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Vol. 75/No. 23      June 13, 2011

‘To U.S. capitalist rulers,
workers are presumed guilty’
(Feature/Books of the Month column)

Below is an excerpt from A Packinghouse Worker’s Fight for Justice, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for June. The booklet tells the story of the victorious eight-year battle waged against the political frame-up of Mark Curtis, a union activist and socialist sentenced in 1988 to 25 years in prison on trumped-up charges of attempted rape of a Black teenager and burglary. Curtis, a meat packer, was arrested and beaten by Des Moines cops in March of that year. At the time he was involved in a fight to defend 17 coworkers at the Swift packinghouse who had been arrested in an immigration raid. The excerpt below explains what Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, said about the assault on presumption of innocence involved in the frame-up and the stakes for working people. Curtis won his freedom in 1996 through the efforts of a broad international defense campaign. Copyright © 1996 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


On the eve of Curtis’s trial, the breadth of solidarity with his international defense effort was reflected at a September 4, 1988, rally at the Des Moines Civic Center. More than four hundred people turned out to hear a wide array of fighters discuss Curtis’s case and how it related to their own experiences in struggles.

Among those speaking at that meeting was veteran civil rights and political activist Edna Griffin, who was then seventy-eight years old… .

The international speakers panel also included Susan Mnumzana, at the time secretary for women’s affairs at the United Nations observer mission of the African National Congress of South Africa; novelist and poet Piri Thomas; and Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party.

“Mark Curtis will not get a fair trial,” Barnes told the meeting. “The courtroom is not where innocence and guilt will be decided and it is not where justice will be found.”

“No one in the world is obligated to prove Mark Curtis’s innocence,” Barnes said, pointing to the key political considerations that Curtis’s backers needed to keep in mind when the trial opened September 7. “The presumption of innocence has taken hundreds of years for working people to win. It is not a legal fiction. It is not something that you have the right to pick or choose, depending on what you like, what you identify with, the individual involved.

“This is very recent in human history,” Barnes said. “We shouldn’t take it for granted, because the Des Moines police department, the Polk County prosecutor, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the liberal newspapers, all are trying to take it away. Not only from Mark, but from everyone.”

From the point of view of the U.S. capitalist rulers, Barnes continued, working people are guilty. That’s the presumption. Workers, farmers, and all supporters of democratic rights, on the other hand, cherish the right to presumption of innocence. This is a right that the toilers have fought to wrest from the ruling classes over hundreds of years.

The presumption of innocence, said Barnes, “is one of the most important milestones on the march to human solidarity and to the ability of the great majority of the world to act as fully human beings. No one, I repeat, is obligated to prove Mark Curtis’s innocence.”

For serfs under feudalism, for Blacks under slavery, and for women during most of the history of class-divided society, Barnes noted, there was no such thing as the presumption of innocence. There was, simply, the lord’s, slavemaster’s, or husband’s property.

“It’s not that you are innocent until proven guilty. You are innocent. Innocent,” Barnes said. “This is a country where everything is the opposite. It’s the presumption of guilt that dominates in the ‘democratic’ United States. Saturday night is open season on any young Black man in the United States, on every young Puerto Rican. It’s open season on women much of the time. It’s not the presumption of innocence but the horror of guilt.”

The rulers’ goals in this case are large ones, Barnes explained. “They want cities like Des Moines not to be places where people will fight for social change. They want people like Mark Curtis to quit moving to Des Moines to look for a job.

“But on that they will fail. They want workers in the packing industry, paperworkers, miners, workers of all kinds who will fight, to get the message that there are limits on your fighting.”

The conflict over this frame-up has grown into something bigger than the ruling class was bargaining for, Barnes said. “There are two sides forming on a world scale. This truly will win or lose as an international battle in which the stakes are: Can this frame-up be gotten away with? Or will the attempt to do this to working people at this stage in history cost them more than it’s worth?”

The ruling class didn’t believe that the Curtis defense effort would be able to rally, in a unified way, workers, farmers, Blacks, Latinos, women, elected officials, socialists, communists, and religious figures.

They also misjudged the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance, Barnes said, assuming the socialists would simply view defending Curtis as their own fight, which others could support. “But I think we have found out something in this fight,” Barnes emphasized. “Mark is part of all these supporters. Fellow workers in New Caledonia, fighters in Central America, miners in Nottinghamshire turn to Mark as a brother, as one of them.”

Barnes concluded by explaining that if the international defense effort continues and increases, “There is no way on earth they will succeed in their goal. They will not put Mark Curtis in prison for twenty-five years. They will not get him down on his knees.“
Related articles:
White House renews broad spy powers of Patriot Act
New Zealand meeting protests gov’t frame-up
FBI probe against Somalis targets rights of workers  
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