The unprovoked murder of two New York policemen has prompted understandable outrage, but the larger context remains the U.S. failure to address legacies of slavery and segregation, compounded by recent police violence targeting young black men, as Dustin Axe explains.
By Dustin Axe
Many people might be shocked and even appalled to see such a fervent national reaction to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There have not only been weeks of demonstrations and marches around the nation but Ferguson itself experienced days of rioting.
Corporate media outlets have covered protests in places like New York, Boston, Chicago, and Oakland with enthusiasm, and Attor
ney General Eric Holder and President Obama have each spoken extensively about it. Media coverage and national outrage have also brought to light other killings of black people at the hands of police, events that might not otherwise get attention. The choke hold death of Eric Garner and the shooting death of Tamir Rice have each received considerable amount of coverage.
Why did the killing of one black man by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, trigger such a severe reaction? After all, events like this are regular occurrences.
Anarchist Alexander Berkman (1870-1936) offers insight to this question in his essay entitled “The Idea Is the Thing.” He wrote: “The social revolution . . . is not an accident, not a sudden happening. There is nothing sudden about it, for ideas don’t change suddenly. They grow slowly, gradually, like the plant or flower.
“Hence the social revolution is a result, a development, which means that it is evolutionary. It develops to the point when considerable numbers of people have embraced the new ideas and are determined to put them into practice. When they attempt to do so and meet with opposition, then the slow, quiet, and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent. Evolution becomes revolution.”
This is true today as it was in the early 1900’s when Berkman wrote it. Social movements and revolutions do not start with singular events. They are the result of gradual accumulation of injustices experienced by many people for a really long time.
Nobody knows when a social revolution is coming and nobody can control it, least of all those in power. The beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s is often attributed to Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat that was reserved for whites only. This was a transformative event, one that ignited a social movement unlike any other in the history of the United States, but what followed, boycotts, rallies, marches, riots, etc., was the result of decades and centuries of oppression, not one occurrence.
Likewise, the outrage over the shooting death of Michael Brown is the effect of years, decades, and even centuries of oppression of black people.
Legacy of Injustice
We are witnessing the legacy of both slavery and segregation, and we are experiencing a well established new racial caste system. Africans were bought and sold by the millions to work on colonial plantations, and our nation’s founding documents preserved slavery as an institution.
When the Constitution was ratified black people were considered to be three-fifth of a person (for the purpose of representation), not real human beings. When the Civil War ended and slavery was outlawed, it was not entirely clear socially, politically or economically what would happen to the 4 million newly freed slaves. The answer was Jim Crow.
Black people were free from chains but they were not free from a racial caste system that segregated them from whites. A considerable amount of equality was gained because of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, however, widespread discrimination and segregation continue today in a new form.
Michelle Alexander’s book, entitled The New Jim Crow, details the reality millions of black people experience as a result of the War on Drugs, three strike laws, maximum minimum sentencing, stop and frisk, and mass incarceration. She states being a criminal is what it means to be black today.
There are more black people in jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850. In all, one in 30 black people are involved in the justice system one way or another. And once in the criminal justice system, a label renders a person obsolete by limiting their ability to get housing, employment, higher education, food stamps, and it even limits one’s ability to vote. This is effectively legal discrimination against black people, which ultimately renders them second-class citizens.
Alexander explains that while the tactics of social control have changed from slavery to segregation to mass incarceration, the overall goal has not. The only difference is the language used. She writes: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”
Indeed, draconian laws are enforced by a paramilitary police who use brutal tactics in the name of “law and order.” The result is police brutality and violence. A ProPublica analysis of killings by police reveals that black people are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. In addition, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found in the 2012 Annual Report on extrajudicial killing that a black person is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards, or vigilantes.
Thus, we should try to understand the response in Ferguson and across the nation in this context. When we learn about the extent to which black people are targeted by laws and by the police we can appreciate their frustration. And we now see where Alexander Berkman was right. He argues that social revolution is an evolutionary process, one that involves many people who embrace the same frustrations.
This is how a seemingly small event, like the refusal to give up one’s bus seat or the killing of an unarmed person in the middle of the street, erupts into a quick, sometime violent revolution.
Ferguson and Democracy
It is easy to look at rioting in Ferguson and dismiss it. Many people see astonishing images of police cars on fire and hear interviews of store owners who had their businesses destroyed and think violence is wrong and wag their finger at the citizens of Ferguson. I want to offer a different perspective.
I suggest we look beyond the fire and looted stores, and even beyond the particular details of the Michael Brown case, which no one truly knows. We should instead focus on the context of the events in Ferguson and try to understand it as a part of democracy.
I am not justifying rioting by any means. I am the first person to criticize violence, including America’s use of violence in empire-building abroad. Violence is never the answer, it is always wrong. I am arguing that race riots should be understood as part of a larger, democratic process for change.
Anger in Ferguson is an accurate representation of what happens when peaceful channels for change are too slow or entirely absent. Violence erupts when people do not have avenues to enact peaceful change. If we had a transparent democratic system, one that gave citizens the opportunity to have their voices heard, there would not be rioting
Understood this way, riots can be a useful barometer that reveals just how ineffective our democracy is. Howard Zinn (1922-2010) makes this argument in his 1973 book, Disobedience and Democracy. If citizens turn to unorganized violence to enact change rather than working peacefully through the “system” then you know your government is ineffectual.
It proves the slowness it has in solving problems, such as poverty, racism and police brutality. Zinn says we must remember that social disorder, whether it is violent or nonviolent, is the result of problems, not the cause. In other words, the real problem is not a riot, but rather the unsolved grievances of the people.
In Ferguson, we are seeing what happens when large numbers of oppressed people are entirely marginalized and left with no political power whatsoever. In order to have a political voice in the United States you must have money. Our elections, debates, and political parties are entirely run by corporate elites and billionaires, not poor people.
This means large numbers of Ferguson citizens, as well as tens of thousands of poor people all across America, including you and me, are entirely disenfranchised from the democratic process. They simply cannot change draconian laws that directly affect them in negative ways. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before an event, some sort of trigger, such as the shooting of Michael Brown, gets people in the street, yelling and rioting.
Broken Economic System
What we are really seeing is the effects of vast amount of inequality and poverty. The issue at hand is a broken economic system, one that criminalizes the poor and people of color. Laws, police, and prisons do not function as instruments of crime control, but rather social control. The unprecedented power police departments have and the expansion of their arsenal started decades ago, and it directly correlates with the upsurge of inequality.
I am not alone in my analysis. In a 1968 speech, Martin Luther King said this about riots: “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Race riots in the 1960’s were effective in starting national conversations and debates about voting rights and equality. They themselves were not instruments of change, because violence leads to violence and it never guarantees positive change; however, they were part of the process for change.
Today, people are already discussing solutions to police brutality like better training and more cameras for police officers. President Obama announced a $75 million proposal to make 50,000 body cameras available to police officers. Cameras will not solve the underline problems of inequality and racism, but they might at least reduce incidents of police brutality.
Why look down our noses at poor people who are fed up with being treated as second-class citizens? We should not wag our finger at rioters in Ferguson, just as we should not dismiss terrorists who want to attack the United States, or a person who storms a school with an assault rifle. Doing so ignores the broader context at hand, and thus limits any opportunity to learn from such events. Instead, we should identify the root cause and ask tough questions. Why are poor people angry? Why are black people angry?
As King suggested, if we do not denounce those who have all the wealth and power and who have gained it mostly through terror and war, then it is unfair to denounce poor black people who have nothing. Again, I am not condoning violence. I am suggesting we approach the events in Ferguson from a different perspective. No one ever said democracy was easy!
Ferguson and Empire
In an interview with Laura Flanders, Chris Hedges explains it perfectly. He says all empires show signs of decline when they start using ruthless tactics and weapons (that are normally used abroad) on its own citizens at home. In other words, things are bad when the barrel of the gun is aimed at home. This is clearly happening in America.
Missouri just deployed its National Guard in St. Louis to disperse protesters and quell a rioting, but soldiers and tanks are being used nationwide for lesser offensives. We are seeing police officers being deployed on the streets with full military gear, machine guns, tanks, and drones.
The same weapons used in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are being deployed on American streets to control local disturbances. The distribution of military supplies to police departments, such as sniper rifles, silencers, tanks, and M-16’s, is at a record high, and it is overwhelming to see how quickly these things can be deployed.
The signs are everywhere. In 2013, the Boston Police Department quarantined a significant part of the city and systematically when door to door in full military gear to search for a suspect. An early morning warrant being issued in Oakland by SWAT police in armored vehicles is no different than a night raid in Pakistan.
Is it too hard to imagine drones being used one day to take down suspects in Detroit like they are in Yemen? And there have been an increasing number of enemies being identified at home just like they are abroad. We are witnessing an intensification of security at the border and record-breaking deportation of immigrants.
The mechanisms of control used in Gaza are the same used at home. Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy traveled to Israel last month to lead a delegation of law enforcement officials from 60 nations. It was Israel’s 3rd Annual International Homeland Security Conference, and its goal was to discuss best practices and strategies for fighting crime and preventing insurrection.
McCarthy shared Chicago’s experience of controlling protesters during the 2012 NATO summit. Speaking from firsthand experience, I can tell you that the police presence during the NATO summit was completely extravagant and unnecessary. The city was swamped with cops, many of which were bused in from other states. Mayor Rahm Emanuel used the event as an excuse to further militarize the police and to increase surveillance.
Berkman said social revolutions do not happen by accident, but the same can be said of empires. They are forged out of the deliberate use of greed, theft, deceit, imperialism and ruthless terror. The American Empire is no different.
Yet the vast majority of Americans prefer to ignore it; foreign affairs are not something most people pay attention to. However, if you pay attention to the weapons and tactics being used by the American Empire for social control at home, you are seeing exactly what it does abroad, as well. This is a sign that our empire is imploding.
We do not know for sure if the death of Michael Brown is the event that will ignited a social revolution, but we do know it started a considerable amount of unrest and dissent. I believe many people wonder how one event could do such a thing because they are not fully aware or sensitive to the amount of oppression black people experience.
We should not be surprised when victims of the New Jim Crow spill into the streets full of anger. And if proper channels for peaceful change do not exist, we should not be surprise if that anger becomes violent. When inequality, unjust laws, mass incarceration, racism and police brutality among other things, are not addressed then the result is insurrection.
Some may see rioting in Ferguson as just that, rioting. I see an empire in decline, seeds of revolution, and a struggle to preserve democracy.
Dustin Axe is a teacher and activist from Chicago, Illinois. He can be contacted at [email protected].