This article was originally published in Socialism Today, the paper of the Independent Socialist Group. Subscribe to the paper to receive each issue in print and read the articles before they’re published online!
by Ashley Rogers, Campaign Organizer
As millions of protestors took to the streets around the country during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, local and state police responded with beatings, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Nearly 100,000 soldiers were mobilized to join in the repression. The first few weeks of protests saw over 10,000 people arrested around the country. As the movement faded during the 2020 election, thousands of protestors were still facing charges. Without a movement to defend them, many of these protestors were quietly convicted. But not in Worcester, where the Independent Socialist Group initiated and led a campaign in defense of the victims of police repression and won!
The George Floyd protests in Worcester began on May 30th, with an event organized in part by Worcester ISG. But it was the protest held at 6 PM on June 1st that thousands would attend. Prominent local officials, including the Mayor and City Manager, made sure to be seen. The Chief of Police claimed to offer solidarity, kneeling with protestors.
By 9 PM, most of the protestors had gone home, except a crowd of seventy peacefully marching down Main St. The police response was severe. Squad cars were sent to block off exits and corral protestors. As riot police with military equipment surrounded the unarmed protestors, officers claimed they began to fear for their lives. The cops then arbitrarily declared the protest a riot, allowing them to start charging into the crowd and making arrests. The crowd was ordered to disperse while completely surrounded. Police began firing on the crowd with pepper spray pellets and smoke grenades.
Video evidence shows the protestors were still peaceful when the protest was declared a riot. It wasn’t until the police assault that some in the crowd began to respond by defending themselves. But in Worcester PD’s narrative – the one echoed by city officials and the corporate press – the insignificant protestor response retroactively became the justification for the overwhelming police crackdown that started the encounter.
WPD arrested over a dozen that night. Many were bystanders, not protestors, who lived in the area and were drawn out by the commotion. Worcester’s police union pushed hard for baseless charges against the arrested. Worcester ISG was approached by some of the arrested bystanders, and we recognized the urgent need to defend the anti-racist movement. The courts couldn’t be counted on for a fair verdict. WPD and the District Attorney did all they could to score a conviction, including withholding evidence and personal belongings from the arrested. To win, we needed to make acquittal the only option for Worcester’s “justice” system.
Building the Campaign
In Worcester, like everywhere else, the big corporations and property developers hold political power. The city government, police, and courts “protect and serve” the interests of these capitalists at the expense of Worcester workers. A movement to limit the power of the police threatens the ability of the rich to defend their unequal system. The police were used to push the anti-racist movement off the street while it was weak. To fight the repression, we needed to publicize these arrests, mobilize workers, and make it clear that workers and youth in Worcester wouldn’t take the conviction of these protestors lying down.
Worcester ISG created a solidarity campaign and assembled a coalition of local activists. Beginning with the first court date in November, we picketed in front of the courthouse during each hearing, and supporters packed the virtual hearing. We held a rally in front of City Hall – in addition to tabling, leafleting, and informational picketing around the city – to raise awareness and bring new workers into the struggle. A call-in campaign put pressure directly on the DA and City Council. When the City Manager publicly promised to fight institutional racism, we were at City Council pointing out his hypocrisy.
We had over eighty supporters attending the virtual hearing by the March court date. The campaign was gathering momentum, and the courts were beginning to strain. Court staff attempted to prevent supporters from joining, resulting in half of the defendants – along with dozens of supporters – being kept out of the first fifteen minutes of their own court hearing! Days later, we held a public meeting to bring energy into the campaign in preparation for the next court date. We were determined to see the struggle through, as long as it took. As it turns out, it didn’t take much longer.
On March 19th, 2021, Worcester’s DA announced that he was dropping all charges on the arrested protestors and bystanders. The police union revoked their endorsement of the DA in outrage, but the victory was already sealed. Credit has to be given to the work done by the defense attorneys to win this victory. Yet the role of the solidarity campaign needs to be highlighted. There were many similar arrests across the country that ended in conviction with no defense from the anti-racist movement. This campaign’s example should be used to equip our movements to defend themselves. These methods have defended working-class activists around the world, including the CWI’s “Jobstown Not Guilty” campaign to defend workers protesting the privatization of water in Ireland. Workers wield immense power when they organize and coordinate towards a specific goal like this. An organized movement isn’t just able to defend itself – it’s able to put forward and win vital reforms as well.
Read our pamphlet Against Racism & Police Brutality: Build a Socialist Fightback.