On 25 May, George Floyd, an African American working-class man, was brutally slain by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis. This killing unleashed a massive wave of furious protests and demonstrations across the US that had not been seen since the 1960s. It brought into sharp relief the police brutality and systemic racism that many black working class people face in their everyday lives. Compared to the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, the demonstrations have brought together more people from different ethnic backgrounds.
The protests spread rapidly across the globe. Demonstrators in London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere did not just come out in solidarity with the US protesters, but they found that the issues raised by the protesters resonated with their own experiences. The UK, for example, has its own roll-call of black and ethnic minority people who have died in state custody. Black and ethnic minority workers face discrimination in the employment market and in housing. There is the hostile environment instituted by the UK government which gave rise to the Windrush scandal.
These protests have to be seen against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis in which black and ethnic minority workers make up a disproportionate number of the victims.
By appearing to be sympathetic with the demands of the protesters, capitalist political parties such as the Democrats in the US are trying to channel their anger into safe reformist ends. Donald Trump is trying to rally his base by playing the Law and Order card, and is threatening to bring in the military to quell the protests. A grim reminder of the lengths that the state is prepared to go to defend capitalist private property.
There is no doubt that black and ethnic minority workers overall have it tougher when it comes to police brutality and lack of opportunities in employment, education and housing. However, it does not follow from this that racism should be treated as an issue that is separate from capitalism and its class divisions.
Indeed we can see that racism is rooted in the history of capitalism. The use of African slaves in the American plantations to produce cotton to be shipped to the mills of Lancashire. The colonisation of whole swathes of Africa, Asia and the Americas, where the western capitalists ruthlessly exploited the local populations and looted their resources. To justify these heinous and inhumane acts, the ruling class had to characterise the victims as subhuman and belonging to an inferior race, and hence the emergence of ideas of white superiority. So it is little surprise that many white workers absorb these ideas, including those who are employed as police officers, from the wider capitalist society. Racist ideas are used to divide workers from each other.
As the primary function of the police force is to preserve capitalist order, police officers are tasked to keep workers in their place, including workers like George Floyd. Many US police forces have their origin in slave patrols, which had the job of ensuring that black slaves did not escape. The only sure way to do away with racism and police killings is to do away with the social system that creates them, and to bring about socialism.