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ferguson

I

It emerged the Monday before last that young Michael Brown was shot at least six times by the policeman who killed him. Two bullets struck Brown in the head; the remainder riddled his right arm. As indignation burns in Missouri, we must remember not only the facts of this tragic case, but also the wider context that gave rise to it and others like it. Twenty days ago, in Ferguson, a confrontation is said to have begun with the words, ‘[g]et the fuck on the sidewalk’. It ended when the instigator, a white policeman, fired half a dozen slugs into a black youth whose arms were aloft in surrender. Michael Brown had been unarmed. He had done nothing whatsoever to warrant being shot at. For hours, his dead body lay where it had fallen. Meanwhile, the officer responsible was put on paid administrative leave, and his bosses (white, of course, like nearly all of Ferguson’s police) refused to reveal his identity.

The people of Ferguson—a majority of whom are black—were justifiably outraged by the killing itself, by the impunity granted to the policeman, and, more broadly, by the concentration of institutional power in white hands. They took to the streets to protest. In the course of the last two weeks, they have been met with tear gas and stun grenades, with armoured trucks and rubber bullets. Ferguson’s police force, like so many others across the United States, has been militarised to the extent that its officers appear to be embattled soldiers (they are not).

Inevitably, there are those who will not condemn Darren Wilson or his employers for their brutality. They will point to Brown’s alleged involvement in a robbery that took place just minutes before he was killed. Indeed, news broadcasters have made sure to include in their coverage of events a video which purports to show Brown shoving a shop worker. They do so perhaps to invite the thought that there was a connection between the robbery and the shooting, and therefore a justification for the latter. But of course, the robbery—irrespective of who might have committed it—is neither here nor there, and even the chief of police in Ferguson acknowledges that Wilson did not consider Brown to be a suspect at the time of their encounter.

And so it can be said that those who refuse to censure Wilson and his superiors are, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to recognise the following: this fatal altercation, the unlawful shooting of a defenceless, innocent youth, embodied, in tragic fashion, the one-sided power relation which yet subsists in America between black folk and white.

II

And there’s the rub: if we aspire to a full understanding of events in Ferguson, we must look to context and therefore to history. Shamefully, three-quarters of a century after the publication of Native Son, we are still witnessing the effects of what Richard Wright, through the character of Boris Max, so powerfully described in that book as ‘a dislocation of life involving millions of people, a dislocation so vast as to stagger the imagination’. In other words, even today, blacks in America are being crushed beneath the institutional machinery that once had them shackled like animals.

Slavery in its original form is gone, and so too is legally enforced segregation. But it would be a grave mistake to forgive and forget these evils, to dismiss them as belonging in the ancient past. For African Americans continue to suffer tremendously from the legacy of dehumanisation that, as Max averred (and as we all know), had seen them ‘stunted, stripped, and held captive’ by white America, ‘devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights’.

The civil rights movement was successful in so far as it secured for blacks some semblance of legal and political equality. But it did not (and could not, one supposes, have been expected to) defeat the protean scourge of racial discrimination, or the astonishing economic inequality that results therefrom. Hence in 2014, African Americans on the whole remain dreadfully poor if not entirely impoverished. The gulf in household income between blacks and whites has not contracted one whit since the year in which Martin Luther King was killed. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, and are saddled with far more debt. Such indebtedness, crippling as it is, happens to be a structural inevitability. It arises from, and guarantees, the indigence of minorities across the country.

And then, of course, there is the hair-raising relationship between African Americans and the criminal justice [sic] system of the United States, which imprisons more people than any other on the planet. Incredibly, almost one tenth of the world’s inmates are African Americans, with no fewer than 900,000 of them languishing in prisons across the Land of the Free. This statistic is no accident; it has been engineered by successive governments, largely under the guise of a so-called War on Drugs. Such a war disproportionately targets blacks and other poor minorities, whose destitution often impels them to sell or consume drugs (though not at significantly higher rates than whites). And such mass incarceration is immensely profitable: a great many American inmates are held in privatised prisons, where their labour is sold to rapacious corporations. No incentive exists for politicians to end this variation on slavery (or the conditions which bring it about), since the enslavers share their interests, and help to fund their lusts for power. And so it is that black men who cannot find employment in society can have a degraded form of it thrust upon them in prison.

Crucially, African Americans must—to a higher degree than any other group—contend with all the deliberate horrors of police brutality. Innumerable blacks—men and women—have been mistreated in custody, or on the over-policed streets of their own neighbourhoods. And a huge number have been slain, from Diallo and Dorismond to Eric Garner and Ezell Ford. Their killers tend to enjoy a revolting impunity.

III

Given all this, is it any wonder that the latent indignation of Ferguson’s black community was stirred into life by the killing of Michael Brown? That community, like many others across the nation, sees through the illusion of racial parity. It sees instead what lies behind: the institutional machinery of the United States arrayed against it at every turn.

And so, as a militant band of policemen quenches protest in Missouri, we must remind ourselves that neither the police nor the National Guard are ‘the real agencies that keep the public peace.’ For, as Boris Max unassailably said, ‘public peace is the act of public trust; it is the faith that all are secure and will remain secure’. In Ferguson, as in many other towns and cities, such faith does not exist among African Americans, and understandably too.

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3 thoughts on “Righteous Fury in Ferguson

  1. Greetings Colossus: This issue is so volatile and divisive it’s hard to comment on. I’m a blue-eyed white man and I live in San Francisco, where there’s more sense of inclusiveness of individuals from all kinds of backrounds. I have black friends, and friends from other races, and friends of different sexual orientations. But of course there are still racial tensions at play under the surface. Tension under the surface will always be where there is difference and otherness, not just in race, sexual orientation, but in mentalities and temperaments and sensibilities. Difference and otherness is part of the human condition, which if aired out on an equal playing ground enriches humanity and makes it far more interesting. It’s boring when everyone looks the same and acts the same.

    One thing as a white man living in America I feel always looming over me is this huge guilt I’m supposed to feel for racial slavery in the past. It’s like I had something personally to do with it, as if in a past life, in another incarnation, I was a slave-owner holding a whip. I couldn’t help being born with blue eyes and white skin. Maybe in another country it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But here in America, presto, I’m a “blue-eyed devil”, part of the oppressive white establishment which from the beginning has enslaved black people. I’ve never really understood how I’m supposed to relate to this. My own forebears are Lithuanian-Polish, farm people, never owned slaves in America. When my forebears immigrated and first arrived in this country, they ended up settling in Chicago, and worked in the old stockyards there, a hard life in miserable conditions, pretty much slaves themselves, as represented in Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 novel, “The Jungle.” To this day I have family in Chicago.

    The only way out of this quandary I think is by beginning with ourselves as individuals and our own personal experiences. I share a little about myself, to show you where I’m at, as an individual in relation to other individuals. To begin with race as the first and dominant premise in talking about this tragic occurrence and others like them leads only back into the now ironclad jargon which has guilt-by-association built into it and inevitably pits sides tribally against each other based on appearance. If I started with an opinion of the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the resulting fallout and protests, a category, a stereotype if you will, is waiting to snatch me up and make use of me. It has grown that strong. A lot of good people are silent for a reason. The language which is now used to talk about race in America has itself become institutionalized and the oppressor. One has to be brave and original to get through.

    • Dear John,

      Thank you for your thoughts, the sincerity and eloquence of which are as ever clearly evident. I completed this piece about ten or eleven days ago, just after news of the outcome of the independent autopsy had filtered through. One of the reasons for my taking such a long time to post it was because I felt as though I should not have focused on race to the near-complete exclusion of class (which is the other relevant factor here). I didn’t feel that what I had written was sufficiently nuanced. And so I was moved to add to the text a convoluted postscript in which I stressed that the issues of race and class are tightly intertwined, and so on and so forth. But when I published the article I decided to do so without including that postscript, because I believed that it departed and detracted from the message I wanted to convey (a message that I believe still reflects the reality in much of the United States). Such a postscript functioned as nothing more than an apology for confronting the issue of race, and in the end I decided that I did not want to apologise for that.

      America is not a post-racial society, so we cannot employ a post-racial vocabulary when we talk about America. To do so would be to ignore and demean the lived experiences of an enormous swathe of the population. We ought to recognise that certain groups continue, on the whole, to suffer systemic violence that has its twisted roots deep in history. In the case of African Americans, that history is one not just of enslavement, but of segregation, ghettoisation, repression (see, for example, COINTELPRO), mass incarceration and police brutality. Surely it is this collection of interlinking horrors which by and large explains the (unique) plight of many black people in the United States. Thus the primary function of discussions of this nature should be the illumination of these issues and their legacies (with a view to laying the ‘equal playing ground’ of which you speak), rather than the assuagement of any guilt which you or others may be made to feel.

      There are a great many kinds of personal experience which cannot be divorced or considered apart from the wider socioeconomic conditions under which such experience occurs. Sometimes that experience is (1) negative, and (2) generalisable across class or racial lines. This is not the fault of the victims. It happens not because the victims want to be divisive for the sake of being divisive, but because power structures all too often operate in discriminatory ways. In my opinion, it is precisely when we refuse to see this (or are prevented from doing so) that we allow ourselves to be pitted against each other. And who ultimately benefits from such tension, if not the institutions which foment it?

  2. Hi Colossus:

    I get what you’ve written, the good points you make. Maybe journalistically this subject would benefit from a two-pronged approach, one side of the story developed on the ground, from the point of view of actual individuals, letting them speak for themselves, and then zooming out to the broader sweep and the larger truths you attempt to convey. Sometimes it seems to me you try to pack too much into some of your statements, where indeed there is a call for a more careful handling and nuanced approach. (I still hold it true that you have a literary gift, but sometimes in subjects you take on your literary gift seems out of place. Sometimes I exclaim, “Oh! potent phrasing!” I find myself stepping back and admiring a literary flourish, like looking at an interesting painting at a gallery, in the midst of a highly serious subject, where real suffering and rage and injustice is involved. Ah, if only I could lure you away, into terrain where you just let your literary gift run free and explore itself creatively… Anyway, sometimes a plainer, more journalistic approach and tone, closer to the ground, even deliberately less artful, makes the prose go down more smoothly, depending on what the subject matter is. Sometimes you bring down the hammer of the gods too soon, asserting statements which have a roll of thunder, instead of being a good judge and holding the gavel, only using it when need be in the development of the whole story, arguments from all sides first established.)

    I wish I could’ve recorded and sent to you conversations I’ve had in the past with my black friends, about race, their upbringing, what they’ve encountered and experienced, down to the self-sabotaging and self-destructive elements going on in their own communities. It’s a huge problem. As we can see, even if things settle down and there appears some semblance of peace and getting along of the races, it only takes an incident such as the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, to unleash the fury once again, and to show how far the divide between races still is.

    Good political writing not only collects facts and arranges them to reveal truths but also creates a forum where individuals from diverse backgrounds feel able to step forward and share openly their real feelings and thoughts, without hesitation and fear. Honestly, after my first reading of your piece here, I hesitated… I feared to speak… You have to figure others who have read your piece feel the same way. It’s part of the job of the political writer to make the readers feel comfortable, their whole humanity accepted, first non-judgementally. Every individual has their angle, their own story, and every story is valid and has its woven place in the human tapestry. Facts are empty, just a bunch of big boulders and stones being pushed around, without the voices of diverse subjectivities to breathe life into them. Only then, when that is allowed and is done, will the big boulders and stones of a piece soften, shrink, turn to seeds, sprout and begin to grow into flowers, plants and trees.

    I should end, Colossus (both of you), by saying I sincerely enjoy interacting with you. I do feel, personally, I can express myself more openly to you, because of our history now of interacting, and my sense of the fundamentally good human beings you are. I respect your intelligence – in many respects greater than mine (I don’t have the patience to do what you do) and I admire your literary talent. Ah, if only I could lure you away…!

    Your friend,

    John

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