America is experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Much like the battle-wounded that struggles to cope with the heart wrenching realities of war, American society falls into bouts of depression and rage. From the race riots of the depression era to the social unrest following the deaths of civil rights era figures, race in America is inherently linked to instability. This nearly schizophrenic pattern of contemporary racial violence, followed by overtures to a post-racial America, is perfectly captured by all events surrounding the recent killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Like all countries undergoing post-conflict transformation, the United States is trying to cope with the internal elements that sustain social unrest and state violence. The war over the fate of its slaves of African descent ended in 1865. Yet the process of reconstructing the state afterwards, which was previously entrenched in a racial hierarchy imposed and enforced through state-sanctioned formal and mob violence, continued into the mid-twentieth century. For many, the election of a Black President, with all its catharsis and historic symbolism, has only emphasized the inability of the government to address issues of racism and state violence.
So it comes as no surprise that mass protests erupted following the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson; an encounter in which Wilson managed to empty his 12 round clip, hitting Brown 6 times.
The case has instigated a state of soul-searching as the small Midwestern town has come under the national spotlight, where initial outrage over the killing prompted a sustained military style police presence in Ferguson. Armored vehicles, assault rifles, and anti-riot gear were on display in full force. Two of the departments deployed to Ferguson-the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the St. Louis County Police Department – reportedly received training in some capacity from Israeli security forces. Such was the excessive force that a Federal Civil Rights investigation of the Ferguson Police is currently underway.
A St. Louis County Grand Jury – the County where the municipality of Ferguson is located – was convened in order to decide whether or not Officer Darren Wilson should be indicted for a criminal trial given the excessive force used on an unarmed civilian.
However the jury delivered a staggering non-indictment of Officer Wilson which was met with an explosion of nation-wide marches denouncing the decision. Over 400 people were arrested in Ferguson during the two nights following the announcement. In an ironic throwback to the civil rights era, the National Guard was deployed in order to quell the growing demonstrations.
There is no doubt that some of these protests have hurled violence used against them right back at the state – or whatever embodies it – in retaliation for, or perhaps in solidarity with, Michael Brown. However it is generally accepted that most of these protests have been non-violent. What is significant is that these protests are all pushing the limits of ‘respectability’ and refusing to accept the stagnant narrative that racism, particularly institutional racism, has ended.
The fears and anger over the Michael Brown case in Ferguson are interwoven with lacking accountability of officials responsible for the preserving rule of law. For many, the deeply rooted racial anxieties of American society brought out in the past few months pale in comparison to a climate of predatory policing. For numerous black residents of Ferguson, the past and the present are one and the same.
Race in the U.S. is class warfare, the promise of a fulfilling life, state violence, style and flare, the War on Terror, and the hope of a better tomorrow. It was spoken into existence in order to create distinct and ‘enslavable’ classes of people in the new world by wealthy European benefactors of the Old World. African heritage qualified one as a commodity. As the violence and inequality that underpinned the racial caste system was challenged, so was the narrative of black inferiority. However, the category of race itself endures on into the present.
Americans cannot turn away from race as an existential forethought; it defines the contours of the American mindscape. Despite this reality, or maybe because of it, many people in the U.S. would rather not acknowledge the existence of race as a significant socio-political indicator.
In a familiar scene, all the typical talking points concerning race have resurfaced in the aftermath of the Grand Jury decision;
“Michael Brown was a ‘thug’ that got what was coming to him.”
“There is a war on Black bodies, especially black men in America.”
“The welfare state has failed poor people in inner city areas.”
“Things would be okay if areas like Ferguson had more policing.”
Like rocks, these observations are pelted across the airwaves past any real discussion or acknowledgement of the problems expressed by people on the ground in communities like Ferguson.
Recent meetings with community leaders at historical locations such as Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started his ministry, and the White House have not impacted the wider societal conversation about Ferguson. In fact, these measures follow two years of high profile racially charged killings of unarmed black men. Some of these instances involve police, such as the killing of 12 year old Tamir Rice who was shot as he wielded a toy gun. Another instance where a Grand Jury did not indict police officers is the case of Eric Garner who died from neck compression while being arrested. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. Other cases do not involve the police, such as the February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by neighbourhood watchmen George Zimmerman.
Policing in Ferguson prior to Michael Brown’s death was characterized by constant low-level harassment of black residents linked to predatory revenue generation from fines and court fees. Several of the small municipalities in the highly segregated County of St. Louis rely on fines levied form traffic violations. Traffic stops in Ferguson disproportionately target black residents. According to a recent report by a non-profit legal defense organization, 86 percent of stops in Ferguson involve a black driver, while only 67 percent of the town’s residents are black. According to the same report the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed nearly 25,000 arrest warrants and over 12,000 cases in a town with a population of 21,203 persons. Traffic stops can lead to jail time, particularly if residents are unable to pay fines. Fines and court fees are the second largest source of revenue generation for the Ferguson municipality.
The instability in places like Ferguson stems from frustration with majority white municipal governments that prey on poor black residents. National outrage over Michael Brown’s killing emerges from the dark place where a legacy of state violence married with racial subjugation is buried from public consciousness. American society has been primed not to tolerate individual acts of racial hatred, but any disparity or act of violence related to the state is treated like an invisible hand.
Yet since the end of Civil Rights Movement the state has been involved in a campaign that has-intentionally in many cases-criminalized and dehumanized black and brown persons. All major civil rights era figures, especially Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, were illegally surveilled under COINTELPRO legislation. Community based organizations that advocated black self-defense were aggressively infiltrated by police forces and the FBI. Leaders of these organizations, such as Fred Hampton, were often targeted for harassment, arrest, and even assassination.
As many urban centers were mired in drug and gang violence during the 1980’s, aggressive policing and sentencing was used to arrest mostly low level offenders. The War on Drugs was born. Prisons in the U.S. overflowed, making the incarcerated population in America the largest in the world. Naturally police forces became more militarized in practice, akin to ‘peacekeeping’ forces, in large poor urban areas. The War on Terror also emphasizes emergency response and preparedness in the face of a terrorist attack. The post- 9/11 era has only legitimized militarization of policing even further.
Many attorneys and legal organizations, such as the National Bar Association, are dumbfounded at the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson. Police officers, however, are rarely brought to trial for shootings that occur on duty.
Beneath the juggernaut of institutional forces that were born from the racial legacy of America, sits the Millennials of 2014. Many of those in the streets protesting are college students and residents of the different ‘Fergusons’ all over the country.
According to ProPublica news, Black teens are 21 times as likely to be killed as Whites by police. In the wake of the current social reality, Americans face a quintessential dilemma; keep walking in the shadow of the past or address the wrongs of yesterday and move forward. The irony is that neither choice allows for an escape from America’s legacy of racial subjugation.
Some protesters chant “Black is back,” while others stand in solidarity. Either way, America is catching up with itself. Its wide shadow looms large over broken dialogue, lacking compassion, and curable anger.
The U.S. is a post-conflict country where reoccurring paradigms and divisions that fuel the fires of social angst and division remain imprinted in the fabric of everyday life. Ferguson is a symbol for a larger structural issue, and people are crying out because they want an acknowledgment or recognition that the status quo is unbearable and in decline.
People want institutional changes and a gesture that the power structures are sensitive to the needs of the vulnerable. A federal investigation of Officer Darren Wilson is underway. People are still waiting for some good will.
Ismaail Qaiyim is a freelance writer with an interest in politics, global affairs, religion, philosophy, and genuine critical engagement. He has a particular passion for issues of governance and ‘development’ in late industrializing countries. He holds an MSc in Violence, Conflict and development from SOAS, University of London and has spent time working for local civil society in West Africa. Follow him @IsmaailQaiyim.