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.
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.
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.