Across America, thousands of Americans continue to demonstrate against systemic racism and the murder of black Americans. Even in the former capital of the Confederacy, the state and local governments are removing statues of white supremacists and slave owners. We must seize this moment to dismantle a racist power structure and rebuild democratic institutions, and while protests may help enable such changes they won’t be sufficient without additional tactics and sustained organizing.
As daunting and far-reaching as this struggle is, there are two immediate steps you can take right now: Request an absentee ballot for the August primary, and fill out your Census information online. Beyond those immediate steps are the more complicated questions and more tiring political legwork, but first it’s worth referencing the history that has led us to this moment.
Racism in America has always been a power struggle between those who opposed democracy and those of us who support it. As the most successful civil rights organizers emphasized, it is political and economic power that can eliminate racist systems and prevent their resurrection, and that begins with protecting your vote and our district’s voice in state and federal affairs. Martin Luther King said:
“The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
Opponents of democracy have always used race baiting and violence to keep political and economic power out of the hands of working class Americans. Whether it was the landowners who imported slaves, the ex-Confederate terrorists who murdered blacks and halted Reconstruction, the mine owners who tried to break strikes with importation of minority scabs, or the steel mill owners of Birmingham who controlled Bull Connor, racist violence in this country has primarily been used as a tool of economic elites.
In that vein, I want to share a story that illustrates the complicated role of law enforcement in this broader struggle for democracy. In the early 20th century, coal miners in West Virginia had organized every mine in the state into unions except in a few southern West Virginia counties. In one of those counties, citizens had the temerity to elect a sheriff, Sid Hatfield, who protected citizens against corporate violence, including from the police force across county lines whose wages were paid by Outside coal companies. These same coal companies shot machine guns into camps of union families and imported black workers in an attempt to break strikes, but the United Mine Workers and local West Virginians welcomed minorities into union ranks: Solidarity and inclusion defeated corporate race-baiting. Still, the anti-union coal companies found it unacceptable that citizens would democratically elect law enforcement, so they had Sid Hatfield murdered on the courthouse steps. Unions and family members rose up in protest, precipitating one of the largest and most prolonged labor and civil rights standoffs in our history, the Battle of Blair Mountain. In the end, local residents lost that standoff: President Harding had the military drop bombs on local residents and sent in the National Guard to restart mine operations without union representation. The coal fields weren’t unionized, and citizens weren’t protected from wanton corporate murder, until the Roosevelt administration. As this example shows, proving MLK’s point, economic and political power are inextricably linked and determine whether citizens are free to live safely in their own neighborhoods.
You may be interested to know that the pro-union forces in that struggle wore red bandanas around their necks, for which northern coal operators derided them as “rednecks.” The name stuck, but its everyday use is nonsensical today. The “rednecks” of the early 1920s understood we’re all in this together against an autocratic elite, and we forget that message at our peril.
Today, Donald Trump and the monopolist corporations funding his campaign would love nothing more than a high profile debate about whether we should “defund the police,” because law enforcement is just a manifestation of political power, and not the root of it. Systemic change requires shifting political power away from the few corporations that operate in an increasingly monopolistic environment, and one in which they are trying to quash the last vestiges of organized labor. Systemic change in the 21st century means using democratic institutions to protect freedom of the press, and ensure we have accurate information rather than being spoon-fed vitriol by unaccountable Silicon Valley firms. Real change means extracting wealth from the parasitic monopolists who have stolen middle class wages for the last forty years. Real change means empowering workers, through unions and other institutions that give working people real power in the marketplace and in the political realm. Real power means making democratic institutions responsive to actual people, not the evil axis of Silicon Valley and Wall Street.
Make no mistake: Wage earners, small business owners, and, yes, our police officers have the same interests: A system in which individual people, local workers, and local businesses matter.
Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have come together across race, ethnic, and geographic lines in an attempt to convert apartheid systems into a functioning democracy. That is what we have to do now. The corporations that benefit from Trump’s race baiting will bankroll his campaign even while giving lip service to Black Lives Matter. We can’t be deluded into directing our anger at police officers, most of whom are extraordinarily devoted and brave public servants. Our adversary is a multinational corporate elite (which President Roosevelt aptly called an “industrial aristocracy”) that fundamentally opposes democracy and the fair division of wealth and power. To defeat them, we need to maintain solidarity with every single working person and working family, and to make our democracy live up to a promise that is threatened by a craven President and his corporate allies’ autocratic agenda.
Zack Fields represents downtown Anchorage in the Alaska State Legislature.