Understanding the US’ violent response to indignation over Ferguson
Published Thursday, November 27, 2014
Both liberal and conservative factions in the United States have largely interpreted the upheaval in Ferguson to be an anomaly, as though this small and discounted city on fire is a universe of rage existing without context, without association with the deliberately and customarily overlooked surrounding trauma affecting marginalized groups.
This distorted translation of events not only allows them to ignore the heinous, structural crimes against Black communities, but empowers them to such a degree that they prescribe what they argue should be the legitimate response – if their contentions allow any at all – to what is nothing less than unfettered police brutality and judicial discrimination.
Following every tremor in the nation we witness the liberal rise, after what can only be described as a scripted routine, to demand calm, and to call for a resolution that would incorporate “both sides,” as though institutionalized state violence, in the form of police brutality, is at all proportionate to resistance as carried out by the native. Those who in any way confront the authoritarian warfare state’s neoliberal social order, that which litters the earth with bullet-ridden Black bodies, are expeditiously met with violence, and the violence of the neoliberal state is merciless as its aim is not only to misrepresent resistance but to cripple it by whatever means are at its disposal – and those means are many. The bloody fruits of the ‘Manichean world,’ as described by Frantz Fanon, revolutionary, philosopher, and psychiatrist who was a member of the Front de Libération National (FLN) during the Algerian revolution, have segregated the native and confine and ravage the native’s identity so that they are categorized and viewed, fundamentally, as animals. Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks that the native becomes trapped by what he describes as being colonial vocabulary, which disrupts and devastates the native’s selfhood, and which is itself an act of violence. In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon writes that it is the right of the native "to wreck the colonial world," and that it is “precisely at the moment [the native] realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory”:
“The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression. In capitalist societies the educational system, whether lay or clerical, the structure of moral reflexes handed down from father to son… all these aesthetic expressions of respect for the established order serve to create around the exploited person an atmosphere of submission and of inhibition which lightens the task of policing considerably.”
Fanon’s every multilayered description of colonialism is applicable today, especially in reference to the liberal bourgeoisie, who undoubtedly remain emissaries and “partisans of the colonial system,” benefiting from the colonial system. Despite the government only “[speaking] the language of pure force” the liberal introduces non-violence and the idea of compromise to the native, for the sole reason that resistance, which Fanon describes as being like “a hurricane,” threatens them as much as the system of colonialism, as they discover “that the masses may destroy everything.” This non-violence, Fanon writes, “signifies to the intellectual and economic elite of the colonized country that the bourgeoisie has the same interests as they and that it is therefore urgent and indispensable to come to terms for the public good. Non-violence is an attempt to settle the colonial problem around a green baize table…”
In 1966 at the University of California, Berkeley, Stokely Carmichael, civil rights activist and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), gave his monumental Black Power speech wherein he echoed Frantz Fanon’s argument, that the colonial world is Manichean, “That most people in this country see things black and white.” This Manichean worldview produces white fear, where even the landscape in which Black people exist is intimidating to white supremacy and its adherents. Due to this apprehension white people send in the police, Carmichael argues, and so we find that “the first time a Black man jumps, that white man’s going to shoot him.” When it comes to non-violence Carmichael maintains that the tactic, as he sees it as a method rather than a principle, is only mentioned “when Black people move to defend themselves against white people”:
“Black people cut themselves every night in the ghetto – nobody talks about non-violence. White people beat up black people every day – nobody talks about non-violence. But as soon as Black people start to move, the double standard comes into being. You can’t defend yourself. You show me a Black man who advocates aggressive violence who would be able to live in this country… We must wage a psychological battle on the right for Black people to define themselves as they see fit, and organize themselves as they see fit.”
Carmichael, similar to Fanon, discusses the language of oppression in Black Power, describing “a psychological struggle” surrounding “whether or not Black people have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction,” concluding that despite this they will not wait “for white people to sanction Black Power” because, as he would later write in 1967, “those who have the right to define are the masters of the situation."
Ferguson, and beyond
The hurricane that Fanon described in The Wretched of the Earth established itself, not only in Ferguson, but across many parts of the United States as a direct result of the actions of an unfettered police state. And so, in an act of resistance, protesters in the small Missouri town, and beyond, have flooded the streets in response to the grand jury’s outlandish decision not to indict Darren Wilson, and the rage and trauma is palpable.
“My bones are tired. My soul is tired. After the jury decision I couldn’t stop crying and I wasn’t just crying for me, I’m crying for Mike Brown’s mother who stood there and let out that wail because she realized like the rest of us that no change is coming and the man who killed her baby was sleeping safe at night while she stood out there without him by her side,” Nikki, a Ferguson native who wishes to have her last name withheld for security reasons, told Al- Akhbar English soon after it was revealed that the grand jury would not be indicting Darren Wilson. This is the pain brought about by white supremacy’s clearing of Wilson in the monstrous shooting death of the young and unarmed Michael Brown.
Rebecca Pierce, a recent graduate of the University of California Santa Cruz where she studied Film and Digital Media, currently living in the Bay Area and working as a freelance filmmaker and independent journalist with a focus on police brutality in the US and Israel/Palestine, tells Al-Akhbar English that Ferguson motivated her to get involved with anti-mass incarceration and police brutality work in her own community:
“A lot of my grandmother's family lives in a several of the little towns around Ferguson. They used to live in a town called Kinloch, but like a lot of the Black community, were displaced through eminent domain and spread around the area.
I was actually in St. Louis County for a family reunion the weekend that Mike Brown was killed. My 12-year-old cousin was down the street when it happened. The next night I witnessed the massive police mobilization in Ferguson when my cousins and I went out to get food and found ourselves surrounded by police in all directions. Here is how I described it then: "The area, which like most of the county already had an intense police presence, was under full scale militarized police occupation. We saw cops in riot gear, some armed with assault rifles, blocking off traffic and speeding through the area in huge groups. I saw what seemed like dozens of STL county K9 units rushing towards where a vigil was being held. We heard rumors of people shooting at the police and witnessed what looked like massive police response to looting incidents at a local shopping center. Helicopters circled overhead, it looked like they were following people with spotlights. Since coming back I've gotten involved with some of the protests to stop Urban Shield, which is a massive police militarization training and expo that happens in the Bay Area every year. This year organizers were able to stop Urban Shield from coming back to Oakland, which is a big victory. I've also started reporting on some community organizing around police brutality cases in the Bay Area, which doesn't always get the attention it deserves. I think what is happening to Ferguson is really just a microcosm of what is happening across the nation, and really around the world. Over and over we are seeing that certain people's right to property valued over black and brown folks right to live. We see these massive crackdowns in response to the smallest unarmed community resistance. This is of course something that dates back to the birth of this nation, and I think it is something that every generation has to struggle with."
Pierce, who identifies as Black and Jewish, describes Ferguson as “fitting into a larger awakening of young people of color over the last few years, especially in regards to mass incarceration and police brutality.”:
I know for at least my own family this has been a major turning point. People who weren't politicized at all have been really radicalized from what they've seen and experienced. Even those not involved in the protests have seem the impact the police crackdown has had on their community. I'm not sure what comes next, but it is increasingly clear that inaction is no longer an option.
Pierce recently returned from the African Heritage Delegation to Palestine, with Interfaith Peace-Builders, shows the intersectionality between marginalized groups. Palestinians knew what was transpiring in Ferguson and extended their “solidarity with the Black struggle in the US”:
“Having spent time in both areas, the oppressions may have different roots, but the struggle is the same. I know my family in St Louis County was really moved by the advice and solidarity they were getting from West Bank protesters when all of this started, and they are looking for ways to return that solidarity. I think at times like these those connections are vital, not just between black people and Palestinians, but between all these different struggles that are going on right now. So much of our oppression relies on us being isolated from each other and feeling alone, so as far as I'm concerned these connections are themselves a form of resistance.”
Confronting white supremacy
Patrisse Cullors, executive director of Dignity and Power Now, and co-founder of Black Lives Matter along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, and co-organizer of the Black Life Matters ride to St. Louis, tells Al-Akhbar English that Black Lives Matter was created after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and that it is “a call to action, a political project, and a network that centers Black resilience at the forefront.” Cullors, who is currently in Cuba, says that people in Cuba “stand with the protesters in Ferguson and stand with Black folks in the United States,” that they believe racism to be alive in well in America, and “that it is important for folks’ rights to be protected while they are fighting for such historic demands… Folks in St. Louis have stated time and time again, that the issues in Ferguson go beyond Ferguson, because racism exist throughout the entire country.”:
“We must indict America. The indictment of one officer will not get us out of the horrible mess this country is in. Now is the time for folks across the country and world to push back on the idea that law enforcement is synonymous to public safety. We need to create new and radical demands that push for true public safety: Housing, jobs, and access to healthy food.”
Before the grand jury’s decision was publicized many were awaiting a blow against their humanity, their selfhood, their Black identity. Writer William C. Anderson tweeted the following, in parts, on 22 November:
“There’s a feeling in many Black stomachs across the US currently. Many of us had this feeling passed down directly from slavery. It’s the anticipation of gross disappointment. It’s waiting to hear once again that you are considered subhuman. It’s the norm. You don’t get your hopes up because you realize the realities of Black life. Expecting the worse and still knowing you’ll feel bad.”
In an interview with Al-Akhbar English, Joshua Saleem, Peace Education Program Director at the American Friends Service Committee in St. Louis and who grew up in a municipality neighboring Ferguson, has worked in the Ferguson-Florissant school district providing conflict resolution workshops for freshmen and sophomores at McCluer High School for the past two years. Saleem has witnessed a dramatic shift in community consciousness following the death of Michael Brown:
“[His death] has sparked a movement to lift up the value of black life in the United States, particularly as it relates to the issue of policing in black communities. For years, small municipalities in North St. Louis County have profited of the oppression of the poor and people of color through racial profiling, traffic tickets, bench warrants, and court fines. The Mike Brown tragedy has exposed this unjust system and brought national attention to what is going on. I think before August 9, the majority of the community was unaware or felt powerless to do anything about it; now they feel empowered to advocate for change.
In addition to this, there has been an increase in the visibility of efforts to hold police accountable to the community. Local groups like the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) have been fighting for police accountability for years. Because of their long history on this issue they have been able to cast a vision for how things will be different coming out of Ferguson through their Quality Policing Initiative. I am hopeful that this initiative will move forward and create lasting change in Ferguson and beyond. We’ve seen some progress, with a number of municipalities having amnesty programs that cleared outstanding warrants for nonviolent traffic violations. The city of St. Louis is also no longer requiring applicants for city jobs to disclose felony convictions. These are low hanging fruit but progress nonetheless, and much more to be done.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, this tragedy has awakened a new generation of young activists and leaders. They have taken to the front lines of this fight because this issue impacts them most directly. In addition I’ve seen white allies dive into conversations about privilege that would never occurred had it not been for Mike Brown’s death. A generation who was raised to believe we live in a colorblind society is seeing that this is not the case.”
Saleem argues that the refusal to indict Darren Wilson has only hardened the underlying need for systemic change. “This is our work moving forward,” he says. “ How do we educate and organize our communities so that we can begin the work of undoing racism in our country. We must organize for two goals: 1. We organize to change the system through activism and advocacy and 2. We organize to build our own communities to be self-reliant and independent of an inherently unjust system.”
The resistance we see across the US, in all its manifestations, in response to the brutal neoliberal state’s repression and greater war against Black existence is not only justified, it is also a tactic that has long been used during liberation struggles so as to force colonialism to “loosen its hold.” Fanon writes that “the breaking down of colonial structures are the result of one of two causes: either of a violent struggle of the people in their own right, or of action on the part of surrounding colonized peoples which acts as a brake on the colonial regime in question.”
Today in the United States many will be grieving for buildings burned and windows broken, while the bourgeoisie will cry out “calm!” and hurriedly search for Martin Luther King Jr. quotes to guilt Black protesters into supporting their deadly liberal pacifism – one which requires that they allow the police institution to destroy every ounce of life that exists in their schools, that attempts to flourish in their neighborhoods, that breathes defiantly in the streets. Fanon argues in much of his work that the violence of the native is reactive, while the violence of the authoritarian warfare state, or the colonizer, is constant, as it is dedicated to destroying native life. Regardless of the tactics chosen, the only way to survive is to struggle, to disrupt the system, and squeeze the very life out of the institutions that torment Black communities because, as Fanon explains, “When the native is tortured, when his wife is killed or raped, he complains to no one. The oppressor's government can set up commissions of inquiry and of information daily if it wants to," such as the Ferguson grand jury, but "in the eyes of the native, these commissions do not exist.”