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Interview with Frank Chapman: “We have a spark with Charlottesville”

By staff

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The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) has been organizing against police crimes for decades. Since 2012, they’ve led a five-year campaign for community control of the police. They have also organized several protests against Donald Trump since he was elected. Fight Back! interviewed Frank Chapman, Field Organizer of the Alliance, about the situation in the U.S., after Charlottesville, Virginia was the scene of the racist ‘Unite the Right’ rally and assault on counter-protesters.

Fight Back!: The Alliance has condemned the attacks on democratic rights coming from Trump since his election in November. What changed with Charlottesville?

Frank Chapman: You know, Lenin talked about sparks. In fact, the Russian revolutionaries put out a party publication called Iskra( The Spark). A spark is a moment that agitates into existence a mass response to something that’s been done by the system that grossly violates human rights or intensifies human suffering. We have a spark with Charlottesville. Look at what’s happened: an anti-racist activist was maliciously murdered, and the response by people throughout the country has been massive.

I’m not saying it was more massive than the response to Michael Brown, or Eric Garner, or Philando Castile. All those were massive responses. But this is different, because this involved the White House. This involved the president of the United States refusing to acknowledge the terrorist act that had been perpetrated that day. That’s what makes it qualitatively different.

When Trayvon Martin was murdered, Obama said, “That could have been my son, or it could have been me at a younger age.” And when the massacre happened in Charleston, South Carolina, in the AME church, he joined in with the people down there. My point is, while we’re not satisfied overall with his response, his response never went to the extreme of saying these were not terrorist acts.

Obama wouldn’t say that about police crimes, either, but Trump has told the police throughout the country that they can take off the velvet gloves, now’s the time for the iron fist. During his campaign, and his tenure in office, he’s been consistently beating the racist war drum. He’s calling down the thunder on our people.

Charlottesville was an extreme example of what he has been calling for all along. So when it happened, his response fell into line with his program all along. This is his idea of how to ‘make America great again.’

For the movement, this is definitely a turning point. What makes this different than the other racist crimes that have been perpetrated, mostly involving the police, is that mostly there hasn’t been a clear target. The closest you came is “Jail killer cops.” Or “Stop police crimes,” “Stop police impunity.” This movement has objectives with far deeper political implications.

Take down all the Confederate statues. Take down all those vestiges of slavery that have been haunting our country ever since the Civil War. Take those down. And a direct frontal attack on white supremacy. Being led for the most part by white people. I think that’s a great beginning. Sometimes events make a breakthrough that the movement has been trying to make for years. “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” is how Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party put it. We have been for decades fighting for Black and white unity, and it’s been a snail’s pace. And Black people recognize it.

It moves beyond the question of whether there can be Black and white unity. Of course there can be. This is a demonstration of it. And this is still a Black-led movement, because who hit the streets first? Black Lives Matter. Ferguson. Who first cast the die? It was African Americans. Urbanized, working class. That’s where the rebellion started. Now the rebellion has been joined by even greater numbers by white Americans. The rebellion was joined in its incipiency by white Americans. All the mass demonstrations we’ve had in Chicago, there’s always been white people present, but not in the numbers we’re talking about now, and not in the way we’re talking about now.

There’s a new slogan in this movement: We are the majority. That does two things; it recognizes that Trump is a minority-elected president, but also saying that most people in the country don’t support his racist agenda. The left has been fighting for unity for decades, because potentially we knew it was there. But this is the first time that slogan has come out of a spontaneous uprising of masses of white people. Our task is now to unite the many in order to defeat the few.

Fight Back!: Does Chicago have the same problem of white supremacy as Virginia?

Chapman: Chicago is caught up in the same mire that the whole country is caught up in, in terms of institutionalized racism. But Chicago is also the epicenter for the fight against police crimes and police torture in the U.S.

The cutting edge of white supremacy is police crimes and torture. We’ve advanced the struggle to the extent that if we get a victory here, we win an advance on all these fronts. Because what upholds, solidifies, and attempts to stabilize this racist oppressive system is the police, jails, and prisons, directed mainly against the African American population in terms of the war on drugs, the war on crimes, stop the violence, whatever slogan it may be operating under.

It’s very important that we get a victory in terms of getting Jason Van Dyke, the cop who killed Laquan McDonald [in Chicago], fully prosecuted, convicted and jailed; and that we get community control of the police by having enacted into law our current legislation for an all elected, all civilian, police accountability council. In other words, we have an ordinance in the City Council, it’s now in the Public Safety Committee, and getting that ordinance out of the committee, and getting it passed would be a crucial and critical victory. The way we’re looking at it in Chicago, on a practical, day to day struggle level, is that we have to continue to build a movement for community control of the police, and we have to jail these killer cops.

Fight Back!: You spent years in the trade union movement. What is the importance of labor uniting with the fight against racist attacks? How do you view labor’s response to this crisis?

Chapman: Not good. That doesn’t mean all of labor. The part of the labor movement I was a part of – I was a union organizer for Local 1199 in New York, which was well known as a left-led trade union movement, which spent years organizing outside the AFL-CIO – that union always took a stand for justice. Most of its members were African American and Latinos. They showed that if labor gets involved, they can bring the struggle to a higher level, because labor can have strikes, work stoppages. Labor can help us in terms of withdrawing money from banks that are sitting on police boards. There’s a lot that labor can do to add to our arsenal.

The fact that the majority of the labor movement is not doing this, that what we’re getting from Trumka is good rhetoric, we’re not getting anything from these central labor councils. Name me the central labor council anywhere in the U.S. that has decisively come out against white supremacy and has mobilized people. Or around people being murdered unjustifiably by the police. They passed resolutions around Ferguson, the AFL-CIO state council did. They were initiated to do that by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in St. Louis. I know those brothers and sisters there. I was part of their organization. But in terms of the AFL-CIO, all we have to my knowledge is a desk in Washington. A statement may be made from time to time, condemning particular racist attacks. We have no problem with that, but it needs to increase.

In Chicago, the participation by labor in terms of our struggles for community control of the police, and our struggles for the torture victims has been shameful. The only way they can overcome this shame is by doing, getting involved. And why not? The labor movement is under attack like it’s never been before. We’re not going to overcome these attacks by leaving the unorganized unorganized. We’re not going to overcome these attacks by not joining in the historic struggles for justice that is going on in the African American community, that goes on in the Latino communities; that goes on among the indigenous people in this country.

Fight Back!: You’ve been a communist and involved in the Black Liberation Movement for over 50 years. Since the late 1960s, the attacks on the national liberation movements, the workers movement, women, the LGBTQ community, the peace movement, and all democratic rights have gotten worse, resulting in many setbacks. How do you remain positive about the future of the struggle?

Chapman: I remain positive because I have seen what struggle can do.

Historically, I could point to the Abolitionist Movement or to the 1930s, when the organized left, led by the Communist Party, brought this country to the brink of revolution. I could go back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, when we picked up the things we had lost after the Reconstruction Era, and brought back the Voting Rights Act; I could go back to the successful boycotts we had, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People talk about Rosa Parks. She wasn’t the first to refuse to sit in the back of the bus. But she is seen as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement because her act of defiance led to the African American community, for the first time, coming together as a whole and refusing to ride those buses. It showed the power of the people to make change. Nobody Black, or African American, or of African descent, got on those buses. I could talk about the Black dockworkers in Louisiana, and in San Francisco, who started the boycott in this country against South Africa, because they refused to unload ships. Nobody knew how that boycott movement was going to swell, into the divestiture movement, which played a big part in bringing down apartheid in South Africa.

Recently a great reason for remaining positive is the new uprising of the people manifesting itself in the Black Lives Matter movement and the development of a key center of resistance to police crimes here in Chicago known as the campaign for an all elected Civilian Police Accountability (CPAC). This campaign has made Chicago the epicenter of the struggle for community control of the police.

So, I’ve seen some things in my lifetime that convinces me that the people united can never be defeated!

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