Riots, Rebellion and the Black Working Class

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The uprising in Baltimore over the past few weeks followed a familiar pattern for anyone who knows about the great African American urban rebellions of the 1960s.

The latest episode in an ongoing saga of racist police violence--this one deadly--outrages African Americans, who take to the streets. Hyper-aggressive police move in, but young Black working people, all too used to seeing the cops get away with murder, fight back. Panicked politicians denounce the "rioters" in thinly veiled--or not-so-thinly-veiled--racial terms. The governor sends in the National Guard to repress the uprising with overwhelming force.

All that happened again, 50 years later. The difference now is the social, economic and political context. The 1960s rebellions took place as the mass Southern civil rights movement had reached its high point, and amid a full-employment economy. The Baltimore revolt is a product of the rollback of the gains of those earlier struggles.

Today, African American workers are suffering from the long-term decline in industrial jobs, the catastrophic collapse of Black wealth as a result of the housing bust, cuts in social services and the mass incarceration of African Americans.

And while the 1960s militants would say they were taking on "The Man," referring to the racist white power structure, the youth of Baltimore today confront an African American woman as mayor: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the most prominent local member of a national Black political establishment that includes the current and former Attorney Generals and the president of the United States.

Thus, the Black Lives Matter movement must contend not only with the legacy of centuries of racism and the worst economic inequality since the 1930s, but also with class divisions that separate the Black working class majority from the African American political establishment and the small but influential layer of Black business owners and top executives ensconced in Corporate America.

Of course, many prominent Black political figures are sincere in their outrage over police violence and the attack on civil rights. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement half a century ago, was clearly pained during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013 as he spoke of the U.S. Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

The question, however, isn't Lewis' individual intentions, but whether the Black establishment shares the same class interests as the mass of African Americans. When Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake denounced Black youth as "thugs" and Rev. Al Sharpton compared Black Lives Matter militants in Ferguson, Missouri, to "pimps," they're making it clear that they have a stake in the existing social order.

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THE DIVERGENCE between the politics of the Black Lives Matter movement and the relatively conservative African American middle class is more visible than ever.

But it isn't new. The class divide in Black America was on sharp display during the urban rebellions of the 1960s that led to the formation of Black Power-era political formations, such as the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

The Black street rebellions erupted in Northern and Midwestern cities in the mid-1960s as the Southern civil rights movement reached its climax with the passage of federal civil rights and voting rights laws.

While sparked in most cases by police violence, the riots were also an expression of the political radicalization of the African American majority outside the South. In the Midwest and North, African Americans likewise experienced segregated housing and schools and disproportionate rates of unemployment and poverty, despite the greatest economic boom in U.S. history.

In these explosive conditions, racist police terror--the descendent of 250 years of slavery and the lynching that enforced Southern apartheid for another century after that--was the detonator. In the summer of 1964--the year that the Civil Rights Act finally passed Congress--thre were riots in a series of Northern cities, from Philadelphia to Rochester, New York, to New York City's Harlem, the cultural and political capital of Black America.

The Black revolutionary Malcolm X, interviewed while in Egypt, attributed the New York City riot to police "scare tactics" intended to intimidate Blacks. "This won't work, because the Negro is not afraid," he said. "If the tactics are not changed, this could escalate into something very, very serious."

The 1964 rebellions differed from race riots--such as those in 1919, when racist whites toting clubs and guns attacked Black communities until they were repelled by African Americans who were also armed. African Americans were squaring off against police in battles that widened to include property destruction and looting businesses seen as taking advantage of Black customers.

But in the context of the mass civil rights movement, the clashes in the North had a social and political dimension as well.

Read more at Socialist Work.


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