A first-hand account of the August 24, 2013 50th Anniversary March on Washington, this article stresses the intertwining of race and class and the need for the anti-racist movement to ground itself in the critique of capitalism – Editors
Personal Reflection and Introduction
I grew up watching historic film footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in astonishment at the crowds, the activism and the commitment for a radical change in the US and globally. Dr. King became an inspiration and idol from an era marked with civil unrest, emancipatory hope, and affirming human dignity. To me, Dr. King is a dynamic figure who never demanded only voting rights for Blacks as the media is currently trying to depict. He was a civil rights leader demanding the affirmation of human dignity as a collective liberation process. This included ending segregation, his attack on U.S. imperialism and the Vietnam War, and his support for the Poor People’s Movement and for unionization. When I had the opportunity to attend the march on August 24, 2013 with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) (I am a union member), I seized it.
The crowd was reported at approximately 50,000 for that day. There was a strong multi-racial presence of Blacks, Browns, whites, Asians, and bi-racial/multi-racial people.
My experience was bifurcated with hope and disappointment. My initial disappointment was profound: the scheduled speeches were not broadcast along the Lincoln Memorial indicating the speakers were focused on press coverage. The gap between the speakers and those present in the crowd was a reminder of the growing gaps between the people and those claiming to support them. I believe that this shows that the public realizes that it cannot rely on previous leadership and groups to provide venues for systemic change and emancipation. (See Marcuse’s account affirming human dignity and freedom as a material possibility.) Neoliberal capitalism (the current global era influenced by US hegemonic influences to maintain power and economic dominance with the military) has all but destroyed the middle class, demeaned the working class, and has tried to shame those in poverty to deflect the abuses of global capitalist power.
Another problem was a visible police and National Guard presence that seemed to indicate that the city and the police expected rioting and violence. A man from Virginia told me that he thought the police expected only Black people to come and wanted to start rioting to justify a strong police presence and dismiss the rally.
I also felt hope in seeing so many unions, fraternities and sororities, social activists, historic groups (NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center) and families attending.
Most of the protest gatherings were not centered on the usual spots between the Washington and Lincoln memorials. There were groups meeting at visible monuments including those to Washington, Lincoln and World War II, but most of those present began to join the rally on the side streets and at Dr. King’s memorial.
Freedom and Jobs: Reclaiming economic rights as human rights
One of the strongest sentiments I heard expressed by the crowd was the affirmation of economic rights as civil rights. This demand was not reducible to the presence of labor unions at the rally. There were signs proclaiming the need for, “Civil Rights and Jobs”, much like the 1963 ones demanding, “Freedom and Jobs.” A man from Buffalo, New York stated that the attack on the middle class and the social supports from the 1960s had been weakened ever since Ronald Reagan held office. He stated that people were not asking for a handout but that wages should be pegged to a fair living standard.
An implicit critique of capitalism (corporations and individuals creating privatized wealth and only hiring employees to create a profit) was also present at the rally amongst a few groups identifying as socialist, anti-imperialist and anti-racist. Several signs critiquing the 1% and utilizing language from Occupy Wall Street (OWS) signaled additional systemic critiques including: how US deregulation impacted the 2008 recession, taxation benefits wealthier families and corporations that receive disproportionate public benefits, and decreased public education financing. Some were demanding regulation of the banking system, while others demanded that the monopoly of wealth held by the 1% be redistributed. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had a strong poster campaign demanding quality pay and working conditions. Unfortunately, these criticisms stopped short of an outright critique of capitalism and call for action.
The New Jim Crow: Trayvon Martin, Shantel Davis & Mass Incarceration
The other presence that marked the event was the murder of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin’s picture was present on memorabilia, pre-made signs, and those designing signs at the event. His image was replicated around the event to demand social justice for young black men, to critique the prison system, and to denounce on-going US racism as “The New Jim Crow.” This analysis aims to connect the relationship between the Jim Crow Laws between the US Civil War and the 1960s to ongoing violence, segregation, employment and education discrimination. (See Michelle Alexander’s work for additional information.) The New Jim Crow is characterized by a renewed and strengthened racial systemic oppression to Blacks and Browns through increased mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline (charging minors as adults in the criminal system), and the recent violence against Black and Brown individuals without the Justice system investigating or prosecuting perpetrators. I would also include the role of class dynamics in the justice system: defendants are more likely to accept a plea bargain rather than examine the evidence and pursue a jury trial due to the enormous costs to hire an attorney. The US Criminal Justice System offers a “conveyor belt system of (in)justice”. The poor are constitutionally entitled to an attorney and a public trial, yet more than 90% are plea bargained rather than given a jury trial.
Community activists also called attention to the prison-industrial complex and massive US government support for private funding for prisons (as depicted on signs) as genocide, human rights violation, torture, inhumane, and racist. Trayvon Martin’s picture helped these groups to make the connection between racial profiling and conditions endemic to the capitalist system, like the school-to-prison pipeline, and the increased number of private prisons profiting from incarceration. Private prison corporations are being given contracts by states with guarantees of minimum inmate populations to make these horrible prisons profitable and privatized. I believe that this US tragedy will continue to galvanize communities to challenge racism as a systemic ideology that justifies incarceration, defunding public education, and cutting welfare and unemployment benefits.
Anytime a member of the crowd shouted, “No Justice,” the others present would yell, “No Peace” as an ongoing chant. The recognition of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the acquittal of George Zimmerman illustrate the painful reality that property rights stemming from “stand your ground laws” are given more weight than the life of a young Black man.
The NAACP was demanding the passage of “Trayvon’s Law” to prevent another acquittal for murder on the basis of private property laws such as “stand your ground.” Those present also had posters reminding us of the California prisoner hunger strike and the extremely inhumane conditions in those jails. An AFT member told me that her family had changed their vacation plans from Florida to California after a man wearing a “Boycott Everything Florida” walked past, encouraging the crowd to chant, “No Justice, No Peace”. A sticker being distributed claimed that the acquittal of Zimmerman was possible because the “whole system failed”. (NAACP: Summary of Trayvon’s Law)
Another group came to collect petition signatures and raise awareness of the murder of Ms. Shantel Davis by narcotics Detective Philip Atkins in Brooklyn, NY. The NYPD has defended Atkins, who has not been charged with a crime. The petition is demanding the Brooklyn DA indict him. The events leading up to this horrific tragedy are another example of criminalizing Black and Brown people through racial profiling. Ms. Davis was killed while Detective Atkins was pursuing the allegedly stolen car that Ms. Davis was in. This young Black woman became another victim of NYPD police brutality. Her preventable murder has begun to galvanize the community, leading to weekly community meetings to challenge racial profiling (such as the “stop and frisk” program) and police brutality. According to these activists, “The killing of Shantel Davis shows the role of the NYPD is the same in every Black and Latino neighborhood of New York City — to intimidate, terrorize and kill with impunity”. The group has press releases demanding the end of capitalism and of “KKKapitalism,” police brutality. (FB: Justice4ShantelDavis, flyer from group).
Several Black women wore t-shirts with large, graphic letters reading, “End White Supremacy” and others wore Angela Davis T-shirts to connect the complex sexual and racial dynamics of women in the prison system. This highlighted the ongoing systemic racial oppression that has led to mass incarceration and violence against women Black and Brown communities, and those in poverty. This served as a reminder of a recent article reporting the forced sterilization of over 100 Black and Brown women while in prison, which served to deny their reproductive rights and constituted a form of medical genocide. (See Jennifer Medina’s article “California is Facing More Woes in Prison”, New York Times, July 14, 2013).
The “Post-Racial” Myth debunked: Ideology as power
The large August 24 protest against racism stands as a strong critique of the reactionary claim that the US is in a “post-racial society” with the 2008 election of US President Obama and the national presence of other prominent Black citizens such as Secretary Colin Powell, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. This model propagates myths to claim that Dr. King’s dream has been achieved, that racism no longer exists, and that “reverse racism” is taking place against whites. These fallacious claims attempt to obscure the discourse of race and class in this country. Secondly, post-racial and reverse racism propaganda denies the deep historical and structural roots of racism and classism. These myths also work to reduce racism to mere interpersonal relationships rather than looking at historical changes that have changed the social construction of whiteness to include previously “non-white” groups such as Jews, Southern and Eastern European immigrants, and Caucasians from central Asia. This deeply reactionary claim also overshadows the discourse of how the 1 % maintains hegemonic power. This claim of a “post-racial society” undergirds attacks on affirmative action, voting rights, and spending on social programs. This claim also connects to similar ideological myths from the right, like the “colorblind model.” (In order to create an equal society, social demographics including race should be ignored when creating laws or distributing social goods and resources such as jobs. This is similar to John Rawls “Original Position” to conceptualize abstract individuals in The Theory of Justice, 2nd Edition.).
Additionally, both the “colorblind” model and “post-racial” myths overshadow the multi-racial, dynamic and collaborative efforts of the 1960’s civil rights legislation that protected not only Blacks, but also Native Americans, Browns, Asians, Women’s rights with Title IX, & paved the path for the American Disabilities Act. The function of the “post-racial” myth is to create schisms amongst those committed to challenging capitalism, classism, racism, patriarchy, hetero-normativity (including homophobia and transphobia), ableism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, ageism and state power. The “post-racial myth” also ignores human rights violations that occur globally that the US benefits from and ignores. A group attending the rally brought a petition to protest China’s current human rights violations and ethnic segregation. The US is complicit in China’s human rights violations by benefiting from cheap goods and trade relations to create private profits at the expense of workers. Others held signs about climate change, calling for awareness of environmental rights as a global concern.
The current denial of racism is occurring alongside the rise of discrimination and violence against Latinos/Chicanas/Hispanics and Brown people as part of the current xenophobic narrative. Its purpose is to prevent the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration legislation reform from passing. There were several protestors holding signs calling for an end to President Obama’s massive deportation policy and to support legislative reform that protects families, and would provide access to citizenship, higher education and jobs.
Voting & Electoral Politics: The Split
There was also a split amongst self-identified progressives and leftists about the role of US electoral politics. The NAACP distributed signs to encourage voting, yet there were also several signs critiquing the two–party system (first past the post). Two men in my group and an English professor proudly wearing an “end racism” t-shirt proclaimed they didn’t vote since there was no truly leftist party that could hold office.
While I agree with this critique, I am also concerned with new efforts to prevent voting. These strategies include gerrymandering, changes over campaign finances, blocking early voting and absentee ballots, creating poll taxes via voter ID requirements, and failing to properly staff polling locations to create long lines that discourage people from voting. Voting rights must be affirmed to create more opportunities for people to utilize this civil right as part of a broader mass-based strategy. Dr. King was very clear in his on-going struggle for civil rights. Voting rights and electoral politics have been used to exclude Blacks from power. Voting rights and electoral participation must be addressed for any comprehensive change to occur. Leftists that embrace Dr. King’s vision need to return to the polls and demand electoral accountability for office holders.
Privatizing Public Education: An attack on public education
I also spoke to a parent from New Jersey who was concerned about the declining quality of public education. She was also dismayed that teachers were often blamed. I think she is correct that blaming teachers deflects the discussion of decreased public investment in education. I also met a group of four women from Ohio (teachers with AFT membership) who came to demand that we pay attention to the attack on public education. They were concerned that the attack on teachers would detract from historical claims that public education is a right. The growing trend of charter schools funding has made it easier for private corporations to manipulate public funding and education access to create private wealth. Charter schools are part of the Bush Era No-Child Left Behind legislation to allow parents, educators and citizens the legal right to establish independent public schools without formal oversight from the Department of Education and receive public funding. In NYC, there has been a “bid” by private corporations and philanthropists (billionaires posing to save education with a clear conflict of interest) to take over 100 neighborhood schools or to establish charter schools. These attacks on public education, teachers, and communities signal another elitist attack to weaken the middle and working classes and to privatize education in order to create wealth for those who already have privilege. (For additional information see Joanne Barkan’s article in Dissent, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule our Schools”, Winter 2011).
Hope & Collective Action: Affirmation of Human Dignity
I believe that one of the biggest barriers to ending capitalism for the next generation is the lack of collective organization and mass mobilization. There is a generational pessimism stemming from postmodernism, which believes that only individual resistance is possible and that capitalism cannot actually be overthrown. This belief is influencing the next generation of leftist scholars and activists. There is a second, but much smaller group in the present generation of youth that is working to unite students and workers. It is my hope that collective action will be affirmed with this rising trend of uniting student movements and labor unions in order to challenge neoliberalism and imperialism.
Organization, collective action and an affirmation of human dignity must be strengthened if we are to effectively attack neoliberalism and US imperialism. August 24 showed that there is still hope that inspires people to march and demand human rights. The global left also needs to affirm collective and mass-based action for concrete and particular circumstances. The global left must continue to strengthen its claims that emancipation is possible and work with grassroots organizations.
Dr. King’s message of daring to have a dream reminds us of the need to dream and take direct action for a better world, one that respects human beings.
The author is a graduate student and union activist in the New York area.