Michael Brown vigil Michael Brown Shooting in Ferguson Inspires Vigils Across The Nation

Sean Ledwith looks at the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the rising against the racist machine

Michael Brown was laid to rest in his home town of Ferguson, Missouri, on 25th August. The American ruling class would be foolish, however, to think that the simmering tension and anger generated by his untimely death will be buried with him. The horrific slaying of the black teenager by a cop a fortnight earlier triggered America’s most significant wave of anti-racist activism  since the huge Los Angeles uprising of 1992. 

On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the urban uprising in Watts, American streets once again resounded to the sounds of chanting protesters, tear gas canisters and police banging their shields. The shooting dead of Brown, an 18-year old, on August 9th in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson was the catalyst for almost two weeks of mass protest across the US over the intractable levels of racism that still afflict the country in what is supposedly its post-racial era.

The outrage over police brutality and racial profiling are horribly familiar but what was new about this recent scenario was the militarisation of the state response. Many Americans have made  disturbing comparisons between the scenes they witnessed on their own streets with what citizens in Baghdad, Fallujah, Kandahar and other far-flung locales have endured as the US leviathan has pursued its global projection of power. Even establishment politicians have been forced to express their disdain for the police over-reaction. Missouri Congressman, Emanuel Cleaver, commented:

‘Ferguson resembles Fallujah more than it does Ferguson……Having military style weaponry moving down the main street of a middle-American town is as un-American as a coup d’etat rather than an election.’

Even Obama was forced to interrupt his golf practice at Martha’s Vineyard,the bolt-hole of the super rich, to make a characteristically half-hearted comment about the eruption of violence:

‘Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.’

Brown’s apparent last words, ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ have been converted into the rallying cry of thousands of anti-racist demonstrators and have penetrated the consciousness of Americans in a remarkable  diversity of situations, including footballers, university students and schoolchildren.

The scenes of protesters taking on the armed might of the US state have even triggered expressions of solidarity from the besieged population of Gaza, with Palestinian activists sending their US counterparts guidance on how to reduce the effects of tear-gas!

Death in the afternoon

18 year old Michael Brown was looking forward to starting a college course in two days time when he became involved in a confrontation with Ferguson police on the afternoon of August 9th. The precise sequence of events is in dispute but according to some eye-witnesses, he had already been shot in the back once by officer Darren Wilson  and was raising his arms to plead for his life when the policeman opened fire again. Brown’s companion at the time described the moment Wilson approached them, yelling “get the f**ck on the pavement… He didn’t say ‘freeze,’ ‘hold,’ or nothing like we were committing a crime…It was just horrible to watch.. It was definitely like being shot like an animal.”

A private autopsy authorised by the Brown family indicated Michael had been shot six times, twice in the head.

Initially, Ferguson police refused to release the name of the officer and scuttled him out of the state to  avoid the inevitable public outcry. They were forced to identify him after the first wave of protests. Cynically, at the same time as the identification, the St Louis PD released footage of Brown allegedly assaulting a store-owner shortly before the incident, implying in some way that justified slaying him in broad daylight. The town’s chief of police’s first comment on the shooting was an inept attempt to downplay its severity by claiming the unarmed teenager was shot ‘more than just a couple of times, but not much more’.

The Purge 2014

Within hours, the streets of Ferguson were full of black and white demonstrators exercising their First Amendment right to protest. The response of Ferguson police was the deployment of a militarised force that transformed a typical Mid-West American town into something resembling the set for one of the recent crop of US dystopian movies such as The Hunger Games or The Purge. Camouflaged officers sat atop Humvee trucks, aiming laser-guided rubber bullets, sound bombs and tear-gas canisters into the crowds facing them off on the streets. Journalists have been shocked by the resemblance of the police operation to other conflict zones they have experienced:

‘I’ve been through [Hurricane] Katrina, so I’ve been around the block, and this might rank right up there… in terms of uncertainty and risk…There were a few moments when you felt that anything could happen.’

The police attempt to curtail the activity of journalists was just one of the appalling displays of clumsy overkill that has sent shockwaves through mainstream American opinion. Two journalists tried to use the local MacDonald’s on the first night of the uprising as a base because of its Wi-Fi connection, only to discover that the Ferguson cops only had a hazy acquaintance with the US Constitution:

‘As they took me into custody, the officers slammed me into a soda machine, at one point setting off the Coke dispenser. They put plastic cuffs on me, then they led me out the door. I could see Ryan still talking to an officer. I said: “Ryan, tweet that they’re arresting me, tweet that they’re arresting me.”He didn’t have an opportunity, because he was arrested as well.’

The citizens of the St Louis suburb, buoyed by the arrival and solidarity of anti-racists activists from around the US,   defiantly refused to be intimidated by the police heavy-handiness and the Governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, was compelled to appoint a senior black officer to take over as the figurehead of the operation in a superficial attempt to placate the protesters. The public relations ploy fooled no-one. Local residents have long been accustomed to the anomalous spectacle of living in a two-thirds majority black suburb, policed by a force that contains only 10% black officers.

The discriminatory profiling committed by this institutionally racist force is the tragic context to the Michael Brown shooting. Last year, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office accepted that racism was common practice among the state’s police officers. Although African-Americans represented 63% of the population, they made up 86% of traffic stops and 92% of arrests. Despite composing one third of the population, white residents made up just fewer than 7% of arrests.

Racist Robocop

The human face of these damning statistics belongs to relics of the segregation era like St. Louis County Police Lieutenant Patrick Hayes who was suspended earlier this year for orchestrating an unofficial targeting of African Americans with the message  Let’s have a black day.  He followed up this shameful comment with another request to his colleagues: “Let’s make the jail cells more colorful.”

The same level of community engagement has been visible from the force during their ham-fisted attempts to quell this month’s violence. One officer was recorded shouting at a protestor:  “I will (expletive) kill you. Get back.” When the protester asked his name, the response was: “Go (expletive) yourself.”

The intervention of black Attorney General, Eric Holder, and his promise to utilise federal agencies in the investigation of Brown’s death has been enough to quell the urban rebellion for the immediate future but not before another  black male was shot dead while demonstrating. The National Guard was also deployed in a non-natural disaster capacity for the first time since Los Angeles ’92. 

It is indicative of the stalling of progress regarding civil rights in the US that 50 years ago the National Guard was utilised to enforce desegregation in the South but now it is another agent of suppressing anti-racist agitation in the Mid-West. American citizens seeking solutions for  the structural issues of racism and militarism will inevitably have to look beyond any capitalist politician or agency of the state.

The Supreme Court, the highest constitutional authority in the US, sent out the coded message last year that black Americans should no longer look to the federal state for protection. In the case of Shelby County v Holder, the Court overturned a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which mandated states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal permission before altering their voting rules. This has become the pretext for racist politicians across the country to implement measures to deter African Americans from voting.

The War on Terror comes home

The militarisation of the police that has shocked so many Americans is the inevitable consequence of the so-called War on Terror corroding civil liberties at home. James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers of the US state in the eighteenth century, warned his successors that excessive emphasis on empire-building is the ‘graveyard of republics…a standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty.’

The downscaling of US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq (until the rise of ISIS,that is) has induced the Pentagon to transfer $4 billion of hardware to local authorities, including  armoured personnel carriers, night-vision goggles, high velocity rifles and drone technology.  Events in Ferguson have demonstrated that for many US police departments the temptation to deploy these resources is too good to miss. The Boston Lockdown of last year was the precursor of the militarisation and trampling of constitutional rights we have seen in Ferguson. Radley Balko’s  new study, Rise of the Warrior Cop, has put the spotlight on this post 9/11 militarised force. He writes:

‘This is how the country that gave the world the First Amendment now handles protest.There’s a disquieting ease now with which authorities are willing to crush dissent—andat the very sorts of events where the right to dissent is the entire purpose of protecting free speech—that is, events where influential policymakers meet to make high-level decisions with far-reaching consequences. In fact, the more important the policymakers and the more consequential the decisions they’ll be making, the more likely it is that police will use more force to keep protesters as far away as possible.’

The New Jim Crow

The militarisation of the police ties in with at what some commentators have called the rise of the prison industrial complex in the US.  According to pressure group California Prison Focus, ‘no other society inhuman history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.’

Non-white Americans make up less than a fourth of the population but fill up about 60% of its prison cells. The myth of post-racial America is also exploded by the damning statistic that black Americans are today seven times more likely to be incarcerated than whites; during the height of the Jim Crow era of official segregation that figure was four times more likely.

Michelle Alexander, in her influential book, The New Jim Crow, argues the US ruling class has utilised racism in three ways since its rise to power in the 1770s.

For most of the nineteenth century, undisguised slavery was used to literally and socially shackle the black minority. When that became politically impossible  after the Civil War in the 1860s, segregation was constructed as a means of suppressing black rights with the presentational veneer of the slogan ‘separate but equal’. Following the civil rights militancy of the 1960s, the elite has now utilised ‘criminalisation’ as the device to stigmatise African Americans. Young black males are only half-joking when they warn each other about the perils of ‘driving while black’. The tragic death of Michael Brown this year-and Trayvon Martin last year-are unfortunately only the most high profile examples of this ruling class strategy in action.  Four other unarmed black males have been murdered by police this summer.

Ferguson is quiet for now but it is only a matter of time before another US city explodes with rage against the racist machine.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters