The more than 700 overwhelmingly nonviolent protests throughout the country in response to the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black women and men have triggered a long overdue debate on the role of the police in our country. What has also not been adequately addressed is another target of police repression: workers, especially those who stand up to demand livable wages and decent working conditions.
Thirty years ago, on June 15, 1990, members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) violently beat a peaceful group of Latina/o janitors in Century City who were marching for better wages and working conditions. As a result, dozens of janitors were hospitalized, one woman suffered a miscarriage, and dozens more were arrested and jailed. By numerous accounts, this was a “police riot.” The LAPD paid a multimillion-dollar settlement in response to the injured janitors’ lawsuit.
The police attack in Century City took place the year before a more famous LAPD abuse case involving motorist Rodney King. Millions saw the televised video of the police beating Rodney King as he lay on the ground. When the police were acquitted by a mostly white jury, the verdict triggered the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest.
The LAPD beating of the janitors is not an isolated case of police repression of workers. In the agricultural fields of California, farm owners have called in law enforcement agents to attack and beat striking farmworkers. During the 1992 Drywall Strike that paralyzed the home construction industry in five Southern California counties, law enforcement agents harassed and arrested the striking workers. Many were jailed for unrelated issues, like unpaid parking tickets or their undocumented immigration status. During the 2007 May Day march, the LA police used rubber bullets and tear gas on peacefully protesting immigrant workers; among the injured were families with young children and journalists.
The role of police repression directed against workers has a long and sordid history. The first state police force was established in Pennsylvania at the demand of factory owners who wanted to suppress striking coal miners and steelworkers. And for decades, private security guards known as “Pinkertons” infiltrated unions and notoriously worked hand in hand with law enforcement to crush strikes and attack workers.
During the 1930s, hundreds of workers were killed by law enforcement agents and the national guard during labor disputes. In one publicized incident known as the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, police opened fire on striking steelworkers marching peacefully in Chicago. Dozens were shot, more than a hundred were beaten, and ten workers were killed by the police.
In the 1960s, law enforcement brutally suppressed peaceful protests during the freedom struggle in the South. Hundreds were beaten, many were killed, and thousands more were jailed. Congressman John Lewis nearly died after a savage beating by law enforcement on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; fittingly, the bridge was named after a Confederate general. In 1968, police again violently attacked a march led by Dr. King in support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike. A few days later, he was assassinated while supporting the sanitation workers.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.” Today another twin-headed creature resides in the White House; Donald Trump has made clear his animosity toward both people of color and labor.
On June 1, 2020, Trump directed the police to attack a thousand peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House. The federal police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disburse the crowd so Trump could hold a staged press event in front of a church. Trump held a bible upside down in one hand while directing violence against people peacefully protesting with the other. The church is located on the same block as the national headquarters of the AFL-CIO. Donald Trump’s message was clear. He will not hesitate to mobilize law enforcement to attack communities of color and workers alike.
Over the years, this country has witnessed a huge increase in police budgets. In Los Angeles, for example, prior to the proposed reduction, the LAPD had an annual budget of $1.8 billion, or 17% of the city budget. The U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world, with 2.3 million people in prison. Blacks are five times more likely to be in prison than whites.
Violence against women is also a pervasive problem within our society. Rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence are all forms of violence against women. Sexual violence, racial violence, and violence against workers are all interconnected and are a reflection of a violent culture that perpetuates and defends the status quo.
We need a massive investment in communities where working families and people of color live. We need to fund public education, health care, housing, transportation, and mental health and substance abuse services. This is what will secure the long-term safety and security of our communities. The system of violence and repression promoted by Donald Trump and law enforcement will never ensure equality, liberty and justice for all, nor will it promote the “beloved community” embraced by Dr. King.
Kent Wong is the director of the UCLA Labor Center. The two have been teaching a course on Nonviolence at UCLA for the past eighteen years.
Rev. James Lawson, Jr., is a nationally known nonviolence teacher and philosopher. He was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. James Lawson Jr. was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. Lawson played a historic role in integrating the philosophy of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement, and was a good friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. Lawson was a leader of the Memphis sanitation strike, and called upon Dr. King to come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers. After moving to Los Angeles in the 1970’s, Rev. Lawson served as pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church of Los Angeles. His influence in social justice movements extended from Tennessee to California, where he played a major role in the transformation of the Los Angeles labor movement. For the past 16 years, Rev. Lawson has taught a course on Nonviolence at UCLA in partnership with the Labor Studies program.