Posts Tagged ‘racism’

“Fascists, But Race Apart From Italians,” Ottawa Citizen. August 3, 1938. Page 01.

These dark-hued, new little recruits to Fascism may wave Italian flags to their hearts’ content in the streets of Addis Abada – but they never may grow to call themselves Italians. The Italian government is seeing to it that they are kept a race apart from the white colonizers of Ethiopia.

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“The wave of hatred whipped up against Africans who haven’t yet even set foot in the country is being visited on the migrants who are already living here. Italians are going backwards, socially, amid an upsurge of nationalism that displays racist animus against anything perceived to be an alien body. The first official statement made by the League’s new minister for the family and disabled people was directed against gay families and abortion. Lorenzo Fontana’s words were a bombshell in a country that has had to wait decades to get a law on civil unions, and where conscientious objection in public hospitals still betrays the referendum decision made on abortion in 1981.

The sad truth is that this government has many supporters and is popular because it identifies targets: categories of individuals that people can unleash their frustration on; enemies to be stoned. Whether Italians like to hear that or not, that’s how it is. But the huge numbers of suffering and angry Italians will not better their own condition by mobilising against migrants. On the contrary, in countries where rights are guaranteed to everyone, including minorities, it is the entire community that enjoys the benefit. It has taken decades for communities to integrate, but very, very little time for everything to collapse like a sandcastle, destroyed by a nationalism that is making everyone the enemy of everyone else.”

– Roberto Saviano, “Italy’s war on migrants makes me fear for my country’s future.” The Guardian, June 19, 2018. 

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“A private Facebook group used by police officers across Canada shows shocking messages in support of Gerald Stanley’s acquittal.

The most offensive comments, which are sure to further inflame the racism debate accompanying the outcome of last week’s trial, were posted by an officer APTN News has been told is a serving member of the RCMP on the Prairies.

“This should never have been allowed to be about race…crimes were committed and a jury found the man not guilty in protecting his home and family,” the post said of the second-degree murder trial into the death of Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan.

“Too bad the kid died but he got what he deserved.”

Two sources shared screenshots of the post with APTN and disclosed the officer’s identity.

APTN is not naming the officer or detachment at this time. However, the officer claims to police a First Nations’ community.

“How many of us work on or near reserves and are getting fed up with the race card being used every time someone gets caught breaking the law?” continued the post.

“The CC (Criminal Code) is there to protect the criminals and there’s a growing wave of hard working people who are sick of being victims of crime without real justice.””

– APTN National News, “RCMP Facebook group claims Colten Boushie ‘got what he deserved’.” APTN, February 15, 2018.

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“Indignation over cruelty diminishes in proportion as the victims are less like normal readers, the more they are swarthy, ‘dirty’, dago-like. This throws as much light on the crimes as on the spectators. Perhaps the social schematization of perception in anti-Semites is such that they do not see Jews as human beings at all. The constantly encountered assertion that savages, blacks, Japanese are like animals, monkeys for example, is the key to the pogrom. The possibility of pogroms is decided in the moment when the gaze of a fatally-wounded animal falls on a human being. The defiance with which he repels this gaze -‘after all, it’s only an animal’ – reappears irresistibly in cruelties done to human beings, the perpetrators having again and again to reassure themselves that it is ‘only an animal’, because they could never fully believe this even of animals. In repressive society the concept of man is itself a parody of divine likeness. The mechanism of ‘pathic projection’ determines that those in power perceive as human only their own reflected image, instead of reflecting back the human as precisely what is different. Murder is thus the repeated attempt, by yet greater madness, to distort the madness of such false perception into reason: what was not seen as human and yet is human, is made a thing, so that its stirrings can no longer refute the manic gaze.”

— Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia (68: People Are Looking At You). Source.

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“The incarceration rate and rising gender-based violence, paradoxically, track the growing levels of freedom and public activity among women. Compared with North American and Europe, the parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa where globalization has had its most severe effects have also undergone significant social changes: Young women face unprecedented pressures in education and work, including migration from rural areas and poor countries for jobs, while the expectation remains that they will still care for their families and children.

But civil-rights advocates wonder why, in a world of expanding freedom and inclusion for women and girls, they are simultaneously being disproportionately dragged down by incarceration.

In poor communities around the world, criminalization and abuse go hand in hand. A girl growing up in a refugee camp might be pressured to exchange sexual favors to avoid homelessness. Perhaps supporting a child as a single mother means serving as a drug mule for an abusive boyfriend. As economic exploitation deepens, the line further blurs between victim and perpetrator, especially when women get picked up by police or framed for partners’ offenses,

At a recent conference hosted by the ICPR in London, where activists and scholars discussed the imprisonment experience for women and girls around the world, Teresa Njoroge of the Kenya-based NGO Clean Start, discussed her own experience in a women’s prison. As Njoroge lived among the inmates, she realized all had been systematically socially isolated, stripped of family ties, reduced to identification numbers: “I understood their hurt and pain, and I learned that crime is not what really brought these women to prison. Far from it. It started with a lack of education, whose supply and quality is not equal for all. It starts with a lack of economic opportunities, which pushes these women to the petty survival crimes. The broken health system, the broke criminal system, the broken social-justice system. If any of these poor women fall through any of these cracks, the bottom of that chasm is a prison.”

Women also suffer from a lack of social support before and after prison. According to Catherine Heard of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, women in prison “are often primary carers for one or more children or older family members. This surely suggests that the economic and social costs of imprisoning women will, in most cases, outweigh the supposed benefits.”

In the United States, for example, the mass incarceration of women is correlated highly with racial segregation, poverty, mental-health problems, and childhood abuse. Moreover, women are also disproportionately burdened by childcare responsibilities and so require targeted support to restore their family lives post-release.

Today rising imprisonment is the bleak upshot of women’s growing presence in the economy and in public life. But liberation should not lead to added risk of criminalization. Why should a sex worker be criminalized for struggling with economic hardship and exclusion from other avenues of employment? Why is a woman who steals to feed her family given a prison sentence instead of food assistance? Gender segregation across society imposes a criminalization tax on women simply pursuing the right to lead independent, self-sufficient lives.”

– Michelle Chen, “It’s a Worldwide Trend: More Women Are Being Imprisoned Than Ever Before.” The Nation. February 1, 2018.

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“A journalist for the Evening Independent wrote that [General Amos] Fries was often “accused of being an absolute militarist anxious to develop a military caste in the United States.” But to those who shared his cause, Fries was an excellent figurehead. A family man, a dedicated soldier, and a talented engineer, Fries was the perfect face of a more modern warfare.

Just as some in Europe argued that chemical weapons were a mark of a civilized society, for General Fries war gases were the ultimate American technology. They were a sign of the troops’ perseverance in World War I and an emblem of industrial modernity, showcasing the intersection of science and war. In an Armistice Day radio speech broadcast in 1924, Fries said, “The extent to which chemistry is used can almost be said today to be a barometer of the civilization of a country.” This was posed as a direct intervention to the international proposal for a ban on chemical weapons: Preparations for the Geneva Convention were well under way. If chemical weapons were banned, Fries knew it would likely mean the end of the CWS [Chemical Warfare Service] — and with it his blossoming postwar career.

To save the CWS from extinction, Fries would need his own army — one that would fight with rhetoric and social capital. Over the autumn of 1919, Fries worked to secure a network of publicists, scientists, and politicians to rally for their cause. They strategically began a full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote “war gases for peace time use.”

The trade press provided the first and largest forum for the spread of the tear-gas gospel. In the November 6, 1921, issue of Gas Age Record, Theo M. Knappen profiled Fries, the “dynamic chief” of the Chemical Warfare Service. Knappen wrote that Fries had

given much study to the question of the use of gas and smokes in dealing with mobs as well as with savages, and is firmly convinced that as soon as officers of the law and colonial administrators have familiarized themselves with gas as a means of maintaining order and power there will be such a diminution of violent social disorders and savage uprising as to amount to their disappearance.

In the future, Knappen predicted, when breaking up a demonstration, tear gas “will be the easy way and the best way.”

This early promotional writing struck a careful balance between selling pain and promising harmlessness. Its psychological impact set tear gas apart from bullets: It could demoralize and disperse a crowd without live ammunition. Through sensory torture, tear gas could force people to retreat.

These features gave it novelty value in a market where only the billy club and bullets had previously been available. Officers could disperse a crowd with “a minimum amount of undesirable publicity.” Instead of traces of blood and bruises, tear gas evaporates from the scene, its damage so much less pronounced on the surface of the skin or in the lens of the camera.

But the idea of transforming wartime weapons for peacetime use was not without its critics. In a 1922 letter to the New York Times, US Army veteran A. Reid Moir argued that gas was not only inhumane but “hellish.” He wrote, “Is it humane to lie in excruciating pain, with stomach swollen by the expansion of gas, and with lungs eaten by the deadly vapor to cough up one’s life in an agonizing convulsion?”

Fries’s team had carefully constructed comebacks for such objections. Borrowing loosely from medical statistics, Fries and his team constructed a trio of retorts. War gases, they claimed, killed only one-twelfth the amount of fatalities caused by bullets. Second, only half of disability discharges were from gas. Finally, they argued that there was no medical proof of permanent injury from gas exposure and that serious injuries were very rare.

Numbers could be twisted, but veterans’ testimonies stood in their way. Fries and his team claimed these were exaggerated tales, going so far as to publicly declare that “every imposter is beginning to claim gassing as the reason for his wanting War Sick benefits from the government.” This approach provided the groundwork for the decades of legitimizing less lethal weaponry to come.

Never far from Fries’s lenient use of statistics were his rationalizations of colonial myth as fact. Fries’s writing and speeches are littered with references to white supremacy. In his lecture at the General Staff College, Fries told young soldiers, “The same training that makes for advancement in science, and success in manufacture in peace, gives the control of the body that hold the white man to the ring line no matter what its terrors. A great deal of this comes because the white man has had trained out of him nearly all superstition.” It is this training, for Fries, that sets him apart from the “negro” as well as the “Gurkha and the Moroccan.”

While it would be easy to write Fries off as an anti-communist, racist, and military extremist, the potency of his views arose from his intellect as much as his ignorance. After graduating seventh in his class from West Point in 1898, Fries had entered the academy by acing an exam held by Congressman Binger Herman and went on to impress his superiors and inspire his army subordinates.

In the words of his peers, Fries took a situation in which “the entire civilian population,” as well as the army, stood against his pro-gas campaign and ignited in people an “earnest conviction” that these chemicals were the solution to law enforcement and political control in a time of economic depression. Instead of being seen as a form of physiological and psychological torture, tear gas became rhetorically cemented in much of the public imagination as the humanitarian alternative to live ammunition.

Into the next century, tear gas would become the most widely used less lethal technology. It would transform into part of today’s $1,630,000,000 global industry in less-lethal weapons, with rapidly expanding markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But for all that to unfold, Fries and his compatriots would first need to build up a commercial market for tear gas.

Commercializing Tear Gas
Beyond trade publications, radio speeches, and news features, Fries and his network also staged large-scale product demonstrations. On a balmy July day in 1921, Fries’s old friend and colleague Stephen J. De La Noy brought large supplies of tear gas to a field near downtown Philadelphia. Here he enacted the power of war gases in peacetime by inviting members of the city’s police department to experience its effects. Inviting reporters to record the spectacle of 200 policemen faced with tear gas, De La Noy set the stage for an enticing media story.

A reporter from the New York Times described how the gas “thrice sent [the police] into hasty and wet-eyed retreat.” As the demonstration continued, Philadelphia’s police superintendent selected “a battalion of his huskiest men … with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs.” They fared no better than the first bunch, as “three times they charged, but each time were driven back, weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapor.” Afterwards, police officials told the Times that the demonstration “undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work.” The gas, they concluded, would likely replace “means hitherto used to subdue mobs and criminals.”

This early demonstration spawned a major national and international campaign for the use of tear gases by law enforcement agencies. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s both the CWS and commercial manufacturers peddled their products to police departments, National Guard, prisons, and private security firms.

This marked a turning point in what is today called the “militarization of the police.” “A few police armed with this weapon could disperse a mob easily and destroy the impact of a mass demonstration,” historian Daniel P. Jones argues. “The dramatic increase in the power of police forces in handling mass disturbances certainly meant a loss of power to any group opposing established order.”

Just as demand needed to be secured, so too did supply. To jump-start the commercial market, Fries donated samples from the CWS to friends — many of them former soldiers — who had become entrepreneurial executives in gas munitions companies.

Perhaps the most outspoken of these was Colonel B. C. Goss, who had worked in the chemical warfare division during World War I. A respected chemist and decorated military man, Goss founded the Lake Erie Chemical Company in Cleveland, Ohio. As general manager of one of the largest companies in this new industry, Goss knew profits would follow perception. He wanted to be the single manufacturer supported by the US military, and sought to use his wartime credentials to make this happen. Goss solicited help from his old CWS buddies and learned the art of twisting scientific testing into advertising copy.

On April 15, 1926, Goss wrote to Fries requesting that he contact the Chicago Superintendent of Police, Morgan A. Collins, “calling his attention to the fact that there are many possible new uses and new chemicals which are admirably suited for use by police departments, with which you would like to have them made acquainted, and that you would appreciate it if he could arrange to have me give a brief talk to the National Convention of Police Chiefs at Chicago.” Fries, uncomfortable with this request but committed to Goss, delayed his reply. Busy preparing for a confidential show at Edgewood Arsenal, Fries “hesitated about writing to the Chicago Chief of Police for fear of possible unfavorable reaction.” He thought it better if the superintendent could telephone him, at which point he could then recommend Goss as a keynote speaker, making the matter appear more casual. “You know my great personal interest in what you are doing,” Fries reassured Goss, “As fast as your products are available, send them along to us for test.”

Within a year, the CWS was providing tests of Lake Erie’s commercial products. The company’s new tear-gas weapons were set to undergo scrutiny at Edgewood Arsenal in the winter of 1927. While Goss was soliciting military endorsements, he wanted to make sure the tests were carried out in a way that provided the best possible outcome. This was no ordinary tear gas. “These Shells are intended to be used, namely, for firing directly in the faces of rioters or mobs, at short range by guards,” Goss wrote, checking in with Fries on February 17, 1927, to recommend that testing be done only with the one-inch Very Pistols instead of the ten-gauge. He promised, “These one-inch shells really have a terrific wallop.”

On February 25, the CWS reported the results of Lake Erie’s “Blind-X Shell” tests. In the opinion of the board, this tear gas was of no use in the outdoors, as Goss had noted in his letter. Yet the gas “would seriously injure if fired in the face of a person under twenty feet,” making it useful for “warehouses or other large rooms.” It recommended that “the charge must be received full in the face or on the body to be effective” and that this gas “will be effective against unarmed individuals, but will only stop a determined and armed individual when red point blank.”

While the Lake Erie “Blind-X Shells” tests were just one in long series of munitions tests to take place at the Arsenal, the results speak toward common misperceptions about how tear gas is handled. Today when canisters are shot at people’s heads or into rooms or cars, it is seen as an accident or against-protocol use. However, these tests show that tear gas was in fact intentionally designed to be shot at point-blank range at people’s faces and bodies and was indeed recommended for use inside buildings and for ring at close proximities.

Second, the test results explicitly stated that the product would be effective against “unarmed individuals.” Again, it was not an anomaly or ethical mistake for police to fire upon unarmed protesters at close range in enclosed spaces. This function was embedded in the very design of these tear-gas weapons. Causing injury to unarmed civilians was an intended outcome of manufacturing these tear-gas shells.

Today, companies claim to manufacture safer and safer forms of tear gas and less lethal weapons. But what does it really mean to improve on the safety of a device designed to cause harm? Is it truly an accident when a product developed to shoot people in the face is used to shoot people in the face? If you follow the hyperlinked trails of less-lethal-weapons patents into the past, you will see the mystifying language of safety and protocols erode. Yet the design and purpose of these technologies remains the same.”

– Anna Feiggenbaum, “The Man Behind The Mask.Jacobin, January 5, 2018. 

Extract from Tear Gas. London: Verso, 2017.

Picture is from a Federal Laboratories, Inc. brochure touting the value of the ‘Federal Gas Riot Gun,’ 1932. LAC RG73. 1-8-1. Vol. 1.

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“Advertising colonizes public and private space with corporate messaging. Digital advertising is increasingly personalized; a worldview is curated and imposed upon you. But it’s also meant to flatter, to both reflect and shape your particular tastes. Lately, 23andMe’s ads have seemed to focus on travel campaigns based on rediscovering one’s genetic—and by extension, ancestral—roots. 23andMe is one of many companies now offering ancestry-based travel services, but there’s a particular sheen and slickness to its operation, especially because the company is the most prominent genetic testing service. What is 23andMe trying to say, and why are its ad campaigns, with their soft colors and eugenicist overtones, so relentlessly creepy?

Over the summer, 23andMe announced what it called The Golden 23 Sweepstakes, offering twenty-three free DNA tests followed by round-the-world trips based on winners’ DNA results. If your DNA reads as 2 percent Scandinavian, congratulations, you’ll soon be sitting in a Swedish hot spring. Twelve percent Middle Eastern? This way to your hamam.

These and other genetically determined adventures await Nicole, the fabulously multiethnic star of a recent 23andMe commercial. “Follow your DNA around the world,” the commercial instructs, over a shot of Nicole riding a scooter on a bridge somewhere in Southeast Asia. (Peculiarly, 23andMe’s campaigns never seem to name the actual countries their customers travel to, only broad regions.) The commercial goes on to chart Nicole’s worldly peregrinations while listing the percentage of her DNA that comes from each destination. At the end, the video resolves into a message of vague humanitarian empowerment: no matter where she comes from or where she goes, she’s 100 percent Nicole.

The Nicole commercial represents a kind of deracinated cosmopolitan wonder. We’re all just people roadtripping through life, tapping our genetic code for touristic pleasures. Connections aren’t made through culture, communication, or collaboration but by showing up at a hostel and announcing, “I’m 43 percent European.” At once superficial and deeply primal—this is DNA, after all, life’s building blocks—these commercials manage an effect that might be called eugenics lite. Your genetic history is essential to knowing who you are, but at the same time it yields only a series of traveler’s diversions, all brought to you by the benevolent hands at 23andMe.

One’s genetic inheritance might be a matter of gentle amusement for 23andMe and their brand of soft-focus corporate liberalism, but it’s taken far more seriously on the political right. Over the last year, various news outlets have chronicled the stories of right-wing figures, particularly from the overtly racist “alt-right” contingent, taking DNA tests. The nominal objective is to prove their white European ancestry, but occasionally the results shock, as when one white supremacist found out that his DNA registered as 14 percent sub-Sarahan African.

This sort of unexpected reckoning has caused some on the right to become averse to DNA or ancestry tests altogether. At altright.com, Vincent Law wrote a call-to-arms against 23andMe, telling his audience that the tests were unnecessary. “If the people present as White, are culturally White, and fight for White causes they are absolutely 100 percent White,” Law proclaimed. “We in the Alt-Right need to have a big tent approach to Whiteness.”

Law’s call for a “big tent approach to Whiteness” is steeped in a self-evidently absurd brand of irony. White supremacists, he seems to say, should show more tolerance—but only toward one another. He goes on to acknowledge that not all white people are good, but as an oppressed people, they should be forgiving of one another’s mistakes.”

– Jacob Silverman, “23andUs.”The Baffler, November 14, 2017.

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“Black people in Canada’s most populous province spent longer behind bars awaiting trial than white people charged with many of the same categories of crimes in each of the past five years, according to data obtained by Reuters.

Between April 2015 and April 2016, the most recent period in which data is available, black people awaiting trial in Ontario jails were there longer, on average, than white people charged with the same crime in 11 of 16 offense categories Reuters examined. There were approximately 6,000 black people and nearly 26,000 white people remanded to pre-trial detention during the period.

The data showed similar patterns in the four prior years.

Among the categories examined, black people spent almost twice as long in remand in 2015-2016 for weapons offenses, equivalent to an additional 38 days. They also spent 46 percent longer for serious violent offenses and 36 percent longer on charges of obstructing justice.”

– Anna Mehler Paperny, “Exclusive: New data shows race disparities in Canada’s bail system.” Reuters, October 19, 2017

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“Take, for example, the claim that black youth inhabit a culture that venerates criminality, in which having been incarcerated is a matter of pride. This particular trope has seen heavy circulation in the last few years, trotted out to rationalize every death of a young black man at the hands of the police or vigilantes. Constructed out of a conglomeration of supposedly “thuggish” photos, snatches of rap lyrics, or social media ephemera, it works to make respectable the narrative that, in every case, it was the black teenager who threw himself in a fury at the men with guns. Confronted with such deep-seated criminality, the pundits innocently ask, what else were the police supposed to do?

Ethnographies of returned prisoners and their families reveal a very different world, one that coincides more with the commonsense notion that people who already face discrimination in the labor market would hardly celebrate events, like incarceration, that will make their lives even harder. Donald Braman spent four years conducting interviews with prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families in the Washington, DC, area, and found that black families regarded incarceration with anything but pride.

Instead, he found a pervasive sense of shame. Families of those in prison hid the truth from even their extended family, and went to great lengths to conceal the fact from their social circles. In interviewing close to fifty families, Braman reported that not one was “out” as having a member in prison to their entire extended family. Reading the stories he collects, one gets a sense of a suffocating stigma, a desperation not to be associated with the prison system in any way.

In light of Braman’s work, the claim that young black men are happy to be locked up is perverse. There is no culture of criminality in black communities. Convenient as it may be to ascribe one to the victims of state violence, all of the evidence suggests that black families work incredibly hard to keep their members out of prison, and feel a profound sense of failure when they are unable to. In fact, compared with white families, black families place an even greater emphasis on following the rules and obeying authority. Given the disproportionate consequences black youth face for their transgressions, this differential is hardly surprising. Yet the disseminators of this lie persist, attempting to convince the nation that African Americans are (“culturally, not biologically!” they hasten to add) simply unable to assess even the most brutally obvious consequences of their actions on their lives.

The disconnect between claims of a culture of criminality and the evidence presented by reality is not at all unusual when it comes to the various elements that make up the culture of poverty narrative. Its other facets are equally guilty of inverting the world in which we live. Consider three prominent claims made by the would-be augurs of black culture: that black students devalue education out of a conception of school as a white thing, that black parents place a low value on marriage and a stable family life, and that the black poor are simply uninterested in finding work. All of these have been given voice across the political spectrum, from liberals to reactionaries, and all of them are patently false.” 

–  Paul Heideman & Jonah Birch, “The Poverty of Culture.” Jacobin. September 16, 2014.

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“First of all, the question of concreteness isn’t as secondary as it may seem given the way that I posed it. Theoretical abstractions about the logical structure of capitalism help us navigate the terrain of history. But unless we want the theory to die, the terrain of history has to be the ground for both testing and new theory-generation. So, the logical structure of capitalism cannot be taken as a closed subject. Even if we accept that nothing about our current abstract models of the logic of capital necessitate the concept of race, the fact of the resistant reality of race under capitalism is an important piece of evidence that invites us to look again at the theory. There remains a lot to be discovered, about the logical structure of capitalist law, capitalist politics, capitalist ideology, and of the articulation of all of these.

Second, the logical structure of capitalism as Wood describes it seems surprisingly economistic. This is weird given her perfectly reasonable objections to the base-superstructure model of analysis, but the “rules for reproduction” of capitalism offered by Wood concern only the sphere of production and exchange. Pivotally, they concern “the market”, and the contention that all the economic actors under capitalism “depend on the market”. I think this “market” is a metaphysical conception, and that there are only markets, each variously constituted by law, politics and culture. I also wonder what would happen, with this mode of analysis, if we were to use it to try to analyse the many twentieth century capitalist economies where the state was the single biggest actor? In all formulations about the “relative separation of politics and economy” under capitalism, we have to recognise just how messy and broad a term “relative” is: the separation is, after all, an internal distinction produced by capitalist states themselves. Moreover, economic actors may depend on markets for their reproduction, but they also depend on public transport, schools, welfare offices, spouses, children, relatives, sometimes charity, and a whole range of things that aren’t “the market”. What is more, markets also depend on them. By all means reject base-superstructure models, but if your account of the logic of capitalism takes place only at the level of the economy and economic imperatives, then this draws the analysis back into economism.

Third, Wood focuses on the concept of “civic status” as the crucial modality of race under capitalism. The term “civic status” refers to the juridical rights and entitlements to which various members of a polis have access. In Wood’s work (e.g.), the separation of civic status from class is what enables members of different classes to encounter one another as “formally free and equal” citizens. This means that capitalism doesn’t need hierarchies of civic status, because workers can be exploited even if they belong to the same rank as the owners. But, obviously, civic status is not exhaustive of the forms of status distinction and oppression in a society. Equally obviously, the abolition of de jure hierarchies of civic status (slavery, segregation, imperial non-citizenship) clearly hasn’t resulted in the abolition of race. The ascriptive hierarchy continues to operate through other means.”

–  Richard Seymour, “Does David Roediger disagree with Ellen Meiksins Wood?Verso blog, July 24, 2017.  

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During the late nineteenth century, black New Yorkers’ violent clashes with whites in the streets
brought about a culture of self-defense. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, blacks experienced
high rents, congestion, and segregated housing, inducing incessant movement within
the city for better housing conditions and affordable rentals. Although their communities were
scattered, black areas were densely populated. Between 1890 and 1900, New York City’s black

population increased from 36,183 to 60,666, of which 36,246 lived in Manhattan. As they settled
into predominantly white communities, blacks battled territorial whites, doggedly seeking to
reclaim the neighborhood. In the Tenderloin district, extending from the west twenties to the
west fifties, San Juan Hill, and later Harlem, blacks were potential victims of mob violence on a
daily basis. Irish gangs and the white community at large steadfastly protected their neighborhood.
As Anne Murphy, a black woman recalled, “my brother couldn’t go past Eight Avenue to
play, because he was black and that was Irish. Many times I would see my brother come in and
get the broomstick in order to go out and fight. The Irish kids wouldn’t let the black kids cross
St. Nicholas to go into the park and sleigh-ride.” Blacks used makeshift weapons from their
homes, the streets, and, in some cases, rooftops to battle whites and the police.

The black working class did not fight alone. Since its founding in 1883, the New York Age had
been the black community’s champion against police brutality in black Manhattan. Its founder and
editor, T. Thomas Fortune, the dean of black journalism and the founder of the radical Afro-American
League, was labeled the “the fightin’ naygur” by the Irish. Indeed, it was in the pages of the Age
where Ida B. Wells, anti-lynching crusader, first shared her experiences of southern racism and
white mob violence with black readers in the north. By 1903, the radicalism of the Age changed
once Booker T. Washington took interest in the paper. Only four years later, he had purchased the
paper and Fortune had sold his shares to Bookerite Fred R. Moore, who continued to publish the
paper until 1943. With the change in ownership and editorship, the Age’s editorial material too
changed to reflect the conservative politics of Washington.

During the month of July 1905, a series of interracial violence spread from the Tenderloin to
the San Juan Hill district. The race riot of the seventeenth, however, incited the black community
to mobilize and protest. This response, along with that of the public officials and black and white
newspapers, revealed the frequency and the intensity of interracial violence in black districts;
although the New York Age and the New York Times were not without bias, their coverage uncovered
a pattern of police mistreatment of blacks in the streets and in custody; perhaps, more
importantly, the newspapers jointly highlighted the concern, and perhaps fear, of the police
department and black spokespersons alike that the black working class had mobilized and armed
themselves for protection against whites and the police. 

In the Columbus Hill district, the upper-west sixties, notoriously labeled San Juan Hill, racial
violence among the blacks, the Irish, and the police was rampant. On Monday, July 17, 1905,
Police Officer Roche ordered a group of black men in front of a saloon to move on or get inside.
All followed his order except for Walter Powell. Roche struggled with Powell, who took Roche’s
club and escaped through the back of the saloon. Roche fired a shot in the air and blew his
whistle. As several cops advanced to the scene, someone dropped a brick from above, hitting
Officer Roche on the head.

The officers believed the brick was dropped from the apartment building at 238 West Sixty Second
Street. They entered and arrested Arthur Moody, who begged the police not to kill him,
stated a witness. Moody died in the hospital—he had been shot after being beaten. The police
arrested several black men that Tuesday morning. All claimed that they were beaten at the police
station. Walter Frazier, one of the victims of the police, stated, “Before it was my turn to go in
I heard the sound of the clubs on the heads of other prisoners and heard them crying for mercy.
I was frightened sick. When it came my turn I think I was struck about a dozen blows.” Under
the guise that the police represented just law and order, these violent attacks on blacks under
police duress and especially their registration into the criminal justice system legitimized the
police’s actions. Their power to document, and therefore inscribe, blacks’ actions as criminal
demonstrated both the authority and legitimacy of police repression of blacks.

Robert Christopher’s wife called the District Attorney’s Office and stated that her husband
avoided the scene but was chased and attacked by whites. She said that the “police indulged in
promiscuous shooting, wounding innocent people,” among them her husband. Mrs. Christopher
believed that Officer McLaughlin had asked police officers of the West Sixty-Eighth Street
Police Station to harass black people in the San Juan Hill area. A year before, McLaughlin was
found guilty of killing James Patterson. She also asserted that Captain Cooney of the West Sixty-Eighth
Street Station was a “nigger hater” and that he allowed his officers to brutalize black
citizens. Acting District Attorney Gans promised Mrs. Christopher an investigation. Mrs.
Christopher’s comments illustrate her and the community’s familiarity with day-to-day violence.
That she remembered the bellicosity of individual officers in the San Juan Hill district sheds light
on the black community’s visceral memory of violence, and pinpoints that these memories lingered
in the community’s consciousness. Blacks of San Juan Hill understood that their individual
and collective encounters with police officers could result in violent retribution at a later date. 

The New York Age implored the police department to protect the rights of respectable black
citizens. Along with the DA’s investigation, Reverend G. H. Sims, pastor of Union Baptist
Church, led a committee consisting of the religious black community, requesting Commissioner
McAdoo to investigate these series of violent attacks on the black community. They wanted the
civil rights of “deserving Afro-American citizens” protected. Commissioner McAdoo, however,
seemed concerned less with the civil rights of blacks and more with the civil rights of white citizens.
As McAdoo explained, “A color man strikes a white child, for instance. This is resented by
a white man.” The Age opined scathingly, “Of all the examples of ignorant and imprudent prejudice,
there is nothing which outgoes Commissioner McAdoo’s jaunty motivation of race riots,”
querying how McAdoo could comment as such when “the riot just then quelled was provoked by
… white boys.”

Yet as the Age remonstrated the police department and the committee demanded an investigation,
McAdoo urged the respectable classes to disarm members of their race and community.
Before the most recent riot, on the fifteenth of July, the NYT reported that “before 9 o’clock seven
colored men had been locked up in the West Sixty-eighth Street Station, charged with carrying
concealed weapons. Six had revolvers and one had huge carving knife.” After the black elite
and Mrs. Christopher complained to the commissioner, as well as the acting district attorney on
the nineteenth, McAdoo explained to the daily, “I told him [Reverend Sims] the first thing to be
done was to disarm; that I had said that same thing to a certain class of Italians and the Chinese,
and they could be no talk of peace until disarmament.” He continued, “On Saturday last, when
the pawnshops were watched against the purchase and redemption of deadly weapons, the police
seized nine loaded revolvers taken from these places by colored persons presumably for use.” 

Black citizens had enough. With a sense of urgency, blacks armed themselves because of the
constant threat of racial violence, the failure of the police to protect blacks’ civil rights, and especially
the noticeable cooperation between white citizens and the police. Not only were blacks
pawning their personal possessions to purchase weapons, but they were also making collections
in the saloon to “defend the negroes accused of trying to kill Roundsman Walsh.” On July 14th,
Police Officer Walsh had attacked Reverend James Smith, owner of a coal and ice business.
According to the New York Age, Walsh and other officers beat Smith “senseless.” Once
Commissioner McAdoo saw the difference in size between Walsh and Smith, the New York
stated that he “commended his man for his pluck.” McAdoo not only rationalized white
citizens attacking blacks but also endorsed police brutality. Blacks’ endeavors to arm themselves
give us a rare glimpse of the probable debate and plotting stirred by police brutality in black
neighborhoods throughout Manhattan. Considering the chain of conflicts occurring throughout
these black districts, blacks undoubtedly shared and circulated information from both the streets and black and white newspapers about white mob violence and police brutality. Much like other
institutions in the black community, the saloon, a working-class male-centered social club, operated
as an information center for the exchange of news about neighborhood life and work, and in
this case a political space to rally support and resources to protect themselves and other black
denizens in the neighborhood.

In response to McAdoo, the committee prudently claimed the police were biased toward
blacks in their arrests and that, as the Age pointed out, whites not blacks incited the riot. The
committee made it clear that the behavior of the police was unacceptable. Rev. Simms complained
that the “better class” of blacks had been mistreated and unjustly arrested. But not all
blacks were innocent, the committee admitted. According to Rev. E. M. Daniels of the Fountain
Baptist Church of Summit, “[I]t was not the better class of colored people who make or start the
troubles but that it was the lower class,” and Daniels asserted that blacks were being arrested
more than the “white toughs.” Making clear that they were “representatives of the better class,”
the committee “desire[d] that justice should be meted out, not only to the lower class of colored
people, but also to those whites who participate in the riots and are more prominent in them than
the colored people.”

The committee attempted to avoid a race war. The real potential for the violent retribution of
the police galvanized this “certain class of negroes” to arm themselves, fully aware of the consequences
of their recalcitrance. Although McAdoo, as well as the New York Times, may have
relied on stereotypes to implicate the culpability of the so-called lawless colored element, he also
acknowledged the veracity of foul play among his officers and, therefore, solicited the aid of the
black leadership, understanding that the black church, especially, held sway in the black community.
The committee, therefore, tried to seek remedy from the police and to discourage armed
self-defense. This strategy, what historian Sundiata Cha-Jua has called legalism, sanctioned the
legitimacy of the legal machinery by using it to discipline criminals, both civilian and policeman.
Legalism demonstrated that blacks were law-abiding citizens, but it also required the law, in this
case the police department, to be accountable to all citizens.

As a result of this bricolage of protest by the Age, black citizens, the arrested, and the committee,
McAdoo transferred Captain Cooney from the West Sixty-Eighth Street Station to the
Union Market Station. But, he warned, “the lawless colored element in the Twenty Sixth precinct
must not misconstrue my act as any change of policy on my part with regard to dealing with
them. I have instructed Capt. Handy to fearlessly and impartially enforce the law and to suppress
promptly any disorder in that section.” By differentiating itself from and admitting to the culpability
of those blacks who armed themselves, the committee sanctioned McAdoo’s labeling of
them as lawless. The committee also questioned certain blacks’ rights to protect themselves
from, and to be protected by, the police based on the contention that they belonged to a criminal
class. By drawing such a line, the committee justified the police’s behavior as well as established
latitude for blacks to be accosted and brutalized by the police. Yet in its own way, the committee’s
call to mete out justice was ultimately an attempt to protect the community and especially
end the conflict before the “lower classes of colored people” did so through violent retribution. 

– Shannon King, ““Ready to Shoot and Do
Shoot”: Black Working-Class
Self-Defense and Community
Politics in Harlem, New York,
during the 1920s.” 

Journal of Urban History
37(5). pp. 759-762 

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