(Notes from the first meeting with Amiri)
* We are facing a kind of dilemma: the mainly middle-class left repeats fairly idealistic messages (we are the 99%, ‘working class unite’, let’s all vote for Bernie etc.), which are ignorant of the material segmentation of the working class or try and smooth things over. On the other side we see movements such as Black Lives Matter, which react to concrete issues of racist/anti-poor state violence, but it seems that they generalise this concrete struggle into a similarly problematic ‘Black identity’ (Black business credit card etc.) Where do you see concrete convergences of struggles which address both facts that: a) that ’all poor working class people face discrimination, state violence etc.’ and;
b) that ‘Afro-American working class people are more likely to be amongst the poorest’ and more likely to be on the receiving end of (state) violence?
The closest convergences of these consciousnesses was in the Fight for 15 mobilizations starting in fall 2014, when fast-food workers staged ‘die-ins’ to protest the murder of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. This sort of thing continued intermittently throughout 2015 and 2016, with fast-food workers unofficially making connections in their words and actions, but there was no official union presentation on the subject. The SEIU (union) has refused to endorse or to have anything to do with the Black Lives Matter stuff. Individual leaders in the union have reached out to anti-police violence groups in recent months, but the union won’t officially get behind this movement. The organisers know that these issues are important to the people who they want to organise, and they are forced to address them. The grassroots retail and fast food workers know that the police are on them and that these things are linked.
A BLM organization in the Bay Area made a statement in support of the Fight for $15 campaign, and this has deepened recently: there’s an article in the American Prospect about a series of teach-ins called “Fight Racism, Raise Pay,” which seems to be a joint project of individual SEIU leaders (the union seems to hold itself apart officially, still) reaching out to people around Black Lives Matter. I haven’t seen any sign of it in real life yet. I think it is important to mention that BLM is not really an organization. It is a slogan, and the “membership” is anybody that goes to a protest for black lives. The ideological baggage that the so-called leadership has been carrying is their own.
* Does the increase in white poor prisoners (anti-meth policies) shift the public perception of the prison system and or organising within?
Oh, boy. There’s been a long history of prison riots in the United States, and I wrote last year about a building wave of them, both regular prisons and immigrant prisons. So, organizing within the prison system seems to be on the increase. As for white prisoners and the drug problem, you wouldn’t believe how the tune has changed for the so-called “opioid epidemic.” The former head of the FBI, Comey, did a tearjerking video recently, crying about the opioid epidemic and how it was tearing “real people’s” lives apart:
I nearly fell out of my chair. I cannot believe these motherfuckers. Of course, they probably won’t make any policy changes to stop destroying millions of lives in the drug war. But then, they might bring back drug courts or something like that.
* Traditionally there were various approaches amongst the left to address the dilemma of organising around race issues and racism: the Panthers said that white folks should first ‘organise amongst themselves’, which was taken on by groups like Sojourner Truth Organisation, who said that instead of ‘unifying demands’ the radical left has to put forward demands which forces the white working class to fight for Black workers issues even if it is not in their ‘immediate’ interest, e.g. access to skilled jobs. How do you see this issue debated today?
Debated among communists? Good question. I have not seen such a debate, ever. My opinion would be that there could be no demand that could be raised by a working class movement that was not pro-black. There could be no demand that was raised by a working class movement that would not require white workers to fight for black workers. Of course, white supremacy is exactly the proper method of destroying such a movement, and this is exactly the problem with the United States. I have only had an opportunity in my life to see how this setup works in reverse, negatively. The lines along which working class living standards are destroyed are those drawn by racism. Think of funding for public schools, the lack of a national healthcare system, the lack of public transportation and the wasteful arrangement of cities and their suburbs and exurbs. This is all white supremacy, to be blunt and maybe a tiny bit hyperbolic. Just a tiny bit.
* It was fairly clear how racist divisions within the working class were reproduced in the 1960s, e.g. through the legal acts of discrimination which the Civil Rights movement fought against or through trade union and company policies which would bar Black workers to enter the world of skilled manual labour. It was easy to identify the social agents which enforced the segmentation. How does this look today, e.g. in the old and new industries or in terms of urban spacial segmentation? How are these divisions reproduced apart from the general reproduction of “whoever’s parents and grandparents were unskilled and poor will remain poor”. E.g. how are Black workers represented or not in the bigger strikes of ‘organised labour’, for example the Chicago teachers, Verizon strike, recent grumblings at Nissan car plant etc.?
Black upwardly mobile folks could leave the urban ghettos and move into mixed areas during the 1970s, but the economic downturn in the 1980s put an end to it. The rest of the people were left on inner-city islands of poverty, increasingly criminalised and then partly gentrified and changed by Hispanic migration. Poverty still limits access to education and therefore to higher segments of the labour market.
Teaching is one of the best jobs a black person has been able to have; it is working for the state, and therefore more protected, more regulated and rule-bound, than the private sector, so it and public-sector jobs have been sort of a haven. However, blacks are even being driven out of teaching. Chicago used to have up to 40 percent black teachers in 2000, and this number was 23 percent in 2015. I think it has to do with the “accountability” stuff, teacher testing and teaching to the test, combined with the pressure from charter schools, combined with the influx of Teach for America types, white do-gooders who want to “give back” and who will leave shortly and go on to other professional careers, and in the meantime cost much less. As for the Verizon strike, and the just-ended AT&T strike, black workers may still find it difficult to move up in the skilled sectors, and are probably concentrated in the retail sectors. I don’t know for sure. I don’t know details about any of these struggles, but I would bet money that black teachers were quite militant instigators of Chicago strike and nobody crossed any picket lines for Verizon or AT&T. I would find it hard to believe that black workers working for those phone companies were not thrilled about participating in the strike. If you look at the coverage of AT&T, you will see plenty of black faces on the picket lines.
As for the reproduction of segregation, I think immigration played a very large role in “sidelining” the race problem. This, combined with a focus on “diversity” allows companies and real estate developers to continue to exclude American black people, as long as they can hire dark-skinned Indians or Chinese or Latinos or even West Indians. Of course there are American blacks who are upwardly mobile; but the stagnation in the economy plus worldwide supply chains and production leave the majority stuck in place. When I lived in New York I was stunned by this, and I saw it so often, everywhere, particularly in my neighborhood, half black American and half West Indian. There really are simply no good jobs for young people. Upward mobility is really a sick joke for the vast majority of them.
* Can you say a bit more about the current AT&T strike?
The AT&T strike didn’t have a political character. I am sure a lot of workers feel politically motivated and I am sure people were excited to take action, but the strike only lasted three days. They struck last summer and I think two years ago, about health and wage cuts. They have many skilled workers, but many more unskilled workers in retail and cusomer service. Their social composition will be similar to that of fast-food companies. The pay differences between skilled and unskilled are enormous, it is astonishing that they all went on strike together.
* Segmentation within the working class was often based on migration, from the South – North migration in the 1930s and 1950s to the more recent migration from Mexico and South America. At least in the UK the relationship between older generations of migrants, e.g. from South Asia and the Caribbeans and the more recent migrants from eastern Europe is not always an easy one – due to very different backgrounds and the perceived increase of competition on the lower ranks of the housing and labour market. How does this play out in the US? E.g. the state tries to use the propaganda of ‘model minorities’ of e.g. Asian background in order to show that there are no racist structures which would prevent the Afro-American proletarians to ‘improve themselves’. While Hispanics are presented as the people willing to do the hardest and lowest paid jobs. How does this propaganda impact on the relation between proletarians from ‘minority backgrounds’?
I talked about this above; there’s blacks who think Mexicans are terrible, simultaneously lazy scum and taking all the jobs, simultaneously poor and working with secret material advantages, but most I know don’t think about immigrants that way. Most blacks I have known have thought Latinos were either mostly like them, or sort of caught between a rock and a hard place, between black and white. I have not met any racist Latinos, though I know they exist.
* You live in California – did you notice any changes since Trump was elected and an increase in anti-migrant / wall-building propaganda?
I have noticed that my “libertarian” co-workers who voted for Mitt Romney and George Bush now bash Trump like the best liberals. And the high-school students are ready to get out in the streets at the drop of a hat.
* How do you see the post-Trump election protests?
There were quick responses to each new act of the Trump government e.g. the ‘Muslim ban’, but there are no organisational residues. These are more flash-mob types of stuff. It is all easily recuperated by the Democrats, the demonstrators are often from the liberal miasma.
* Have you noticed a liquefaction of traditional class lines and subsequent political allegiances?
We can say that that there is a relationship between the erosion of the middle-class wage and the erosion of allegiances to one of the two main power blocks; there is certainly more of an unpredictability of voting patterns amongst the working class (with many switching from Sanders to Trump etc.)
The importance of white-supremacy in the US is a major support for traditional allegiances. Something that was interesting to me during the Ferguson and St.Luis riots two years ago was that Black people in the protest actively rejected the old civil rights leadership. That’s what I expect to see more of amongst the white proletarians, a conflict with their middle-class leadership. But there is a lot to crack before this will happen.
* How will issues around the health care reform affect how black and white workers vote – or act and think politically?
I think this could be an enormous organising potential. However, each single spokesperson of each single party is against the health care reform, single payer. Despite Trump, the Democratic Party refuses to have anyone in the leadership supporting single payer. They just will not do it. There is no independent organising on a national level to accomplish this. The state’s Democrats in California try to do a state single payer, but it won’t happen, with too many loopholes for the companies. They can get around the taxes. The Democrats will try to do it state by state and wear people out.
* Why do you think Bernie Sanders didn’t get the nomination? Scheming on Hillary’s side or ‘privileged political apathy’, or both?
A certain laziness and not wanting to rock the boat too much. The liberal miasma, the progressives who vote for a warmongerer –those are the people who vote. Half of the population does not vote, who might be more critical.
* Did Bernie Sanders wake any spirit of organising in the states?
No, not organising, no. And he threw his lot in with the Democratic National Committee, he is now part of the DNC.
* Some thoughts on the Trump administration…
Trump’s infrastructure plan is non existent; it’s not deficit spending, but public-private partnerships and tax cuts; it was never more than a wealth transfer; he promised social democracy for white folks, but that’s a broken promise already…
The government is in crisis. The Democrats run this Russia angle, this was surreal to watch – to see the ‘fake news’ on the left. To see ‘progressive intellectuals’ on the left being so hysterical. They intended to paralyse this administration. There is no way out, but something outrageous, because everyone boxed themselves into a corner.
* How do proletarians of different minority groups relate to each other at the moment? Here you have the propaganda of ‘the Polish being hard workers’, which pitches them against others. And in the US you have the myth of ‘role model minorities’, such as Asians who study and are good at business. How do the anti-deportation protests of Hispanics relate to the recent anti-police violence mobilisations?
Here in Los Angeles, after the deportation orders and after Trump set-up the airport ban, high school and college students took the streets real fast. In L.A. a lot of high school students are Hispanic. I am sure that these high-school kids were also out for Black Lives Matter protests. The consciousness is there, that the anti-migrant and the police violence stuff go together. However, there is no organisational expression and there is no workers’ movement that these kids are able to join. And there is a stratification of the working population, so that recent migrants from Mexico and other countries are shovelled into this underground economy immediately. And they never come out. Recent immigrants are really hard to talk about and to know about, because they stick to themselves. If they are in the agriculture sector, they have their own little towns. They don’t go to major cities. They are often on this track back and forth from north to south. If they are second generation they still live in their own neighbourhoods, their might still be a language barrier. They sort of become what we call ‘Chicano’ in the United States. The first generation is more hidden. I know where they work – meat packing, agriculture, janitorial services – but then many Chicanos also work as janitors, for example. I work in St. Monica in a wealthy part of L.A. in an office park, with six major office buildings for professionals (IT, insurances, architects). The entire staff that runs these buildings is Latino. I only have seen two black people from Ethiopia, out of over 50 people. Hardly any of them speak English.
There is a chance that the election of Trump will cause the white working class who voted for him to become disillusioned. It might shatter their belief that the state is on their side – it is unclear whether this also means they would denounce white supremacy. That’s unpredictable.
Groups like Redneck Revolt might be important in this. There was a KKK march in Kentucky recently and tons of white folks came out to throw rocks at them. I was pretty impressed with that. People got crushed by de-industrialisation and they are just starting to piece things together again.
* What about the idea that capitalism once in crisis can basically revert to slave labour and primitive accumulation?
I don’t think that the prison complex are profit centres for US capital. It costs more to run them than you get out of them. The primitive accumulation going on is more abstract, it has more to do with debt. It’s like scissors, squeezing everyone with wages and debt.