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Reflections on Ferguson

I have spent much of my academic career researching and writing about the Civil Rights Movement. Today, I am heartbroken, and I believe my greatest heroes would be too — Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., are all collectively turning in their graves. My heart breaks for America because it feels like the struggle, and sacrifice of countless civil rights activists have in part been futile.

On November 25, 2014 I woke up feeling battered. My Ambien induced REM sleep had done nothing to assuage the anger that seemed to be consuming me. Like many, the previous evening, I waited with bated breath to hear Robert McCulloch deliver the grand jury’s verdict about whether St. Louis County saw fit to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. And I watched the streets erupt as the inevitable happened.

I was angry about the verdict. I had grown up hearing people quote Sol Wachtler — the New York State judge who famously said that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich. If indictments were so easily acquired, what happened here?

I was angry that after hearing this verdict, protestors were being tear-gassed. Where was I?

In the media frenzy that followed, I saw a visual manifestation of what the Kerner Report had revealed in 1968 that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Were we moving backwards — or had we just never really moved forward?

I became almost obsessed with my social media networks. How were other people reacting? My social media news feeds ranged from comments expressing disgust and rage, and using the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, to status updates calling protestors savages. I was admittedly consumed by my own self-righteous narcissism, why didn’t everyone see the media broadcasts of Ferguson the same way I did?

When I look at the streets of Ferguson I see political outrage, pain, structural inequalities, and the militarization on public space, along with racism, a broken criminal justice system, poorly trained police officers, and poor community relations programs.

Why were some so surprised by people’s outrage to this verdict and what it represented? The militarization of our society has gotten so bad that law enforcement can harass, psychically harm, and even kill — and not be punished. What had we not learned from history? Police brutality was at the center of the large scale protests and civil disobedience in the streets of New York in 1935, 1943, and 1964, and the streets of South Central California in 1992. Police brutality continues to be an unaddressed quagmire, and historically has only been discussed by the public in masse after mass uprisings. I saw these protests as inevitable and as necessary.

As I remained plugged into various sources of media, I became more appalled. I realized that while I was mad about the verdict and police brutality, among many things, what most disgusted me was the ways in which people were talking about Ferguson.

Savages

In the past two days, my blood boils every time I hear or see someone call protestors savages. The morning after the verdict, I responded to an individual’s Facebook status update that called Ferguson protestors savages. All I said was that they should be cautious about how they used the word savages. The person responded with a definition of savage: “fierce, violent, and uncontrolled.” While I did not respond because based on the other reactionary comments that followed I realized my energies would be better used arguing with my 3 year old about the fact that he must wear a coat. Nonetheless, what was interesting was that the poster defined the word savage as an adjective. However, in their political deployment of the word, they used it as a noun. The word savage has been historically used to call racialized minorities primitive and uncivilized. Thus, in their defense of the use of the word savage, they failed to recognize the political and historical connotations of calling primarily Black protestors savages.

It was this exchange that made me realize that what those engaged in discussion of the events in Ferguson need to talk about — is just how we are talking about Ferguson. Language is living; the significance of words is not always found in my [ex] Facebook friend’s online dictionary. The meaning of words is shaped in and by cultural context. Thus, in this case the deployment of the word savage to describe Black protestors was clearly both malicious and racist.

Riots

People are calling the strategic violent protests in Ferguson riots. Why riots? What is a riot? Riots typically involve vandalism and the destruction of both public and private property. We all know well that capitalism does not like damage to the means of production. Thus, riots are demonized as irrational modes of protest that are really ploys for poor people to loot — that is, steal and vandalize their own neighborhoods.

Instead, I see the protests in Ferguson as a rational response to systemic oppression. These are not riots. This is what rebellion looks like. However, to frame the actions of protestors in Ferguson, (and now in cities across the United States) as rebellion would give their actions legitimacy. Thus, here the deployment of the word riot is strategic, and is being used, as it always has been historically, to discredit people who exercise agency by going outside of traditional electoral politics and conventional means of acquiring justice. It should be noted that this verdict was not just symbolic — it was unequivocal evidence that the “right” ways to acquire justice do not always work, particularly when you are challenging the state and its agents.

Murder and Systemic Violence

I’m also concerned about how we chose to not talk about Ferguson. I have continually heard media pundits, among others refer to the killing of Michael Brown or the death of Michael Brown. We must dispense with the passive voice. Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Every time we talk about what happened, we must say that Brown was murdered; we can only hope that the weight of this word will weigh heavy on our societal conscience.

It has also been a daunting task explaining systemic violence to people. Iris Marion Young argues that violence is an important way in which oppression occurs. Along with Young, scholars such as Manning Marable note the difference between random acts of violence and systemic violence. If, and when the public discusses police brutality, it is usually framed using the highly individualized language of “bad apples” (referring to lone wolf police agents). However, as Young notes, violence is a social practice. If a subaltern group lives in reasonable fear of facing physical bodily harm, this is systemic. If women, queer-identified folk, and people of color face a statistical reality that their bodily integrity is at risk on a regular basis, merely for being themselves — that is systemic violence.

In order to highlight systematic violence, here are some highlights from the years that followed the Rodney King beating, subsequent police acquittal for this crime, and the civil unrest that followed the tragedy.

In 1999, Amadou Diallo was murdered. The West African man, with no criminal record was killed by police officers after they had fired 41 gunshots into his body. All four New York City police officers were acquitted of second degree murder.

In 2000, a Haitian American Patrick Dorismond, who was unarmed, was murdered by an undercover New York City police officer. In this case too, a grand jury did not indict the officer; the grand jury claimed it was accident.

In 2003, Orlando Barlow, who was unarmed and surrendering to Las Vegas Nevada police officers on his knees, was murdered by a police officer, Brian Hartman. In this case, like the others, the police officer’s actions were deemed legitimate.

In 2004, Timothy Stansbury, who was unarmed and had no criminal record was murdered at 19 years old in Brooklyn, New York by a police officer who had admitted it was a mistake. Once again, a grand jury failed to indict, arguing that this too was just a tragic accident.

In 2005, Aaron Campbell, who was unarmed was murdered by a police officer in Portland, Oregon. And yet again, a grand jury cleared the police officer, Ronald Frashour, of criminal charges.

In 2006, Sean Bell, who was unarmed was murdered in Queens, New York at his own Bachelor Party. Police fired over 50 bullets into his car. Bell was dead, and two of his friends were wounded. All of the officers involved in the shooting were found not guilty.

In 2009, Oscar Grant was murdered on New Year’s Day in Oakland, California. Transit police officer, Johannes Mehserle shot Grant, while he has lying face down, with his hands behind his back on a train platform. The officer admitted to using his gun, when he meant to use his Taser. The “mistake” cost Grant his life — and Mehserle served 11 months in jail.

In 2010, Steven Eugene Washington, an unarmed autistic man, was murdered by police officers in Los Angeles, California. Originally, the police chief ruled the shooting justified, but it was then overturned by the civilian commission. However, the officers involved were not imprisoned, and the city settled a lawsuit that paid Washington’s mother $950,000.

In 2011, Reggie Doucet, who was unarmed, was murdered by a police officer in Los Angeles, California. Again, the use of deadly force was ruled justified.

In 2012, Kendrec McDade, who was unarmed, was murdered by police officers in Pasadena, California. Again, while the family recently received monetary damages totaling approximately $2 million dollars, the police officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

In 2014, Eric Garner, who was unarmed was murdered by police officers in Staten Island, New York, when placed in a deadly chokehold that caused Garner to have a heart attack. The medical examiner did verify that the chokehold was the cause of death. Garner called out (on video) that he couldn’t breathe six times, before the chokehold caused his death. Thus far, the officers involved, Justin Damico and Daniel Pantaleo, have not been indicted on any charges.

Now, this is by no means an exhaustive list of murders of unarmed Black men by police officers; this is also not meant to not recognize the regular harassment made possible by stop and frisk policies, and other forms of violence faced by marginalized groups, particularly Black men.

This list and certainly more comprehensive studies of bias crimes demonstrate that there is systemic violence in the United States. Michael Brown and countless other Black men have not been murdered by bad apples. Their deaths are attributable to a system that allows it to continue.

Iris Marion Young also argues that marginalization is the most dangerous form of oppression; when a group is marginalized as a result of their perceived lack of productivity and contribution to society, their lives are, valued less and are expendable. Black male subjectivity is seen through a lens of discourses situated along class, racial, and gendered lines — Black males are disproportionately seen as poor and deviant. They are seen as prone to criminality. Under this specter, not only are Black males subject to greater scrutiny by law enforcement, but they are likely to be presumed guilty of crimes. Therefore, when Black men are gunned down, choked to death — murdered by police, they are seen as victims of their own criminality. Had you not been stealing those cigars, you wouldn’t have been shot.

In a particularly upsetting online social media exchange, one person said to me, “while he [Michael Brown] did not deserve to die, he was a very bad man.” A bad man — had I missed something in the news? This was an 18 year old college-bound kid, who at worst stole some cigars and resisted arrest [and the latter part is up for serious debate]. Even if we accept this scenario as fact, surely our penalty for theft and resisting is not death. Again, part of the problem I see is the language people use to talk about what happened in Ferguson. Why was Michael Brown a “bad man?” For many people, whom do not even see themselves as racist — but make no mistake they are — Michael Brown conveniently becomes a “bad man;” transforming him into a “bad man” allows people to legitimize the injustice of his murder.

Michael Brown’s murder highlights the intersections of marginalization and systemic violence. Systemic violence continues in part because its victims are marginalized groups of people. That agents of law enforcement can murder young Black men, among others, and face no punishment is what buttresses systemic violence.

Moving forward

Late on November 25th, 2014 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein released a statement:

I am deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of young African Americans who die in encounters with police officers, as well as the disproportionate number of African Americans in US prisons and the disproportionate number of African Americans on Death Row…It is clear that, at least among some sectors of the population, there is a deep and festering lack of confidence in the fairness of the justice and law enforcement systems,…I urge the US authorities to conduct in-depth examinations into how race-related issues are affecting law enforcement and the administration of justice, both at the federal and state levels.

Moving forward, cases like Brown’s cannot just be framed as killings, but as what they are — murders. “Bad apples” flourish amidst fertilized orchards — if our criminal justice system does not punish murder as long as the perpetrators wear blue and kill brown people, the pattern will continue.

Moving forward, we must engage the vernacular of murder, and refrain from the use of passive phrases such as: “he was killed” or “in the death of Michael Brown.” Michael Brown was not a victim of poor circumstances or any other such euphemism. He was yet another citizen murdered by a state apparatus that has been given license to murder.

Moving forward, yes, people should react to unpunished murderers with outrage, and their rational political responses are not riots — they are rebellions.

Moving forward, and when people exercise agency and protest using violence — that is by embracing the tactics learned in the fields and not in their masters house — they are not savages — savage is the society that cannot see the pain in their eyes, and the system that caused it all.

Also for you:

Angela Jones

  • Thanks Angela for a moving and insightful post, sharing your anguish and insights. I think especially important is your far from complete listing of the highly visible cases of the murder of individual young black men at the hands of the police. Each individual case, I think it is important to point out, may not have in fact been murder, a fair justice system should have determined whether or not that was the case, but that the pattern of unpunished police violence repeats itself, and that all the cases lead to little or no penalty, indicates that there is a systemic pattern of unrecognized murder and a system of injustice.

    Outrage is understandable and predictable, especially because this visible manifestation of systemic violence repeats itself in the lives of so many young men and the people who love them in cases that are not publicly visible.

    Yet, I am not sure that the violent response is really a rebellion, and even if it is, I am not all convinced that this is a way to change the tragic situation, pragmatic pacifist that I am. I fear that the rebellious violence stokes the fires of racism. As I think you know when you review the remarks of your (former) Facebook friends.

    And momentary despair should not be decisive. In your writing you document the accomplishments of the long civil rights movement. I wonder if the present events may even indicate that the movement is still pushing forward. Certainly the police violence that is now in broad public view is nothing new. But now it’s visible, as is the strength of those who protest. Racism unobserved by those who are not its immediate victims is most pernicious. In Ferguson and beyond, this is no longer the case, contributing to the advance of the movement.

  • Danielle Aris

    I found this piece remarkably powerful in illustrating just how broken our “justice system” is and how broken our “American Democracy” has become. Social injustice is deep rooted in our society and until more of our conversations are on how to repair these systemic problems rather than pointing the finger I am skeptical on the reparation of our nation. Thank you for such a passionate, well written, thought provoking piece.

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