Kokomo (Indiana), December 17, 2014 (Alochonaa): On 13 December 2014, there were large popular protest rallies across major US cities, including New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Boston. These demonstrations came after numerous others had taken place throughout November and early December when grand juries – in essence the the justice system – failed to indict white police officers killing unarmed black males. These stories come right out the American racist past when the entire justice system was stacked against minorities. They could have taken place in any decade no matter the Civil Right Movement, no matter the superficial nonsense of “Political Correctness” intended as protocol and legal cover for the hypocritical white elites desperate to project a non-racist image. No matter that there is a black president and elected officials and corporate managers whose class transcends race only because they faithfully serve the white capitalist institutional structure, racism and the police state are in full force.
The most significant protest movements in American history that have resulted in reforms include tax revolts (Boston Tea Party rebellion1773) that led to the War of Independence, the abolitionist movement leading to the Civil War, the Women’s suffrage that led to voting rights, and the Civil Rights movement that ended legalized segration. The degree to which popular protest movements have actually resulted in reforms of greater democratization is debatable, considering that women remain the dscriminated gender, and racism has very deep institutional roots as evidenced by all indicators from the percentages of blacks living below poverty to the percentage convicted and imprisoned in comparison with the general population.
It is difficult to determine the political and social effectiveness of a protest movement while it is taking place, just as it is difficult to determine if it will become part of a larger grassroots effort leading to systemic changes in the status quo. Given the history of failed protest movements because the state has crushed them or co-opted their followers in some manner that invariably includes superficial reforms, one must not hold much hope for institutional change in the culture of racism in America.
The mass protests taking place in the last months of 2014 are not just about the frozen institutional structure steeped in racism and police-state methods. They are especially significant because the US has its first black president in the White House, a Democrat who came to office as a reformer presumably to address social issues among others regarding social justice. However, in 2014 it is as though the Civil Rights movement never took place, as though America remains a society with 19th century cultural values.
The mass protests in which whites are taking part are about the evolution of the US into a militarized police state that operates as though the political, financial, and social elites are above the law while the masses exist to serve and obey the masters in the political and financial arenas. “Occupy Wall Street” protests (2011-2013) against the institutional structure represented a broader mass movement against “grotesque income inequality as just a symptom og our larger political disease,” as Mother Jones magazine called it in February 2012. The current protests against racism and the militarized police are in a sense a continuation of the class-based ones targeting the political economy, and both reflect a growing awareness that the system is horribly unjust whether it pertains to class or race.
People have no illusions that the US is a country with elected officials that hardly represent the interests of the workers and middle class. Focused instead on the elites for whose benefit laws and policies are designed, as evidenced by everything from fiscal policy that redistributes wealth from the bottom up to labor policy intended to impose restraints on workers’ right to unionize, the entire institutional structure exists to line up the masses into conformity.It is amazing that even in the latest budegt deal that Obama sent to Congress for approval in December 2014, school lunch subsidies were slashed, while more tax breaks for Wall Street were included.
People know that this is not a government for the people and by people, but a government for the one percent of the richest idividuals that own about 40 percent of the wealth. It is the rich individuals that finance political campaigns of candidates no matter if they are Democrats or Republicans, and it is a country for the very rich to the detriment of the poor and middle class that once believed in the American Dream.
Grassroots protests are an effective means to remind people that the elites enjoying controling the media and influencing all institutions from education to the police cannot reduce into submission ninety percent of the population that owns as much income as the top ten percent. In a society that had abandoned social justice in all of its forms except in formal language so that it can continue to call itself a democracy, grassroots protests remain about the only means to express one’s freedom, although at the risk of facing aggressive police tactics including arrest and jail. Hardly a democracy comparable to Norway, America is a society that violates the civil rights of its citizens and human rights of foreign prisoners. Yet, it preaches freedom and democracy to others and goes to war on the pretext of defending such values around the world, all in the name of “American Exceptionalism”.
America is not a police state that resembles Nazi Germany because there is a political power base that is civilian and it has an electoral process that allows for people to vote for candidates. However, elected officials cannot possibly be elected if they do not secure financing from wealthy individuals and corporations, and even if a few are able to do so, their influence is almost non-existent against the vast majority who are in office to make sure that corporate interests are furthered and the status quo remains frozen in time. In a very real sense, the corporate domination of the political process contributes if not determines the nature the political system calling itself democracy. At the same time, the entire judicial system provides another layer of institutional protection for the elites and the forces of law and order serving as guardians of the status quo against the masses whose role is to serve and obey the institutional structure.
The values and ideological orientation of the elites going through the motions of political correctness are frozen in the racist past, and their mode of operating on a daily basis with a media perpetually propagates against change and social progress. Added to this mix, there is the “war on terror” that keeps the masses living in fear of “enemies” about to strike at the heartland. Although it is the US that helped create and strengthen these terrorists in the last four decades, it could just as easily have opted against such policies that continue to strengthen militants to this day. After all, in 2008, Obama promised Americans and the world that his administration would change course and address the roots of anti-Americanism around the world, especially among Muslims. However, the terrorist enemy serves very useful functions. Besides keeping defense spending high, the war on terror keeps the masses docile and loyal, it maintains the status quo frozen in the racist past, it keeps the elites which include a handful of minorities co-opted in order to maintain the status quo rather than resort to structural societal changes.
Is there a correlation between the militarized police and the policy of CIA torture that many Republicans and the US media refuses to label it as such, despite the Senate Intelligence report and White House confrimation? The reality of CIA tortures of prisoners, government indiscriminately spying on its own citizens and violating their constitutional rights in the name of “national security”, the reality of ordinary citizens treated as terrorist suspects has people questioning if the government has brought its anti-terrorist foreign policy at home, applying it against its own citizens at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, with special target minorities.
In a recent Huffington Post article entitled ‘Life in the Emerging American Police State: What’s in Store for Our Freedoms in 2014?’, John Whitehead argues that besides the spying issue, the matter of a militarized police force above accountability even in cases of shooting at unarmed citizens ought to be a source of concern for a democracy. Above and beyond the issue of spying and police acting like a military force and treating minorities like terrorist suspects, there is the larger question of the nature of the political system catering to the rich and powerful, and to the detriment of the vast majority.
Are people demonstrating in 2014 against the persistence of racism because they see it as symptomatic of isolated incidents involving a single police officer and a single minority youth, or are people out in the streets because of a society whose institutions and values are frozen in time and intended to protect the privileged elites whose values the militarized police reflect? Are people demonstrating simply because of a few cases involving racist police killing minority youths, or because they see an institutional structure immersed in social injustice and becoming increasingly worse as time passes? Why do many Americans see the link between the US war on terror and the police methods toward minorities? When Middle East countries insist that the US has no moral authority to preach human rights or cvil rights to any country in the world is it because the people of the Middle East see hypocrisy in US policy, just as the American demonstrators do?
When we see that the media celebrates anything to do with “business profits” and equates it with American “success”, while it refuses to report that even with unemployment coming down there is continued downward socioeconomic mobilization especially among minorities there is an a legitimate question of America as a quasi-police state serving very narrow interests linked to the corporate world. Oddly enough, the US accuses other governments from Turkey to Venezuela and from Iran to China when they violate human rights. Oddly enough, the US accuses its enemies of resorting to police methods against their own citizens, but US government behaves no differently toward its minority citizens.
In the early 1960s amid the Cuban Missile crisis and rising US-USSR tensions involving the nuclear arms race, the US became increasingly interested in doing something about the broader issues of social justice, everything from civil rights to strengthening the welfare state as part of the social safety net for the poor. That was partly because of internal dynamics that included the reality of class transcending gender as the middle class widened to include more minorities as part of an expanding economy,. However, there were also global pressures on the US that many countries depicted as essentially unjust and racist country trying to preach democratic ideals to the rest of the world amid a propaganda war against the Soviet bloc.
No doubt, the vast majority of the population accepts conformity and believes that there is no alternative to working within the system if for no other reason than to survive with the hope that someday things will improve. Meanwhile, the media tries to project the idea that if things are not going well, it is the fault of the individual, the rebellious black young male, rather than an institutional structure stacked against the working class and especially minorities. The media and apologists of the political economy and social structure argue that life is bound to improve because multinational corporations have techno-fixes for everything from medicine to communications devices that allow people to transcend their mundane problems.
As long as the state places body-cameras on police officers, the problem of institutional racism goes away and nothing else needs to be done! A simple techno-fix has taken care of a policy and cultural problem that exists because beneath the thin veneer of political correctness rests layers of racism and social injustice.There is a similar mindset on the part of the US government regarding defense policy. As long as robotic drones are carrying out military strikes, and it is not soldiers on the ground, then what is the problem?
Riding the subway in any major American city one does not fail to notice that a large number of people are lost inside their smart phones, like zombies right out of a horror film, lost forever in a world of alienation. Perhaps this is because techno-fixes are the new drug of the masses or because the real world is absurd and unjust, or perhaps because one has lost touch with humanity and fears or dreads to speak to the “other” (a potential enemy) sitting next to them on the train.The alienation rooted in techno-fixes is yet another triumph of the institutional elites over the docile masses who realize that democracy and social justice are ideals never to be achieved.
The economic, political and social elites can claim that they are all in favor of democracy because there are elections every four years and most politicians and their financial backers embrace culturally liberal issues, ranging from abortion to gay marriage, from allowing artistic expression to allowing lifestyle choices as long as they confrom within the legal boundaries. However, not a single one is willing to speak out in favor of social justice that impacts the working class and the weak middle class that is becoming weaker as years pass. As long as the financial, social and political elites embrace political correctness, sociocultural liberal issues, including environmental protection, then they can argue that indeed that are in favor of “reform”. In essence, these are smokescreen issues to maintain the political and social status quo. By advocating cultural and environmental diversity along with racial and ethnic diversity, but never social justice that goes to the heart of addressing economic and social inequality, the elites, majority and minority included, can argue that they are open to democracy.
Popular protests in America, everything from the anti-Wall Street protests to the recent anti-racist ones are a sign to the institutional structure that social justice cannot possibly be covered up and brushed aside by perpetual propaganda that the media dishes out, both liberal and conservative media, by suggesting political correctness is a solution to the political problem, or by blaming the individual for structural problems shaping the life of individuals. The protests against the police state methods are a reflection that a segment of the American people are not blind to the reality of a society calling itself democracy but in essence serving the plutocratic elites that have contempt for then lower classes and especially minorities.
It is true that protests movements throughout American history have failed to change the status quo and there is no reason to be optimistic that the ones taking place in the early 21st century will amount to anything.
Although I do not expect a revolution, or even sporadic uprisings in urban areas in America, popular protests will continue for different reasons, all of them revolving around the issue of absence of social justice and democracy. The cumulative effect of these protests, combined with another deep recession like the one of 2008 will lead to mass demonstrations with very serious consequences in the future. People tend to be obedient of the law and fear change because this is how the media and institutions have conditioned them and because most people opt for harmony rather than confrontation in life unless they forced to act otherwise. However, when their lives and the prospects of their children’s lives look very bleak, when they realize that society is becoming increasingly unjust for more and more people, and not just the very poor and poor minorities, it is very likely that a segment of the more radical of them will take to the streets and others will follow.
*Jon Kofas is a retired Professor . He has published many works including; Independence From America: Global Integration And Inequality, Under the Eagle’s Claw: Exceptionalism in Postwar U.S, Greek Relations and The Sword of Damocles, and The IMF, the World Bank, and U.S. Foreign Policy in Colombia and Chile, 1950-1970.
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Categories: American Politics, Democracy, Politics
What a great read! Kudos on an excellent, thought-provoking and enlightening piece.