A Death in Ferguson: The State’s Message, and Our Message Back
“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both.”
– Frederick Douglass
State violence claimed another victim August 9 with the police killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old man from Ferguson, Missouri.
Michael Brown’s death has raised issues ranging from racial segregation and economic injustice to the evolution of a heavily armed, quasi-military form of policing in US cities and suburbs. This new face of law enforcement is what Americans saw most dramatically on their TVs, smartphones, and laptops as the protests in Ferguson grew over the following days and weeks.
Yet, militarization of policing is nothing new—it’s been policy in the US for at least 40 years, going back to the introduction of the first SWAT teams in the early ‘70s, and has steadily been exported to other countries as well. The culture that’s been allowed to develop in police departments is also an issue, but let’s face it—”reforming” the police has been tried time and again without success.
If you’re poor, non-white, or, these days, just non-wealthy, the cop is never our friend. Only a fundamentally different political system, that gives communities control of their political and economic future, removing it from the hands of the so-called authorities and their patrons in the 1%, will give us meaningful change. We can only accomplish this by resisting authority—by rejecting the parameters set for us, stepping outside the framework of the State and the capitalist system, and creating a new, directly democratic political and economic order.
The last thing that anti-racist activists should think about doing as the Brown case unfolds is to place their faith in the White House, Congress, or the State of Missouri. These institutions aren’t giving us much reason to do so. Against the death and repression visited upon Ferguson, America’s liberals and progressives offer only a series of cosmetic gestures that have no chance of changing the balance of power in our communities.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, gesturing to the Ferguson community while defending herself from the wrath of the law-and-order lobby, tactfully suggests that police be allowed to acquire military equipment, so long as they store them at National Guard depots and ask when they want to use it. Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia—another Democrat—says he will introduce a bill requiring that local police be certified to use the equipment. The Obama administration is “reviewing” Washington’s policy of supplying local police with military-class weapons and armor, investigating whether it monitors their use closely enough, and whether the cops are properly trained to handle their toys.
Ever so slightly further to the left, the Dream Defenders, who have been protesting Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws for the past year, released their list of demands, including:
- Requiring police to wear front-facing cameras when they serve with departments with records of racial disparity in stops, arrests, and killings;
- Suspension of police officers who discharge their weapon on an unarmed person, and their name and policing histories made available to the public;
- Removal of tanks and tear gas from the police arsenal;
- Requiring police personnel to be representative of the communities they serve; and
- Assigning real power to citizen review boards.
The task of the State is, and has always been, to protect and serve the propertied elite. Even if every one of the measures cited above was enacted, the State could easily furnish the police, the FBI, the DEA, and the rest of its forces with the means to sidestep them.
And even that would be optimistic, because we already know the drill: As the events in Ferguson recede and Congress, returning from its summer break, finds more pressing matters to attend to, political momentum to address the problems of police militarization will dissipate. Once the White House’s reviews and investigations are complete, they’ll be released to little fanfare and filed away for fear of incurring the wrath of Republicans, law-and-order Democrats, the Pentagon, and assorted military contractors.
Meanwhile, the familiar litany of demonization has already begun:
- Obfuscation: The city’s and the police department’s version of events keeps changing, and they have released information selectively in order to manipulate public opnion.
- Blame the victim: Mike Brown was a thug, a “giant” who probably got what he deserved.
- “Rioting” cancels out state culpability: People who “riot” and “loot” aren’t “real” activists—and the more they do, the more they delegitimize their own anger.
- Beware of “outsiders”: The “real” people of Ferguson don’t want any trouble; the unrest is being brewed up by “out-of-towners” including “anarchists.” (The New York Times has repeated this assertion without speaking to any actual anarchists. We’re proud to note the movement’s commitment to Ferguson’s struggle.) (
This is how the State operates whenever its actions spark outrage. It wants us to believe that the oppression and violence the people of Ferguson experience is only an isolated instance, not the latest chapter in a long and bloody story of oppression. It wants to stigmatize all but the most mainstream, right-wing and center-right political viewpoints, and all but the most passive—and dismissible—forms of protest. Above all, it wants to drive a wedge between the people of Ferguson and those in other communities, preventing the development of any solidarity against their common forms of oppression (“It is outsiders who are mostly coming in and destroying this peaceful community,” Cpl. Justin Wheetly of the Missouri Stater Highway Patrol was quoted as saying). Why? Because there are plenty of reasons to think that a new movement for social and economic justice could be Michael Brown’s legacy.
Reportedly, the “outsiders” come to Ferguson from all across the country: Chicago, Brooklyn, Washington, San Francisco, Austin, Des Moines, and Huntsville, Alabama, to name a few. Far from delegitimizing the protests, this underlines why the entire country has been focused on the events in this St. Louis suburb. African-American communities throughout the country have now been waiting through two recessions for the rising tide that is supposed to lift their boat. Middle-class households are still wondering why the financial barons were bailed out after capsizing the economy, whereas they’ve been left to recover on their own or sink into poverty. The common thread is the State’s increasing preference, in times of economic unrest and racial anger, to resort to force in the first instance whenever it sees itself threatened.
Of course, if the “outside agitator” card doesn’t work to swing public opinion away from the victims of State violence, the authorities can always try the “riot and looting” line. But there are two problems with this. The first has to do with geography. The people of Ferguson live in a ghetto—that is, they are sequestered, racially and economically, by the State, the capitalist system, and their enforcers. They live under constant threat of the next crackdown, the next random death at the hands of police. Where else do they have to go to vent their anger when they would pay a heavy price in police violence for any attempt to take it to the source of their subjugation?
The second problem is the same one that oppressed groups have encountered throughout American history: To effect change, you first have to get people’s attention. Peaceful protest didn’t secure gay rights in this country (to the extent they exist yet). The movement that did so was triggered by a riot, retaliation against police, and the trashing of a small gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969. Prior to Stonewall, decades of peaceful petition for rights for homosexuals had achieved exactly nothing. Likewise, if the youth of Ferguson hadn’t chosen, in their anger at Michael Brown’s death, to fight back against a heavily armed and violent police force and disrupt the infrastructure of their prison, no one—not Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, nor any other mainstream political figure—would have succeeded in making their plight visible to the rest of America. Armchair Nation simply wouldn’t have wanted to know.
Faced with a degree of anger and an assortment of grievances they don’t want to address, the authorities are circling the wagons. Indications are that the prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, has already mapped out a strategy that will result in little or no punishment for the officer who shot Brown. The governor, a Democrat, has refused calls—from the New York Times, even—to remove McCulloch. The nation’s two top African-American officials, Pres. Barak Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, have confined themselves mainly to calls for calm and assurances that they feel the community’s pain. The unmistakable message, to a community that lacks decent schools, decent housing, and, for most residents, a chance for a future, is that nothing much will change.
What message should we send in return? To start with, we need to be clear that we don’t buy attempts to blame the victim—or his community. We won’t allow the State to divide us into “good” protesters and “bad” protesters, or persuade us to do so ourselves. We won’t accept a political order that values private property above human life. Next, we need to pose the issue clearly: The State-capitalist system, not the police, are the root of the problem; endemic racism didn’t begin with a violent and bigoted police force, but as a cultural and economic prop of the State.
The way to address the problem is to resist efforts to reassert State power, by way of either the police or the National Guard; to build ties that enable us to organize in our communities for the long term, as the people of Ferguson are doing; to form bonds of mutual support across the country; and to begin to create our own social and economic resources, independent of the State. A good start is for communities across the country to establish their own Copwatch programs: letting the police know we’re policing them and that these streets are our streets, not theirs. Our goal must be to take back our lives and our communities. We must allow ourselves to imagine the freedom and justice inherent in a world without police. We must work toward a stateless society. We must build a real democracy in which all of us participate directly.
Critical Reading List on #Ferguson
In Defense of the Ferguson Riots | Robert Stephens II | Jacobin
The Ferguson Riots are Not a Shift Away from Peace They’re a Challenge to Violence | by Natasha Lennard | Vice News
This is Why We’re Mad about the Shooting of Mike Brown | by Kara Brown | Jezebel
Hey, Step Back with the Riot Shaming | by Mask Magazine
The Making of Outside Agitators | by Crimethinc
What They Mean when They Say Peace | by Crimethinc
Ferguson in Context | Counterpunch