Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Ezell Ford, Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Stephon Watts, Manuel Loggins Jr., Johnnie Kamahi Warren, Raymond Allen, Justin Sipp, Melvin Lawhorn, Bo Morrison, Nehemiah Dillard, Wendell Allen, Kendrec Lavelle McDade, Patrick Dorismond, Orlando Barlow, Ousmane Zongo, Akai Gurley, Malcolm Ferguson, Timothy Stansbury, Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Aaron Campbell, Steve Eugene Washington, Timothy Russell, Larry Jackson Jr., Jonathan Ferrell, Jordan Baker, and Michael Brown. These are just some of the names of, mostly young, black men (and boys) killed by law enforcement since the dawn of the new millennium. They were all unarmed. The above list does not include the names of black men assaulted and maimed by police, and is simply just scratching the surface of the human toll that state violence has wrought. Additionally, it does not include individuals killed by security guards or vigilantes (a prime example being George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin). While black men seemingly prove to experience increased instances of police violence, there are no statistics to verify this, police agencies (local, state, and federal) do not generally keep tabs on whom their officers kill, and when they do the numbers are neither thorough nor are they complete. When a cop kills a civilian, even if the civilian did not have a weapon, the trend seems to be that the officer is cleared of any wrong doing, or at the very most is given a paltry sentence, often reduced once the mind of the public is turned elsewhere.
Police killings of unarmed men are not unique to the black demographic. Indeed, extrajudicial murders – what most police killings tend to be – occur across gender and racial lines, though of course Afro-Americans, Latinos, the mentally ill, migrant laborers, and anyone who does not immediately submit to police power and authority seemingly bear the brunt of the violence meted out by police. One needs only conduct a brief Internet search to see videos of police in the United States wantonly killing people whilst in the line of duty.
The 24 November grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson over the 9 August fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown has been met with a mixed consensus amongst people in the United States. On the one hand, there are those who claim that the rule of law has prevailed, and that there is nothing else to do. For others, there is a feeling of indignance that has catapulted people into large, sometimes violent, demonstrations in Ferguson and across the United States. State officials and political pundits have either vilified the protests or appealed for some semblance of calm in the wake of the grand jury’s decision. There is almost no discussion on the anti-democratic nature of the grand jury process, on Jay Nixon preemptively calling a state of emergency, or the role that the police play in this society. The focus, it seems, is on the lack of so-called civility on behalf of some of the protesters. Conservatives often use racialist, if not overtly racist, rhetoric when considering what is happening in Ferguson. Liberals appeal to the protestors to harken to the whitewashed legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and engage in peaceful demonstrations.
The time for peace has passed, indeed it never existed in this country. It doesn’t matter if Brown robbed a convenience store, or even if he assaulted Wilson. What matters is that the case highlights the depths to which the capitalist state and its police forces will protect their own and attempt to stifle any sort of dissent. Imagine if Wilson was the aggressor in the situation – which is more likely than Brown being the aggressor – and Brown defended himself with deadly force, mortally wounding Wilson. Brown would have likely go to prison for life, whereas Wilson has been cleared for what has been deemed a justifiable shooting. And it is justifiable based on how police operate within the United States: with near impunity.
The violence of the police is almost always defensible in the eyes of the ruling elite, as evinced by Barack Obama’s platitudes to liberal desires to the rule of law in the aftermath of the grand jury decision. So, why then is the violence of the protestor so reviled? It is confounding that the people seem more concerned about the loss of property than the loss of life in the aftermath of the Ferguson decision. While there are opportunists who have used the protests to their own end, the acts of looting, destruction of property, and violence directed towards state representatives are not only warranted, they are necessary. If people could, they would target the police, but the protesters know that a direct confrontation (with what is now a military force in this country) at this time would likely result in their deaths. The destruction of property in the area is the next best option. And while it is lamentable that some so-called mom-and-pop shops are targeted alongside the larger businesses, it is the truly dispossessed, downtrodden, socially ostracized, and oppressed peoples who are engaging in the only viable option to lash out at an increasingly militarized, bureaucratically regimented, and authoritarian society. It is clear that while the murder of Michael Brown was the catalyst for these events, it is not the cause. The cause is the decades long, the centuries long, daily oppression people experience at the hands of the capitalist state.
Historically, the police, and specifically the policing of minority communities in the United States can be traced to the epoch of chattel slavery. The modern police were developed from, at times directly so, the ranks of slave catchers. The racialized policing and subjugation of Afro-Americans and, later, of Amerindians, European immigrant communities, Latinos and others was born from the desire to maintain a white supremacist state. It does not seem as though much has changed in this regard since the defeat of Radical Reconstruction in 1877. The problem with the protestors’ violence in Ferguson is that it is unorganized. If the violence was to be organized, and the protestors armed – more so than the few that sparingly are – then the brunt of social pressures would not be laid onto middling proprietors, but unto those deserving the most virulent response of an enraged populace.
Calls for calm emanating from the upper strata of society are an attempt to mitigate the popular indignation that has long been bubbling under the surface of the society. The violence against property, that is destruction and theft, is only an unorganized form of something with the potential to be far more revolutionary and inspiring. To say that an all-out class war is on the horizon would be hyperbolic at this point, and maybe even myopic, but the undergirding social structures that position disenfranchised and working class peoples well below the dictatorship of capital are being pressured, the police being only one such institution. With increased organization, the Ferguson protests and riots do have the potential to transform from seemingly random attacks to ones that aim at puncturing the status quo. This is not a quixotic notion, it is within the realm of material possibilities, and activist-scholars should be lending their weight to this and other attendant struggles. The reliability and social productivity of voting for bourgeoisie parties is long dead. The demonstration turned riot, turned revolt, is the most effective means to bring about a new, more egalitarian social paradigm. While the current “unrest” in Ferguson and around the country is unlikely lead to any revolutionary impetus, it is a start. As people’s consciousness is transmuted from subservience to the prevailing ideologies of the elite to something related to their actual position in the society, drastic social change will become increasingly possible.
The death of Michael Brown has spurred this process and has fomented mass discontent with the government. Furthermore, the events in Ferguson have fomented the most visible resistance to the status quo in the United States. What is needed now is to take the next step from indiscriminate attacks to ones directly pointed at state power as well as at the lackeys and apologists who allow it to prosper. The transformative potential emanating from the protestors’ violence in Ferguson and elsewhere will not help recoup some “golden age” in the United States – there never was one – but can hopefully prove to be the kernel of radically altered social relations.
During the protests in New York City in the days after the decision to not indict Wilson, thousands took to the streets empathetically chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” Some, however, went even further, shouting the slogan “Arms Up, Shoot Back!” The former statement represents an appeal to state authorities, namely the police, to cease its murderous rampage upon those living in this country. The latter, represents a challenge – albeit prematurely and an incendiary one, given the balance of forces – to those that currently wield power, and have the legal (fictitious) right to kill whom they see fit. Instead of attempting to demonize the rioters and looters by invoking the image and memory of Martin Luther King Jr., it would be more advantageous for those “progressives” in our society to understand the Ferguson protests as part of the same genealogy as the Deacons for Defense, Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, and the Black Panthers. What is occurring in Ferguson is symptomatic of the social dislocation that has been ever present but has yet to ferment. When the state comes down on its citizenry violently, we must resist, with equitable violence if necessary. The attacks on property in Ferguson only need be redirected for a magnificent transformation of consciousness to come out of Michael Brown’s death. If not, then Brown’s death, the deaths of the aforementioned men, and the millions who suffered and died under the jackboot of state oppression in this country would have partially been lost in vain. Let us not protest the protestors, but express our solidarity, and our commitment to their struggle, which is invariably our own struggle. As we solidarize and join with the embattled communities in and around Ferguson, let us also remember to look beyond the provincial confines of our own state and express solidarity with others who struggle for a more just and equitable society, be they in Palestine, Mexico, or Burkina Faso. In the word of the late Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara, “It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”Anecdotally, as this issue of the Advocate went to press, Eric Garner’s murderer, Daniel Pantaleo, has been cleared of any wrongdoing, a grand jury in Staten Island opting to refrain from indicting him on 3 December. On 17 July 2014, Pantaleo, and NYPD officer
placed Garner in a chokehold (illegal even by the standards of the NYPD) which resulted in a fatal heart attack for Garner. Garner was not bellicose in his interactions with police and was unarmed. The video of his murder sparked wide spread protests in the New York City Metro area, and the grand jury decision is likely to do so as well.