The following is one in a series of posts dealing with the wave of protest sweeping the United States following the police murder of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Other posts in this series include: 5 Ways to Build a Movement After Ferguson, Turn Up Htown: Reflections on Nov 25 Day of Action, The Old Mole Breaks Concrete: The Ongoing Rupture in New York City, and Points for Discussion on Race in the United States from Noel Ignatiev.
Burn Down the Prison:
Race, Property, and the Ferguson Rebellion
by TZ with edits from Chino, HiFi, and JF
I don’t have to work.
I don’t have to do nothing
but eat, drink, stay black, and die.
This little old furnished room’s
so small I can’t whip a cat
without getting fur in my mouth
and my landlady’s so old
her features is all run together
and God knows she sure can overcharge—
Which is why I reckon I does
have to work after all.
-Langston Hughes, “Necessity”
“A lot of people in the bourgeoisie tell me they don’t like Rap Brown when he says, ‘I’m gon’ burn the country down,’ but every time Rap Brown says, ‘I’m gon’ burn the country down,’ they get a poverty program.”
-Stokely Carmichael, Free Huey rally, 1969
“We may risk the prediction that we are entering into an era of riots, which will be transitional and extremely violent. It will define the reproduction crisis of the proletariat, and thus of capitalism, as an important structural element of the following period. By ‘riots’ we mean struggles for demands or struggles without demands that will take violent forms and will transform the urban environments into areas of unrest; the riots are not revolution, even the insurgency is not revolution, although it may be the beginning of a revolution.”
-Blaumachen, “The Transitional Phase of the Crisis: The Era of Riots,” 2011
The long term results of the Ferguson struggle and the emerging movement against police terror cannot possibly be known, for it represents the longest and deepest rupture within Black America since the riots of the late 1960s. While the LA riots of 1992 where no doubt much more intense and destructive, and involved broader sections of the LA working class, the fruits of that struggle–namely, the gang truce and united front against the police–were eventually absorbed by the Million Man March and the New Democrat alliance behind Clinton’s election, and contributed to no lasting independent political developments. In the long view of Black liberation it remains a blip, even if an important one. Finally, LA was an episode happening in a sense in the wake of the Welfare State, while an emerging new period, what the Left often calls “Neoliberalism,” was still largely in infancy.
Ferguson, in contrast to LA, is unfolding in a new period of crisis, in which the growth of wealth is taking place against an unparalleled decrease in the living standards of working people: stagnant and declining wages; casualized part time labor; deep and systemic slashes in public assistance; cuts to infrastructure, public health, education, and transportation; mass incarceration and criminalization of Black and Brown people. No longer is there a unity between, on the one hand, growing productivity yielding greater quantity of commodities and capital, and on the other hand, rising wages, paid by employers or administered by the State through publicly-funded schools, hospitals, transportation, and infrastructure. Now capitalists can only keep the profit rate from falling by refusing to reproduce working people, who have been forced to shoulder debt in order to survive. The specificity and the acuteness of this crisis upon Black workers sets up the particular context in which Darren Wilson, a cop, murdered Mike Brown, and a Black community fought back.
The form of the struggle in Ferguson is not exclusively limited to riots. It has seen street and highway blockades, mass marches, street battles, sit-ins, combative pickets and store occupations, among others. Yet at its peaks, in the days after Mike Brown’s murder and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, riots were integral to the overall resistance taking place. Just a few years ago, the mere occupation of public space and its physical defense against police incursion were completely taboo. The traditions of direct action had been long forgotten, buried under decades of inactivity, and meanwhile the fetish of legal redress of grievances grew: petitions, voting, city council testimonies, and permitted symbolic demonstrations. In some ways, the discussion of riots took away from the almost overnight shift in public consciousness, about the now totally obvious legitimacy of occupying public space and refusing to disperse.
Riots and looting, however, have been the most polarizing question since the struggle kicked off. Ever since this first wave of struggle in Ferguson, an ideological war has been waged from the highest levels of official society to the local street auxiliaries of city wards, from Barack Obama to Antonio French and the New Black Panthers, to justify repression of direct action tactics. Now with the decision of the Grand Jury to not indict Wilson, riots have returned, again not as the primary form and not–sorry, liberals–as an isolated low point by “outside agitators,” but as part and parcel of a beautiful composite of struggle. The reason riots and looting have been so polarizing is because they strike at the heart of American capitalism: the sanctity of property.
Interestingly, recent weeks have seen a spate of pieces analyzing and even justifying riots, under liberal auspices: riots as morally justified, riots as effective engines of reform, and so on. However, none of these pieces have gotten to the essence of the matter; what is the basic framework of today’s crisis and Black people’s specific relation to it? What is private property and what are its current racial dimensions? Finally, what role does class play inside the Black community in terms of the divisions over whether to support or subvert attacks on private property?
What I argue is, first, that capitalism today finds it an indispensable necessity to increase the rate of profit through the non-reproduction of the working class which is, contradictorily, the only basis for capitalism’s expansion. Secondly, private property is a form of social labor that has been estranged from us, and the Black working class condition today is a peculiar kind of estrangement, in which Black people are pushed into surplus populations, permanently unemployed and criminalized. The property question for Black people today has an immediate racial dimension, as they are owned largely by people of Arab and Asian descent, held up as model minorities, and accepting the terms of white supremacy. Finally, this condition is one inherited from the failures of the last cycle of Black revolt, the 1960s, when a new Black elite ascended to manage and ultimately pacify Black struggle.
Black power in St. Louis and in America
St. Louis, with some exceptions, follows the general pattern of capitalist decay and crisis as well as Black political developments. Once a thriving industrial city in the early 20th century where Black people fleeing field work in the South could find employment, by the 1970s the city saw an economic downturn, the slow but continuous contraction of industrial labor, and the subsequent decay of the Black community. Of course, while work in production was segregated, with Black workers paid lower than white workers and relegated to the most unskilled and dangerous jobs, it nonetheless got them away from the debt peonage system of sharecropping and the post-Confederate guerilla insurgency of the KKK.
The inception of “Black power” in the late 1960s, while nearly unanimous in its critique of assimilationist civil rights organizations, produced two antagonistic trends within the movement. On one side were those fighting for the power to represent the lower classes, and manage systems of state patronage; on the other side were black proletarians, fighting for a more communistic control over production and reproduction in daily life. The first trend was expressed in the Black convention movement and the various local efforts to elect Black leadership (mayors, aldermen, police chiefs, superintendents, etc.) who would assume control over the existing municipal State institutions. The second trend was represented in the riots of the late 1960s, through which the Black working class emerged as an independent political subject, and in hundreds of factory wildcat strikes across the country in the 1970s that were Black-led. Unlike many other major cities, St. Louis did not experience this latter trend of Black power, though it was certainly not immune to Black working class struggle historically, as working class Black class struggle appeared in the form of rent strikes, and in earlier battles over desegregation in the 1950s.
The Black patronage systems that arose in many American cities, including St. Louis, did so in a degenerated and uneven form. Black people were given access to public employment and civil service jobs, but this concession, while enough to consolidate the power of Black elected officialdom, was not enough to absorb the Black working class and lift them out of their decrepit conditions. Such patronage could come to fruition only on the an account of a restive Black working class and the inability for the old Jim Crow machine to maintain order. The new Black elite which comes to power through patronage represented a cultural shift away from the assimilationist civil rights struggle. Instead they wore dashikis and afros; with one hand they pumped a fist and yelled “Black power!” while with their other hand they signed off on tax abatement for the rulers.
Ferguson proper never experienced this Black patronage system. Already in the the late 19th century, St. Louis had disincorporated from St. Louis County, in order to avoid providing public and social services to the surrounding area. In the wake of Black Power, the result was the city’s suburbanization. First, many white workers fled the growing and insurgent Black population. The resulting population vacuum, combined with deindustrialization, devastated St. Louis, and then prompted Black workers to leave the city as well for suburbs like Ferguson. Yet the politics of Ferguson were more akin to Jim Crow, since the area had never experienced the Black elite takeovers that occurred in larger cities.
However different Ferguson might have been from the rest of the Black urban experience after the 1960s, the Black experience in St. Louis proper is not an ounce different. The growth of Black police, despite phony and insidious “community policing” efforts, has not yielded a decrease in brutality and murder. In fact, the opposite has been the case, as capitalism proves unable to employ and reproduce specific sections of working people, and relies ever more on police violence to hold the line.
The lie of private property
While it might appear that everyone is understood on the importance of rioting, whether they are for or against it, the conversation has actually confused the essence of the question. Of course, this question is what Karl Marx dedicated his life to; not only uncovering the social nature of private property but hastening its overthrow.
First, the term “private property” is nothing but the legal expression of (or, legal title to) capital, whether it be in the form of money or means of production (buildings, machines, infrastructure, tools, raw materials, etc.). The political economists and liberals that Marx argued against understood capital as a thing. For Marx, however, capital is a social relation, continually reproduced through the exploitation of social labor.
When viewed as a thing, capital conceals the exploitative relationship between necessary labor and surplus labor. Necessary labor is the part of the workday in which we create value equal to the wages we will eventually be paid, while surplus labor is the rest of the workday, in which we create value that can be realized as profit by the capitalist employing us. Our wages hide this relation, since it appears we are paid for “a full day’s work.” But in reality we are only paid what it takes to maintain ourselves within capitalism; a rough social average based on what it takes to reproduce the worker and her offspring.
The stuff we make is taken by capitalists, and sold if they can manage it. Part of the resulting profit covers necessary labor (wages), and the rest is appropriated as surplus. Every existing commodity in the world has this story behind it. With our wages, we can buy back a few commodities to sustain ourselves. With their profits, capitalists can buy a lot more–not only luxury goods, but also machines, raw materials, factories, and other investments. With it they establish the basis for even more exploitation, further expanding the system of capitalism.
The term “private property” is often used as an umbrella category for all commodities, whether they’re purchased with workers’ wages or capitalist profits, and whether they’re used for reproducing life or expanding exploitation. Defenders of private property focus on its legal title, and insist that bosses, small businessmen and workers alike all have a “right” to property because of their “hard work.” But the “right” to property is inherently unequal, and hides the exploitative relationships through which property is created. Our “right” to private property lets us to scrape together enough money for an Xbox, but it lets capitalists purchase sweatshops with money they got from appropriating our labor. In all cases, property is only the unpaid labor of actual workers. When we defend it, we may think we’re defending our personal stuff, but we’re actually defending capital’s right to continue exploiting us.
The violent separation of labor from our means of production was the historic backdrop for the rise of capital. The forced takeover of common lands, and the break-up of the family into productive and reproductive laborers, meant we were no longer able to produce our own means of subsistence. As landless, propertiless laborers we were compelled to sell our abilities to others, who would appropriate them for their own ends.
Private property is the result of our own social labor, alienated from us, and turned into a thing that dominates us. This alienation is the basis of class struggle. While workers have always fought for better conditions, these gains don’t make work less alienating. Instead, many struggles–whether through looting, destruction, occupations, utopian communities, graffiti art, strikes for more leisure, and so on–have sought to do away with alienation altogether, if not always consciously.
The crucible of race
When people revolt, they are revolting against their alienated existence under capital. This existence assumes the form of a division of labor, with different kinds of labor necessary for different tasks, and a corresponding scale of wages. It is here that “race” is produced. Not only does one’s one-sided labor come to mark of the individual, but the physical appearance of people comes to mark them as specific types of workers.
The division of labor assumes a white supremacist and patriarchal hierarchy, in which the gender, skin color, and physical characteristics of people come to designate them as belonging to one rung or another. Just as their labor is one-sided, it also reproduces them as one sided people: white, Black, Mexican, disabled, male, lesbian, but in any case not a full creative human being. The spatial arrangement of the division of labor further produces geographies in the same terms: Black ghettos, Mexican barrios, the Gayborhood, white suburbs. These categories have ZERO social meaning outside of this division. There is nothing natural about individuals being reproduced within the categories of race, gender, and sexuality, or identifying accordingly.
Because these categories result from a complex, dynamic, unplanned social process, they aren’t entirely rigid. Yet the existence of Black CEO’s, women mayors, or transgender cops doesn’t mean that racism, patriarchy, and transphobia doesn’t exist, or that we are getting closer to overthrowing it. On the contrary, these individuals and class fractions have escaped their position in the division of labor, only to find they’re sometimes still marked by their former categories, which enjoy a wide circulation in the popular consciousness and dominant institutions. Thus these groups often struggle for integration on colorblind terms–or, like Pharrell and Raven Symone, declare themselves “new black” and “colorless”–all while upholding the system of exploitation.
The defense of private property not only perpetuates the subjection of labor, but also our subjection to the hierarchy of labor that reproduces humans as Black, female, disabled, bank tellers, cab drivers, food service workers, and so on. It is a defense of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of ableism, of mutilated and one-sided labor for profit. It often proves necessary to embrace these alienated expressions, in response to a society that devalues us for the same reasons: “Black is beautiful” is a negation of “Black is ugly.” But without attacking the class essence of our condition, these efforts will stall out, and become new justifications for the rule of capital. Black power, Chicanismo, or Women’s and Gay liberation, can be the means to reunite with our essential humanity, or it can be a new means of management to ensure we “stay Black and die.”
The positive political content of riots
Today, the Black working class finds itself forced out of productive labor (along with much of the working class in general). The civil service and state jobs that were used to contain the Black struggle have been eviscerated, and those jobs that remain have seen their pensions sold off and wages frozen. Black workers have been pushed downward into precarious, casual, part-time employment, and unskilled labor in the health and service industries. The unemployable are warehoused in public and private prisons, where they labor for a microscopic fraction of the minimum wage. The existing Black leadership has abandoned the social democratic demand of “full employment,” and contents itself with managing these conditions.
Black cities and neighborhoods are in absolute decay, a place where security loan sharks, check cashers, liquor stores, layaway shops, convenience stores and other petty property-owners have vampiristic relation to the community. They take a cut of people’s welfare, EBT, WIC and part-time wages by bleeding buildings, selling cheap and shitty food, and preying on addiction or people’s lack of bank accounts and savings. Section 8 housing is cordoned off with iron rod gates and razor wire, where residents must pass through checkpoints and endure 24-hour surveillance.
These cities are the reproductive counterpart to the crippled state of Black labor. They are not only divested of any ounce of basic amenities, but are also highly militarized zones aimed at disciplining Black people, and ensuring they will not rebel against their conditions. Instead of factories, the hood is the means of maintaining Black exploitation. And instead of the foreman or the union boss ensuring discipline at work, now the police ensure discipline on the streets. The Black elite will turn over their sofa cushions to ensure the police retain their bloated budgets. From NYC to Detroit to Houston one will find billboards attempting to recruit a segment of Black workers to police the other segment. Of course, there is never a budget crisis where police are concerned.
Alienation appears in different forms when you are immediately producing capital, versus only being dominated by it. It meant one thing for Black workers on the assembly line, who saw an interest in assuming control over the factory, and running it for society’s needs instead of a small group’s profit. It means another for a precarious, criminalized surplus population, for whom the product of exploitation assumes the form of convenience stores, nail salons, a Walgreens, a dying mall, a McDonald’s. The relationship to the labor process generates the form of struggle.
In the hood, small shops and stores exist to keep the community in a subjugated position. Often this relationship takes on a racialized form. The propertied class in the ghettos are generally composed of Arabs as well as South and East Asians. These groups are viewed as supposed “model minorities” (which defies their own rich class struggle histories) who, unlike Black people, achieved prosperity through docility and hard work. In reality, their ability to become owners was predicated firstly on not being Black, and secondly, on assimilating into white supremacy through the exploitation of Black people.
Every hood is specific, but in LA for instance, much of the destructive force of ‘92 was aimed at small businesses owned mainly by Koreans. This was not accidental, nor was it automatically racist, even if it was expressed in racialized terms. The relation of Korean shop owners to Black communities in LA was straight-up vulturistic. It was not simply the acquittal of Rodney King’s attackers that set the tone of the riots. It was also the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by shop owner Soon Ja Du, who believed she was stealing orange juice, less than two weeks after the King incident. In both cases, race was the concrete form of appearance of a class essence.
Even in retail stores such as Marshall’s or Family Dollar, the sense is that money goes to these businesses but doesn’t come back to people. There isn’t enough work to employ everyone, and where jobs exist, they are minimum wage. Many businesses don’t see it as profitable to open up shop in Black neighborhoods. They don’t want to be there, and if they have to be, it is buy or get the fuck out.
The Black ghetto is a prison, in which people are immobilized, confined to poverty and debt, and made to die quietly. Where elements of a better society exist in the present, whether in cultural forms like hip-hop or the struggle and organization that emerges temporarily, they can only be positively forged in the fires of the ghetto’s demise. Unlike the 1960s, capitalism today is probably unable to respond to riots with social democratic reforms. But as in the past, riots today give impetus to a new range of mass struggles, which hasten the political crisis of capital, put the Black working class in the driver’s seat of history, and create the possibility for capitalism’s overthrow.
The limits of riots
Riots, like all forms of struggle, express the arrangement and composition of social forces. They contain within them the potential to advance the struggle, but they also have built-in limits that, if not transcended, will cause the struggle to stall out. Riots are destructive toward property, but potentially constructive when they facilitate the growth of an independent Black political force. This is only a potential: without semi-permanent forms of organization to carry forward the flames of revolt, and without a clear political defense of their militancy (including a critique of property) they risk isolation. Like the LA rebellion, the established Black leadership might swoop in, and harnesses popular energies in patronage systems and non-profits, so that no lasting organization emerges. We must understand why riots happen, and how existing conditions will inevitably produce more riots. But without a reflection on the direction of the struggle, and the maturation of organized political forces, they will eventually die.
Immediately Darren Wilson was let off, the strategy of the Ferguson police was to allow certain businesses to burn, sacrifice a squad car or two, and then use the destruction as justification for a physical crackdown. This is not conspiracy, but a strategy of the police and ruling forces, a strategy which so far has not been met with one of our own. Rioting so far has expressed rage and revenge, but has not necessarily tilted the balance of class forces in favor of Black workers.
In some riots, militants and revolutionaries have redirected people from targeting smaller businesses to larger ones, which play a greater role in the exploitation of the community. In LA, the gang truce allowed local street organizations to eventually form armed wing of the rebellion, directly fighting the police. This engagement with the state is what allowed the LA working classes to attack capital, in the form of rioting and looting. Whatever the long-term limits of the LA rebellion were, direct conflict with the State was at its forefront. Today in Ferguson and around the country, directly confronting the police and other political targets is paramount. We are seeing the emergence of a political narrative in which the police are the face of a capitalist and racist system. We need tactics that express this emerging narrative.
Like the police, the vultures that loot the Black community through petty property and debt are sustained by forms of labor that are socially useless and even harmful, which would be immediately abolished in any free society. However, there are also useful forms of labor in and around the hood, which could be directly taken over rather than burnt down. In these cases, it is the form of capital that needs to be abolished–not clothing, farms, technology, or health care as such. In settings where socially useful labors take place, where we must begin to propagandize and agitate for working people and students to struggle directly against their rulers, bosses, and administrators.
The hood is a prison. “Burn this bitch down.”