Tag Archives: Ferguson

On Slow and Spectacular Violence

In the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown I wrote about Ferguson, a catharsis of feeling, a mourning for another life taken, a way to choose my side and sadness that I should come from a country so drowned in fear and hate that there could even be two sides. All Americans should have mourned Michael’s loss as they would have their son, father, brother. They should have all demanded change. But that is not what happened.

It didn’t happen for Oscar Grant, for Trayvon Martin, for Eric Garner, for hundreds of Black men and women killed without compunction. We need to understand why because we need to change it.

I didn’t analyze the situation in view of all I had been writing and theorising on segregation and racism for my PhD, intellectualisation felt completely beyond me. So I was happy to see ‘The Making of Ferguson‘ from Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, who comprehensively outlined the decades of public policy that created the segregated city of St Louis and other US cities, the segregation (and resulting decimation of non-white communities) that I agree is central to any understanding of what created Ferguson. Much of this is based on work by Colin Gordon, and his book Mapping Decline (highly recommended, especially for those who love maps). Here is Rothstein’s outline of the policies that created a white world of wealth and resources, separated from the worlds of peoples of colour confined to poverty and desperation:

      • Racially explicit zoning decisions that designated specific ghetto boundaries within the city of St. Louis, turning black neighborhoods into slums;
      • Segregated public housing projects that separated blacks and whites who had previously lived in more integrated urban areas;
      • Restrictive covenants, excluding African Americans from white areas, that began as private agreements but then were adopted as explicit public policy;
      • Government subsidies for white suburban developments that excluded blacks, depriving African Americans of the 20th century home-equity driven wealth gains reaped by whites;
      • Denial of adequate municipal services in ghettos, leading to slum conditions in black neighborhoods that reinforced whites’ conviction that “blacks” and “slums” were synonymous;
      • Boundary, annexation, spot zoning, and municipal incorporation policies designed to remove African Americans from residence near white neighborhoods, or to prevent them from establishing residence near white neighborhoods;
      • Urban renewal and redevelopment programs to shift ghetto locations, in the guise of cleaning up those slums;
      • Government regulators’ tacit (and sometimes open) support for real estate and financial sector policies and practices that explicitly promoted residential segregation;
      • A government-sponsored dual labor market that made suburban housing less affordable for African Americans by preventing them from accumulating wealth needed to participate in homeownership.

Rothstein is anxious to place the blame on public policy, not private racism, because policy is something we can shift, something we can change.

But we have to shift more than that.

It is dangerous to ignore the extreme levels of violence that maintained racial boundaries, the normalisation of white violence that occurred across the country over decades. In my own research on L.A. I found hundreds of incidents, several where death was intended and sometimes achieved. Mobs gathered to threaten families, burn crosses. They left tacks, nails and broken glass in lawns and driveways, hung and burned effigies, threw bottles and bricks and stones, emptied shotguns through windows, bombed and burned down homes. A white gang of youths formed in South L.A. in the 1940s, called themselves the Spook Hunters. They patrolled white neighborhoods and occasionally crossed the ‘Alameda Wall’ to harass Black youth where they lived. The emblem on the back of their jackets was a swollen Black face above a noose. Their community didn’t mind they wore them proudly.

All this, but I know L.A. ain’t no St Louis, Missouri.

One of the most harrowing and best accounts of white mob violence is of Detroit — Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. There is Arnold Hirsch and Cayton & Drake on Chicago. Kenneth Clark’s amazing analysis of Harlem in Dark Ghetto. W.E.B. Du Bois’s study of Philadelphia. Stephen Grant Meyer on organised, violent white people defending their neighbourhoods across the nation, encapsulating a long understood sentiment in his title: As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door. This is the history of every single city. Every. Single. City.Judith Butler’s recent response in an interview about #blacklivesmatter focuses on some of what makes this violence possible, beginning with slavery:

But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized… it is a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat.

It comes down, like the long history of mob and state violence enforcing segregation, to defense:

In other words, every time a grand jury or a police review board accepts this form of reasoning, they ratify the idea that blacks are a population against which society must be defended, and that the police defend themselves and (white) society, when they preemptively shoot unarmed black men in public space.

I didn’t find the tools here, though, to explain either the reality of the violence that the events in Ferguson embody, the exclusion of people from society due to skin colour, or the source of this deeply felt need among whites for defense, one that is so sure of itself, it can justify the murder of unarmed children.

So I turn now to a few of the writers who helped me think through my thesis. This is a provisional thinking through of their ideas in relation to Ferguson and the reactions to #blacklivesmatter that I need to keep coming back to.

I wrote this for Dr Pop as part of a more collective contribution to thinking through what is happening in the US. You can read the rest here, and check out the other pieces as well…

The Broken Heart of Ferguson

I have few words for Ferguson, for yet another Black kid shot and killed and no justice for the killing. I sit and think about what I should say, and there is so much to say, but mostly it just hurts my stomach and my heart, and the screen blurs. Still, I have to say something.

At the centre of this is a young life lost to us. Someone here who lived and breathed and laughed and dreamed, and who is not here any longer. Whose last moments were of pain and fear. Surrounding that terrible new wound of an absence is the pain of families and friends and those who loved him. That pain will stretch forever into the future. We never stop mourning the loss of those we love. Surrounding that, the pain of the wider community, the reawakened trauma of all other families who have survived these same circumstances around the world, and the pain belonging to all of us who grieve. There is also an ever deepening fear among youth that they could be killed at any time, and among parents that they could lose their children whenever they leave their homes. And of course, there is an intense anger. Because no one should suffer this ever. Because things like this should never happen. Because if this does happen, our society needs to take steps to find justice and do whatever it can to ensure it does not happen again. Instead it does worse than nothing — it blames the dead.

Because all of this intense pain and suffering that marks one grouping of reactions to this murder sits encompassed within a larger, and much whiter group of people across the nation that does not value Black life, does not value Black children, does not see these children as its own to love and protect and cherish. Instead it fears them, it desires protection from them, and it refuses to convict those who kill them in the name of that defense. It is a tragic split that is eating away at the U.S., that perhaps has already destroyed it because this goes so far back. My only hope is in the communities coming together to stop this, end this, change this. People bridging old boundaries and fears. A growing dialogue about just how bad things are and how things have to change. That is the only way that hope lies for everyone.

But so many lives have been lost. It has been good, actually, to go through this, to share this, through my social media community. There was this posted, that made me cry:

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Mamie Till, summer 1955. Michael Brown Sr, summer 2014. How do you console the inconsolable? Photograph: Chicago Sun-Times via AP (left); Richard Perry / AFP / Getty (right)

I have gone through the violent death of a child with one family I love well, and a piece of my heart was literally burned away by their grief, and the sound of Maria screaming over his grave will echo forever in my ears. I hear it every time a child is killed.

More intellectually, there is James Baldwin to educate about the measure of justice:

Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

More from Baldwin on Martin Luther King’s assassination is here from Esquire Magazine, from 1968 and I can’t believe we’re still in the same place. This encapsulates what is happening now:

Q. How can we get the black people to cool it?

James Baldwin: It is not for us to cool it.

Q. But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?

James Baldwin: No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.

There’s this from the Howard Zinn page, just a handful of collected stories of the many Black men who have been shot in cold blood, whose murderers were known, and where justice has still been denied:

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The below stories are from the Onion.

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That’s from before the decision, because all of us were afraid this would happen given our country’s track record over several hundred years. This headline could not state better how many of us feel I think:

Nation Doesn’t Know If It Can Take Another Bullshit Speech About Healing

And this breaks my heart all over again, because it is all true:

Tips For Being An Unarmed Black Teen

With riots raging in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death by police of an unarmed African-American youth, the nation has turned its eyes toward social injustice and the continuing crisis of race relations. Here are The Onion’s tips for being an unarmed black teen in America:

  • Shy away from dangerous, heavily policed areas.
  • Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
  • Be sure not to pick up any object that could be perceived by a police officer as a firearm, such as a cell phone, a food item, or nothing.
  • Explain in clear and logical terms that you do not enjoy being shot, and would prefer that it not happen.
  • Don’t let society stereotype you as a petty criminal. Remember that you can be seen as so much more, from an armed robbery suspect, to a rape suspect, to a murder suspect.
  • Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view: You may be unarmed, but you’re also black.
  • Avoid wearing clothing associated with the gang lifestyle, such as shirts and pants.
  • Revel in the fact that by simply existing, you exert a threatening presence over the nation’s police force.
  • Be as polite and straightforward as possible when police officers are kicking the shit out of you.

I’m noticing more and more that the Onion can no longer practice satire, because our society has reached the point where satire is impossible. These are literally the conversations my friends are being forced to have with their children. It breaks my heart. Just like being here, in London, through all this. Massive protests are happening all over the U.S., including my friends taking the streets back in L.A. I am so proud. What else is there to do when nothing else is creating change? I am also proud of the movement coming out of this, the demands as they are being developed by Ferguson protestors and the invitation to comment and contribute to this struggle that affects all of us, but people of colour as the most vulnerable to institutional violence most. I am proud to follow their lead, wherever they choose to take this fight. Take a look, comment, support. They are:
Demand #1 — Political Accountability for the Death of Michael Brown, Jr.

Demand #2 — Special Prosecutor for All Deadly Force Cases

Demand #3 — Police Held Accountable for Use of Deadly Force

Demand #4 — End Overpolicing and the Criminalization of Poverty

Demand #5 — Representative Police Force and Intentional Officer Training

Demand #6 — End Funding for Discriminatory Police Forces

Demand #7 — Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Structural and Systemic Inequalities in Missouri

Demand #8 — The Right to Protest

Here in London we at least were able to show solidarity and thankfully made the BBC news to do so, to send as much support from one city to another, one people to another. Hopefully put just a little more international pressure on the federal government to step in. Sadly, our nations are too connected in the ways Black men are killed and justice never comes, and changes are desperately needed in both places.

One of the most powerful things I’ve seen has been this collection of artwork emerging over twitter from Shirin Barghi @shebe86, the last words of Black people shot dead in recent years. Their names are so familiar, and they are only some among many: Kendrec McDade, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin. In the UK it is Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Smiley Culture, Stephen Lawrence, again among too too many others. Carole Duggan spoke at the London protest, and it struck me when she said that we will be fighting injustice for the rest of our lives. So be it. This needs to end, and we all need to be part of ending it.Bvhs1O6IcAAMLe0.jpg_large

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