police department had “gone a bit rogue” and that’s why they needed to bring in the Department of Justice. The Justice Department are the top cops of a system where daily racist terror is meted out by police in the ghettos and barrios—from NYC’s “stop and frisk” dragnet to L.A.’s “anti-gang” crackdowns. When the Feds step in, at most they enact some meaningless “reforms” or get rid of some “bad apples.” Their purpose in doing so is to clean up the cops’ image to make them more effective, and to get angry people off the streets.
Along with the military, the police, courts and prisons form the core of the capitalist state, an instrument of coercion and organized violence for the suppression of one class, the working class, by another class, the capitalists. While even many Florida state authorities say that Zimmerman went beyond his mandate in gunning down an unarmed 17-year-old, the fact is that the cops’ constant drumbeat of cracking down on crime and pursuing the “war on drugs” fosters the growth of such vigilante scum. And the police themselves feed off of vigilante violence. In promoting Neighborhood Watch outfits, the cops are building up auxiliaries to their enforcement of the murderous racist status quo. The role of such racist vigilantes was seen in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, as armed white patrols, along with the cops, forcibly blocked blacks from evacuating as the flood waters rose, including through outright murder.
Central Florida: Racist, Anti-Labor Bastion
Sanford is located in central Florida, whose history is indelibly marked by bloody racist terror—legal and extralegal. A center of the citrus industry, this region was developed in the aftermath of the North’s victory over the South in the Civil War that smashed slavery. Northern capitalists, such as the town’s namesake, Henry Shelton Sanford, grabbed up real estate, developing orange groves and tourism as well as winter homes. When black laborers were brought in to work the orange groves, a campaign of race-terror soon followed that attacked them as competitors for “white jobs.”
In the early 1930s, the bosses struck with bloody vengeance against a union organizing drive by the United Citrus Workers (UCW). KKK nightriders terrorized organizers, crushing the UCW. In 1935, Joseph Shoemaker, a Socialist, was abducted by the Klan assisted by Tampa police. He was castrated, tarred and feathered, dying of his injuries after two weeks of suffering. In the face of such brutal terror, the Communist Party-led United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, a CIO affiliate, soon arose and led a heroic fight for unionization. But it also faced a devastating wave of Klan terror, employer scabherding and government repression.
Florida has the distinction of being among the most brutal of Southern lynching states, as exemplified by the 1934 lynching of Claude Neal, a 23-year-old sharecropper. Neal was arrested by the Jackson County Sheriff and charged with the murder of a white woman. The illiterate man was forced to sign a written confession with an X. He ended up in the hands of a mob, tortured for hours and then lynched, his body parts distributed as “souvenirs.” Liberal icon Franklin D. Roosevelt steadfastly refused to support federal anti-lynching laws because that would have posed a break with the segregationist Dixiecrat components of his 1930s New Deal coalition.
Sanford, Florida, is itself branded in racist infamy. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a study of the Great Migration of blacks out of the South, recounts the story of George Swanson Starling, who barely escaped the town with his life in 1945 after attempting to organize black tangerine pickers to demand higher wages. The following year, Jackie Robinson was run out of town when the Montreal Royals, part of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system, went there for spring training. In response, Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey packed up and moved the team to Daytona Beach.
It took the tumultuous struggles for black rights in the 1950s and ’60s to break the back of official Jim Crow segregation in the South. The success of the liberal-led civil rights struggles was in bringing the South into alignment with the bourgeois-democratic norms in the rest of the country. This development did not—and could not—address the poverty, unemployment, rotten housing, segregated education and rampant cop terror that afflict the bulk of the black population. These conditions are deeply rooted in U.S. capitalism, whether or not they are officially codified in the legal sanctions of the bourgeois state. While today blacks possess formal equality under the law, this is pervasively violated in practice. And there could be no sharper example of that than the gunning down of Trayvon Martin.
The enduring color bar is the greatest obstacle to working-class unity in the U.S., serving to obscure the fundamental class divide in society by providing an illusion of common interest between white workers and their class enemy, the white capitalist exploiters. As Karl Marx declared in Volume I of Capital (1867): “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” It is through united class struggle that the workers can and must overcome these divisions, promoting their interests as a class against their common enemy. What is crucially needed is to forge a workers party that emblazons on its banners: Black liberation through socialist revolution!