This image will be an iconic reminder of how the people of Ferguson, MO, responded to Mike Brown’s cold blooded killing.
A few things I think I know about the police violence and Black protest in Ferguson, MO. First, when Black people are the victims of police brutality and murder, it is the murderers who are humanized and the Blacks who are dehumanized. There is a strange equivocation where the same rhetoric is used to exonerate one group of people (the police), while denigrating another (Black people). You all know the rhetoric; on the one hand it speaks of “flawed individuals” in police departments everywhere – but especially in areas with a large Black demographic. Racist people who happen to be police officers and thus they are able to practice their personal prejudice and racism with power and impunity. Thankfully, so the rhetoric goes, these racist cops are in the minority, and thus not representative of the police force as a whole, which is full of “good” people who are simply trying to do their jobs.
On the other hand, the “flawed” individual who is Black and the victim of police brutality/murder, if he (and it is usually a “he,” but increasingly “she”) is not representative of the entire group (though he is often portrayed this way), then he is portrayed in such a way as to actually justify his harassment and death. The “flawed” Black individual is not “one of the good ones.” He is a shoplifter and a weed smoker, at least they hope he is, because possession of these attributes – a jaywalker? – along with the requisite black skin somehow justifies his harassment and murder. Greg Howard covered this point in an excellent article he wrote for Deadspin where he tried to bring true humanity to the portrayal of ubiquitous Black victims of brutality. Conversely, and as it pertains to their crimes against Black people, why anyone would attempt to humanize the “fraternal order” of police is beyond me.
In any case, to consider this matter from the point of view of a “flawed” individual is the wrong approach. We can admit that it is not a series of “flawed individuals” who “happen to be police officers” in every city with a sizable Black population who are putting Black people at risk of death. Rather it is easy to see that there is an institutional bias in place where Black people are profiled by the police and targeted for harassment and arrest – and if you resist, then you are targeted for murder. It is easy to see that this is a learned behavior, that it comes with the job, and that even if you do NOT happen to be a “flawed” (i.e. racist) cop, that you too will be swept into the workings of the institution – or risk isolation and exclusion within the ranks, and perhaps the loss of your job. The police officer, as a professional aspiration, and as it relates to Black bodies and Black communities, is no longer redeemable.
Moreover – and this is the second thing I think I know – what we are witnessing today in every city that includes substantial numbers of black people is NOT the type of police work you see in other cities where black people do NOT reside in large numbers. Cops do not treat whites this way. There are countless encounters with police where the white perpetrators are belligerent and aggressive, white shoplifters, whites who smoke weed; encounters where white people have threatened police and taken swings at them – even fired weapons at them. These white people are treated very differently than their Black counterparts; there is a reasonable attempt by cops at communication and nonviolent conflict resolution. White people say things like, “my tax dollars pay your salary, asshole!” Can you imagine what happens if a Black person says something even as relatively benign as this? But only if absolutely necessary is the white perpetrator arrested and, if so, there is due process, including the reading of Miranda rights and an arraignment before a judge – simply stated, white perpetrators are allowed to live to tell their side of the story.
What happens in Black communities? Whenever you look at a photo of a cop in Ferguson, or Staten Island, or Los Angeles, and you cannot distinguish that image from one you might see of a soldier in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the West Bank, then you must admit that you are no longer dealing with a “peace” officer whose primary responsibility is to “serve and protect.” Rather you are dealing with an occupying army whose mission is to search and destroy. I think it was Stokely Charmichael (Kwame Ture) who first said police are like an occupying army in Black communities (I am happy to be refuted on the source). He must have said it circa 1966 or 1967. TODAY, nearly fifty years later in 2014 when I see the same attitudes and behaviors from the police I am mindful of continuity and how the past bleeds into the present. When I see “peace officers” in riot gear, driving tanks down the streets of Midwestern America, and pointing assault rifles at US citizens, I understand immediately that the only interests they are there to “serve and protect” are their OWN.
Finally, the last thing I think I know about police violence and Black protest concerns the destruction of property by way of so-called “riots” and the violence that typically follows. Violence begets violence, ‘tis true. And when the arbiters of white power and elitism (the police) are involved, nonviolence also begets violence. Holding up your hands and saying “I surrender” begets violence. Saying “I’m tired of being harassed and this stops today!” begets violence. Turning your back and running for your life begets violence. Holding a fake toy gun in fucking Walmart begets violence. Knocking on a fellow “citizen’s” door in the middle of the night because you need help begets violence. Dropping your wallet and bending down to pick it up begets violence. Walking to the house with a fucking bag of Skittles begets violence. We must never ignore the violence perpetrated AGAINST Black people in these instances and as a function of systemic oppression. THAT is the violence which has “beget” the destruction of property in Ferguson and elsewhere. (There are conflicting reports – eyewitness accounts that diverge from “official” ones – and so the destruction of property in Ferguson may have been overstated anyway.) American history has shown that general strikes, riots, rebellions and other types of civil disobedience are legitimate forms of protest that are capable of producing meaningful social change. Why deny this recourse to Black people? What would you have them do? Continue to burn candles, pray to Jesus, and hope that these non-“flawed” police officers in whom many have inexplicably placed their faith will somehow save the day? After 100, 150 years of continuous police repression against Black people?
One thing these “riots” do is add an economic factor, which raises the stakes for any domestic dispute considerably. Another Black child dead and the community holds a rally, which produces no impact and no result; but a Black child dead and the people loot and burn, suddenly commerce is affected. This gets the attention of a certain class of white people as a disruption in capitalist economy will always affect them in ways that simply involving them in moral quandaries will not. You say that Black people are burning and looting businesses in their own communities which is counterproductive. Well yes and no. Yes they have looted the corner store, but do they own the corner store? Likely not. It is the owner, typically the local representative of a national chain or business conglomerate, who suffers this loss the most and that is the point. Because now the owner, the chain, or the business conglomerate will demand that something be done, that the police lighten up a bit and allow the Black people to simply shop again rather than loot and burn. It is also the owner who has reaped untold unearned profit off the backs of the oppressed by selling overpriced goods to repressed, underpaid people; so when the choice is made to loot we can think of it as the repressed cashing out on a long overdue IOU. Perhaps these outcomes are not even as important as the mental, emotional, and spiritual release that accompanies an act of violence; where the oppressed suddenly take to the streets to viscerally remove chains both psychological and financial.
This point about the release of pent-up emotions actually raises one last thing I know without thinking about it: I am angry. I admit it. I do not find anger to be a wasted emotion. On the contrary, if you cannot get mad about the murder of your own people, then anger will forever elude you – and that will be to your detriment because sooner or later one of these watchdog terrorist pig cops will have his gun pointed squarely at YOU, or at your mother or child, and then it will be too late for anger, too late for words, and much too late for angry words …