On Jailing Killer Cops

Marxism vs. Sectarian Idiocy

In the early hours of 1 January, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who had been out celebrating the New Year, was killed by a member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police in Oakland, California. Cell phone footage of the murder revealed that Grant, who was unarmed and lying face-down on the ground, was shot in the back by Johannes Mehserle, a 27-year-old white cop.

While police initially refused to arrest Mehserle, the mass outrage following circulation of cell phone images of the execution made it impossible for state authorities to ignore the crime. On 13 January, Mehserle was arrested and subsequently released on bail. Prior to Mehserle’s arrest, Oakland police viciously attacked a 7 January demonstration and arrested 100 of those protesting the racist killing of Grant.

While every leftist in the Bay Area supports the demand for immediately dropping all charges against the arrested protesters, the former Trotskyists of the Spartacist League (SL) apparently think that it is a mistake to call for jailing Mehserle. In a 12 January statement they wrote:

“At the Oakland protest [on 7 January], placards from the ANSWER coalition, led by the reformist Party for Socialism and Liberation, called to ‘Jail Killer Cops!’ In your dreams. The capitalist rulers are hardly going to jail their own police guard dogs. And, even if one cop were charged and imprisoned, it wouldn’t stop police brutality and terror. The cops serve, together with the military and the prisons, as the core of a state whose purpose is the repression of the working class and oppressed by any means necessary.”
Workers Vanguard, 16 January

It is quite true that jailing Mehserle “wouldn’t stop police brutality and terror.” But that is no reason not to demand that he spend the rest of his miserable life behind bars.

Grant’s murder provides a graphic reminder that Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency has not changed the fact that American “free enterprise” has its roots in slavery and brutal racial oppression. Marxism teaches that the entire capitalist “justice” system, from cops to courts to jails, “serves and protects” a social system predicated on exploitation and inequality. Racism is inextricably woven into the fabric of American capitalism—it always has been and always will be. This is why revolutionaries, while opposing all concrete manifestations of racial oppression, do not promote the illusion that capitalism can somehow be purged of racism. Our program calls for Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Advocacy of a revolutionary solution to social oppression does not, however, mean that Marxists are not also prepared to advance certain concrete, usually negative, demands on bourgeois authority. An obvious example is the call to drop legal proceedings against those who were arrested on 7 January while protesting this hideous crime. It is equally necessary to demand, not only that Mehserle’s bail be revoked, but that this racist killer be jailed for life.

This is not the first time that this issue has come up. The SL raised exactly the same criticism after New York City police gunned down Amadou Diallo, a young black immigrant, in February 1999. We responded as follows in a statement on the acquittal of the four killer cops:

“Of course a murder conviction for these killer cops would not have ended police brutality nor resurrected Diallo. But whenever a few cops can be held accountable for a few of their crimes it is a small victory for their victims and a small setback for the proponents of the racist ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ style of ‘crime-fighting’ pushed by [New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani and his ilk. Conversely, the fact that Diallo’s killers were acquitted only encourages further abuses. This month NYPD hit squads have gunned down another two unarmed black men: Malcolm Ferguson on 1 March and Patrick Dorismond on 16 March.

“Revolutionaries support demands to jail individual cops guilty of murder, while combating illusions in the possibility of reforming the police. The once-Trotskyist Spartacist League (SL), which historically took such an approach, has recently changed its tune:

“‘The main slogan raised by the WWP [Workers World Party] on February 26 was “Jail the Killer Cops!” while the ISO [International Socialist Organization] chimed in with the call, “Jail the Racist Thugs in Blue.” This appeal to the capitalist rulers to chastise their racist killers for doing their job reflects the view of the ISO/WWP opportunists that the capitalist state can be pressured to serve the interests of the workers and minorities.’”
Workers Vanguard, 10 March [2000]

“While the SL stops short of chastising itself for having raised similar demands in the past, we note that this new ‘leftist’ posturing parallels other recent line changes, including rejection of both the general strike demand and the united front.

“If calling for jailing killer cops only creates illusions in the capitalist state, one might imagine that this would also be true of demands for freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal or abolishing the racist death penalty. Yet Workers Vanguard reprints a March 1st letter from the SL’s legal arm to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and San Francisco DA Terence Hallinan raising both of these. Go figure.”
—reprinted in 1917, No. 22, 2000

While the SL leaders did not respond to our criticism, we note that they have not repudiated either the call to free Mumia Abu-Jamal or the demand for the abolition of the racist death penalty. It is not clear to us whether the ostentatiously sectarian impulse evident in opposing the call to jail killer cops—an impulse increasingly, if inconsistently, exhibited by the Spartacists in relation to a variety of other issues (see, for example, “Of Presidents & Principles,” 1917, No. 30, 2008)—is motivated by a desire to flaunt the “uniquely correct” insights of their peerless leader, James M. Robertson, or is merely an attempt to give their growing abstentionism a suitably “programmatic” cover. Whatever the motivation, it is just plain wrong.