By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
On August 9, between 12:01 p.m. and 12:04 p.m., Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot dead an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown (“Police as Occupying Army”, Frontline, September 19). Brown’s body, pierced by six of the 12 bullets that Wilson fired, lay on the ground at Canfield Avenue for four hours. Face down, with blood streaming from the head, Brown’s body suggested disregard for black lives and dignity. Patricia Bynes, an elected official in Ferguson, Missouri, said the delay in moving Brown’s body contributed to fuelling the outrage. It sent a message from the police that “we can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there’s nothing you can do about it”.
Little in the killing of Michael Brown is unusual. Each day, stories emerge of police officers opening fire against people who they suspect of being dangerous—sometimes the dead are teenagers with toy guns, at other times they are mentally ill people who do not obey police instructions. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ohio, was shot by the police as he sat on a swing-set near his toy BB gun [a type of air gun designed to shoot spherical projectiles called BBs]; 19-year-old Diana Showman held a power drill when she opened her door to the San Jose police, who shot this young woman who had mental health challenges. “She was a good girl,” said Diana’s mother, Vickie. “She had challenges. We loved her. I want the police to be more careful. I want them to be more compassionate.”
On November 24, Robert McCulloch, the Prosecuting Attorney of St. Louis County, Missouri, announced that the government had decided not to indict Officer Wilson for Michael Brown’s murder. Wilson was not going to be called to account for the murder, not even on the charge of involuntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder. McCulloch is the son of a police officer who was shot in the line of duty. In his two decades as the Attorney for the county that includes Ferguson, McCulloch has never indicted a police officer for shooting a civilian. McCulloch summed up 5,000 pages of the grand jury proceedings into a simple narrative of an out-of-control young man (Brown) and a police officer who fired in self-defence (Wilson). This narrative allows for a defence of “justifiable homicide”, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty”.
Ferguson erupted in protests in the hours after Brown’s killing. Such a response has become commonplace in communities that have been wracked by police violence: local activists and the immediate neighbours stand near the site of the killing, calling for justice. Pressure builds on local politicians to join in, and then some religious figures give their assent for people in their congregations to go onto the streets. These protests are covered by the local media, and then forgotten. The judicial process is slow. By the time the courts act, the crowds have dispersed or else gathered to protest the next atrocity.
In Ferguson, the police reaction to the slow build-up of sadness and anger inflamed the situation. Brown’s body was left on the street, unattended. When it was removed, neighbours created a small candles-and-flowers memorial, upon which a police dog was allowed to urinate before police vehicles crushed it. Missouri State Representative, Sharon Pace, said this “made people in the crowd mad and it made me mad”. Protests escalated, with the killing of this teenager gaining symbolic value within days. Crowds walked across America’s streets with their hands in the air, chanting, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” People from outside Ferguson came to the town to join in the protests. The Dream Defenders, a group that had taken up the case of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by the acquitted vigilante George Zimmerman in Florida, came to Ferguson. Groups such as BLACK (Building Leadership and Community Knowledge), Black Student Alliance, Don’t Shoot Coalition, Freedom Fighters, Hands Up United, Lost Voices, Metropolitan St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equality (M-Slice), Millennium Activists United, Organisation for Black Struggle and Tribe X took to the streets of Ferguson in an act of solidarity against the police shooting. Excessive police violence against the protests inflamed the situation and arrests of journalists became a commonplace occurrence.
“Ferguson” quickly came to stand for much more than the death of Michael Brown. It became a symbol for police violence, for the fact that African Americans are killed by the police four and a half times more often than any other community, and for the lack of justice for these killings. Bakari Kitwana, the author of The Hip Hop Generation, told me why “Ferguson” has become so significant. The generation that has taken to the streets, he said, came long after the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. They had participated in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency and had high expectations that his presidency would solve many of their immediate problems. These young people had “an unprecedented collective belief in their own American-ness,” Kitwana told me. The “travesty of justice in the Zimmerman verdict and grand jury non-indictment of Wilson” brought these young people “face-to-face with the reality of their second-class citizenship”, he said.
Emblematic of this youth upsurge is Alisha Sonnier, vice-president of Tribe X, which was created in reaction to the shooting of Brown. Alisha Sonnier is a biological engineering student at Saint Louis University (SLU), a Jesuit school not far from Ferguson. In October 2014, in the wake of the protests against the Brown shooting, Tribe X organised “Occupy SLU”, a gathering in October on their campus intended, she said, to show SLU students that they were “also St. Louis community members”. Alisha Sonnier was joined on the front lines by hip hop leaders such as Talib Kweli and Rosa Clemente. Rosa Clemente, who ran for Vice-President on the Green Party ticket in 2008, said people had been “lulled to sleep” by the Obama presidency. Both Alisha Sonnier and Rosa Clemente see no alternative to protesting; and both recognise the enormity of their challenge.
Ferguson resembles many of the towns or neighbourhoods of the U.S.’ black poor (two thirds of Ferguson’s population is African American). A decade ago, the poverty rate in this small community was between 4 and 16 per cent. After the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, the rate rose to over 20 per cent, while the unemployment rate doubled over this decade. Youth unemployment is particularly high, with young Black men such as Michael Brown finding jobs increasingly rare.
One of the main causes of frustration, Kitwana observes, is the collapse of the economy. “A generation of youth is out of work,” he tells me, “for whom affordable education is not working. The government is doing nothing to protect them from vulture vampire capitalism, which nickels and dimes them at every turn right down to health care.” In many ways, the African American poor have become disposable despite Obama’s presidency. The 2008 campaign raised expectations that could not be met without substantial changes in society and its relationship to the state.
Ferguson’s depleted municipal budget has come to rely more and more on fines generated by such things as traffic offences (the second highest item in its revenue stream). In 2013, the police issued 32,975 arrest warrants to Ferguson’s population of only 21,135. According to ArchCity Defenders, an activist group in the area, the police write tickets to people for harmless infractions. These tickets come with high fines, which are priced beyond the poverty wages in the city. When these tickets are not paid, the police issue arrest warrants and put the population into the prison pipeline. The hostile relationship between the police and the population goes deep into their everyday lives. The killing of Michael Brown was only the surface manifestation of a deep-rooted problem. It is the reason why unanswered grievances emerged in the frustrated protests over the months between Brown’s death and the refusal to seek justice in the case.
Officer Wilson resigned from the Ferguson Police Department a few days after the authorities decided not to try him for the murder of Michael Brown. He hoped that his actions would “allow the community to heal”. His departure is unlikely to affect the mood. Brown himself is dead, his reputation sullied by a police department that has used every means possible to suggest that it was Brown who had caused his own death. The protesters continue their vigil, marching to the State capital and calling for a boycott of shops to raise awareness of their anger and pain.
Silence will eventually descend on Ferguson, as it did on Sanford, Florida, where George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Somewhere else, another hail of bullets will bring down another black teenager. More vigils and more protests will follow. One more American town will join the sequence of names that stand for violence and injustice—Jena, Chicago, Cleveland, Jackson, New York, Sanford, Terrebonne, Ferguson….