Currently reading

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Fascism and Big Business by Daniel Guerin

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The lessons of the Trayvon Martin murder

An August 2013 statement:

Vigilantism: enemy of working class 

George Zimmerman, who admits to fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, is a vigilante — a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner — whose murderous actions were backed by the Sanford cops who refused to indict him.

The die was cast when the “neighborhood watchman” moves beyond watching and exits his vehicle, armed and “ready for action” to pursue Martin — whom he knew nothing about, yet characterized as “suspicious” and an “asshole.” He disregards instructions from the cop dispatcher who instructed him to stay put. The killing is an example of how the bold, risk-taking vigilante, who “takes matters into his own hands” is more dangerous to the working class even than the cops, the organized and armed force whose job it is to protect the property and prerogatives of the propertied rulers and, as such, have some constraints on their conduct.

Based on the killer’s version of events, Martin responded as many teenage males would have when pursued by a creepy stranger. And for that his life was taken. (Only the kind of discipline young mili- tants learn through collective experience in working-class combat and social struggle can prepare the countless cocksure young-men-in-becoming to consider a more prudent response.)

Vigilantism has a long and deep history in the U.S. and has always been directed against the interests of working people. It has served as a tool of ruling-class terror to keep the oppressed and exploited “in-line,” divided and fearful. Targets have included African-Americans and all defenders of Black rights, other victims of discrimination from Mexicans and Chinese to Catholics, Jews and Mormons; as well as militant workers and their small farmer allies, unionists, communists and other targets of the propertied rulers.

Frontier “justice” and lynchings date back centuries. Countless Hollywood movies feature vigilantes in the West riding into town, hunting down and killing rustlers, Native Americans and others, then riding off into the sunset.

Among the registered gains of the revolutionary U.S. Civil War that overthrew the slavocracy was passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments outlawed slavery, made it the law of the land that all men could vote, and granted power to the federal government to take action against Ku Klux Klanners and other vigilante thugs who employed lynchings and mob violence against the social progress of Radical Reconstruction. Anti-vigilante laws were adopted in many areas of the country. The abolitionists and their allies who dominated the Congress sent federal troops to the South to defend freed Blacks and their allies.

But with the 1877 withdrawal of federal troops from the South and other counterrevolutionary moves by the Northern rulers, the reactionary forces were given free rein and were ultimately successful in dealing the greatest blows ever inflicted on the working class in the U.S., a body blow that included the imposition of Jim Crow segregation.

Through a series of Supreme Court decisions, the rulers overturned the newly adopted constitutional protections against mob rule and vigilante lynchings. The black-robed agents of the bosses declared protection of basic rights was a matter for the states, and Blacks and other workers couldn’t use federal constitutional protections to defend themselves.

In 1873 some 150 heavily armed vigilantes attacked and murdered an equal number of out-gunned African-Americans, many members of the city’s militia, who were defending the county courthouse in Colfax, La. The U.S. Attorney in New Orleans indicted nearly 100 of the attackers under the enforcement provisions of the 14th Amendment, affording equal protection of the laws to all. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices unanimously overturned the convictions in 1876, ruling the amendment only applied to actions carried out by state governments. This notorious ruling — still the law of the land — was a milestone blow to the fight against vigilantism and racist violence.

The need to push back and defend against all forms of vigilante “justice” is not a thing of the past. In fact, it will become a bigger question in the future when a sharpening class struggle leads the capitalist rulers to employ their armed state power — supplemented by deputized vigilantes and “extralegal” goons — against fighting workers and their organizations.

Addressing the danger and class character of vigilantism can help give perspective to millions of working people angered and seeking a fighting course of action in response to the vigilante killer George Zimmerman walking free. Efforts along these lines include the fights to overturn provigilante Stand Your Ground laws now on the books in 21 states.

Another trial not in our interests

Zimmerman would never have been brought to trial if not for the popular mass demonstrations demanding his prosecution that won an important victory. The jury did not find Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on the specific charges brought against him and based on the evidence presented. Calls to open a new trial on federal civil rights violations by various groups from the National Organization for Women to the NAACP — demands which finds a hearing among many with justifiable outrage — are not in the interests of working people.

Starting a new prosecution against Zimmerman — in fact, double jeopardy — would set a precedent that would erode hard-won protections from the state registered in the Bill of Rights and other protections that we need to organize to fight more effectively against the deepening ruling class offensive against our jobs, wages and political rights. And no evidence has been presented that shows Zimmerman was motivated by racial hatred when he killed Martin.

Blind pursuit of retribution cannot advance the struggles of the oppressed and exploited. On this question the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, along with millions of Cuban toilers, stood on the highest moral ground after the victorious revolutionary war, preventing mob justice and vengeance to befall hated and murderous cops and thugs of the fallen Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.

It is only the working class that has or ever will claim such high ground. And only on such moral grounds can the working class lead humanity to a world free of exploitation and oppression that are part and parcel of capitalist society.

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