The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) is one of the fastest growing socialist organisations in the US. In recent months, its members have been central in the struggles against police brutality and injustice. Earlier this year, four activists, including three members of the PSL, were arrested in Denver, Colorado for their role in protesting the police murder of Elijah McCain.
LookLeft spoke to Lillian House, a PSL organiser in Denver and one of the PSL members arrested for her involvement in the protests, about her arrest, the massive protests that have taken place over the last year, and the broader political situation in the United States.
LookLeft: Can you outline the background to the arrest of your comrades in Denver, the charges that they face, and the potential sentences if they are convicted?
Lillian House: On September 17, Denver-area police forces carried out a coordinated campaign of arrests targeting the leaders of peaceful protests over the summer demanding justice for Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was brutally murdered by local police in August 2019. Four members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), including myself, were arrested as well as another organiser named Terrance Roberts who we worked closely with throughout the summer.
I was driving just blocks from my home when I was suddenly surrounded by police cars, arrested, and taken to jail. Others were arrested at their homes, at a hardware store, and while jogging in a park. My comrade Joel was arrested at his apartment building in an extremely dramatic fashion by a squadron of militarised police that arrived with an armoured military-style vehicle.
We were taken to the Denver City Jail, where we found out we were being charged with a series of serious felonies and misdemeanours, all related to peaceful protests demanding that the police that killed Elijah McClain be held accountable. Three of us — Joel Northam, Eliza Lucero, and myself—are being hit with particularly extreme charges, including the ludicrous and bizarre charge of “attempted kidnapping.” I personally have 25 charges—twelve of them felonies—all for peaceful protests spanning several months and two counties. If convicted on all counts, this could mean as many as 48 years in prison. The most extreme charges were filed by the same District Attorney, Dave Young, who cleared Elijah McClain’s killers of all wrongdoing, and who received a flood of international condemnation for letting the killers walk due to these protests.
Once we were arrested, Joel, Eliza, and I were held without bond for eight days, far beyond the typical 48 hours allowed under state and US law. We were held in COVID-exposed jail units under more than 23-hour lockdown in degrading conditions with no explanation for our prolonged detention.
We are being targeted and charged not because we committed any crimes, but because we were leaders in a mass, sustained movement that challenged the impunity of the police and those that protect them. Throughout the summer, we led an unprecedented peaceful protest movement that drew thousands of people into the streets and brought international attention onto Elijah McClain’s case.
LL: Do you see these arrests as a deliberate move to intimidate those protesting against the police and do you think that it is a coincidence that the PSL members were targeted in this manner?
LH: Throughout the summer the police have employed various tactics to repress the movement, from intimidation to outright force. Yet the movement has continued for months, displaying tremendous strength and determination. Such a movement poses a real challenge to the total impunity of the police, and this attack is a clear attempt to stop it by taking out its leaders and displaying the state’s power to arbitrarily arrest, jail, and prosecute even peaceful protesters.
It would appear that every aspect of this attack has been calculated to stir the maximum amount of fear in the movement, from the extreme nature of the charges, to the dramatic nature of the arrests, to the prolonged period we were held in police custody.
But the authorities who contrived this attack miscalculated. This movement is not easily swayed and we have shown that we have the organisational capacity to withstand these repressive attacks. While we were still in detention, the PSL called an emergency demonstration less than 48 hours after the arrests. In Denver, our branch led a crowd a thousand-strong that marched to the jail where we were detained, while solidarity demonstrations were held across the country.
Local, national, and international organisations and community leaders signed on to a statement demanding all charges be dropped. Local lawyers quickly volunteered to represent us. The PSL has provided the organisation and direction that has helped this movement to emerge, sustain, and to withstand this repressive attack. Such forces will naturally become the target of the state as it attempts to repress uprisings that represent a real challenge to the current order.
LL: How can fraternal organisations and others support you and your comrades in their fight against these charges?
LH: The international movement which has sprung into action in the wake of this attack is critical in this fight to defeat these false charges. Organisations who stand with us and want to support us in this fight can help to amplify our case, and they can add their voices to the demand to drop the charges by endorsing at pslweb.org/dropthecharges.
Labour organisations and trade unionists who reject this attack on democratic rights can sign on to the statement of the Trade Unionists for Justice in Denver at tradeunionists4justice.org.
LL: The US has witnessed huge protests against racist police brutality over the last year. What is the significance of these protests? How does the PSL see the struggle against racial injustice being won and can this struggle be used to unite the working class more broadly?
LH: In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, tens of millions of people in thousands of cities and towns across the US poured into the streets in rebellion against the racist terror of the police in this country. Seemingly overnight a movement took shape which shook the ruling class centres of power and caused great shifts in consciousness. This vast movement, reaching all corners of the country, uniting people of every age and nationality, anchored in the resistance of Black working class young people, in many ways represents an embryonic form of what a revolutionary movement in the US would look like.
The PSL views the struggle against racism and the institutions of white supremacy to be a central pillar in the overall class struggle inside the United States. The struggle of the African American working class for equality and freedom has always been central to every progressive struggle in the United States (or in North America prior to the formation of the United States).
The US bourgeoisie premised its power and wealth on the enslavement of millions of workers. In order to shore up this order, the ruling class intentionally set up a racialised hierarchy as a means of social stabilisation. They confined the segment of workers that could be enslaved to only Black workers and promoted white supremacist ideology. A racialised hierarchy was built into every institution of the United States. The institution of the police itself originated in the slavecatchers and overseers who were parts of the working white population enlisted to enforce the system of slavery.
Still today, even though there have been powerful struggles of multiracial unity opposing racism in the US, the fact of the matter is that racism is still pervasive in substantial parts of the population. As a consequence, the prospect for working class unity must be premised on an explicit fight against racism, a rejection of racism, and winning over and educating white workers on the primary need to stand with the African American community in its struggles for justice.
LL: The US is going through an extremely tumultuous period currently with increasing political polarisation – broadly speaking how would you characterise the current era and what are the prospects for the growth of class consciousness and working class organisations in the US?
LH: US capitalism is beset by multiple crises. Covid-19 was ineffectively managed by the government, and the virus has had a devastating impact on people throughout the United States. At the same time, and as a consequence of Covid-19, vast parts of the economy were shut down but the working class and its fundamental needs were not attended to in the “relief” packages provided by congress. Since March of 2020, more than 65 million workers lost their jobs and filed for unemployment insurance benefits. For those lucky enough to succeed in getting uninsurance benefits, the income does not equal that that they lost when they were made unemployed. According to reputable organizations, the number of people facing eviction from their apartments or homes may number as high as 70 million. At the very same time as Covid-19 and mass unemployment rocked the United States, there erupted the nationwide uprising against racism and police brutality. Under any circumstances, managing these three crises would have been a challenge for the ruling class. But these are not “normal political times”.
The ascension of Donald Trump to the White House in 2017 had the effect of destabilising the current system of bourgeois governance. It also accelerated a deep political divide or polarisation within society as a whole. Trump, because of his self-focus, failed to perform the normal function of the president, which is to manage the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.
Trump pursued a narrow agenda, but hoped to gather sufficient support within the capitalist establishment by virtue of a 3-trillion dollar tax giveaway package to the already rich. And the reality is that many on Wall Street were perfectly happy to keep Trump as the president. But he faced huge opposition from within the centres of traditional state power, from within the intelligence services, the military, the foreign policy establishment (Republican and Democratic) because they viewed Trump’s erratic and self-serving conduct to diminish the standing of US imperialism as the hegemon in global capitalism. In fact, they were alarmed that Trump’s antics made not only the Trump administration but the US government a target of scorn and ridicule globally—this is not good for an empire. They did everything possible, using all available tactics, to dislodge Trump from the White House. As a result, we are now witnessing what should be characterised as a period of deep political destabilisation in the United States, where even the president is overtly undermining the perception that the US political system is legitimate. It is the president himself who is condemning the US political system as fraudulent and without legitimacy. Trump cannot be that easily isolated however by the traditional bourgeoisie because he has the enthusiastic support of tens of millions of people who consider him to be a maverick and a tough-talking opponent to establishment elites.
It is impossible to know how this will actually play out in the coming weeks and months. It is noteworthy that the Trump administration, working with the Israeli government, [is accused of having] assassinated Iran’s top nuclear scientists in recent days. This was clearly an effort by the Trump administration to create a confrontation between Iran and Israel, or Iran and the United States, or Iran and both of them, such that it will make it difficult for Biden to enter into or resume the JCPOA — the Iran nuclear arms agreement. We will have to see what other tricks Trump will have up his sleeve to destabilise the plans of the coming administration.
Read Part One of the interview here.