(Editor’s Note: The following article is the second reflection and analysis piece concerning the shooting of Mike Brown and the ensuing rebellions in Ferguson. This post was written by two members of Edge City, one of whom visited Ferguson recently. As with many of the analysis documents we will post in the future, the perspectives contained here are not wholly representative of the group’s positions. Its contents are intended to generate discussion and debate about the politics surrounding these events as we await the Grand Jury decision.)
In the course of one week following the police murder of Mike Brown in August, 2014, the Black residents of Ferguson, MO mourned, demonstrated and then rebelled — first challenging the everyday functioning of their town and then the political stability of the United States. Everything from the regular traffic stop-and-frisks that were targeting young Blacks (and funding public institutions) to the composition of the police force and the political control of the city was fundamentally questioned.
The community militance and anti-police sentiment that was present prior to the shooting and which emerged fully after the death of Mike Brown are important to understand, but not just in one Missouri town. This document puts forth observations from being on the ground in Ferguson and some questions we have from afar.
This struggle is not over. Though some of the participants will withdraw — Attorney General Holder has found a well-paying corporate job and the killer of Mike Brown will never patrol a Missouri town again — the residents of Ferguson have still had no justice. Those forces which shoved aside the local political elites of Ferguson know this and have begun some of the classic maneuvers of counter-insurgency. One can imagine them first discussing Syria, then Ferguson, since nearly the same tactics, minus Tomahawk missiles, have been brought into play.
We raise our questions and put forward our stance to aid those who resisted. This was a home-grown insurgency led by Black youth the same age or younger than Mike Brown, as well as their parents and grandparents. But since those who are leading the counterattack know that similar leaders exist in every town in Missouri and across the country, they are targeting the Ferguson folks with coercion and co-optation in addition to the brutal and relentless militarization during the days of the riots.
“It’s not a race thing, it’s a police thing.” – A young Black resident in the Walgreens on West Florissant (August 22, 2014)
The man quoted above understood the conflict taking place in the weeks after Mike Brown was killed as a war against the police as an institution. His statement is contradictory, in that Darren Wilson is a white policeman and most associate police shootings with the ongoing and continued legacy of white supremacy. It is significant that the police were undeniably the enemy during the the initial riots and that the riots were not directed at white people as a whole, but toward the institution of the police. Both local and national businesses were targeted, including many Black owned businesses that were attacked repeatedly. There has been mixed reporting about why certain businesses were looted or not.
It appeared that the only groups other than the businesses that were targeted for attack were the police and at times, the media. This is not to say that white people were not attacked, but the focus was more on the police as an institution rather than white people as a group. There were even accounts of multi-racial alliances in the streets in Ferguson in the weeks following the murder of Mike Brown, but the entirely Black led response to the shooting was seemingly focused on ending police brutality and a demand for justice more than anything else.
It is impossible to understand the origins of the police and the role they have maintained in defining and defending the color line without an understanding of white supremacy and slave patrols. The above quote from the Walgreens worker indicates that he sees the role of the police in Ferguson as something that can be detached from race. We disagree that the police and questions of white supremacy can be entirely and historically separated, but we also recognize the polarization over how to proceed in the aftermath of the shooting. Some groups wanted to defend the police, some wanted justice, others are not sure what could possibly make this world livable for young Black men.
In the weeks after the initial upsurge, organizations like the NAACP and The Urban League, were doing everything they could to defend the reputation and the role of the police. For example, the NAACP led a march hand-in-hand with Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar on Saturday, August 24th. Focusing on the need for more Black police officers, the critique focused on the racial composition of the police force in Ferguson and not the role of the police.
The creation of a truly multiracial police force functions to maintain the illusion of liberal progress inside of an institution that is racist by its very nature. The youth in Ferguson that were leading the protests did not seem to be demanding more Black police officers, they were and are demanding something else altogether.
“Do we have a leader? No. You want to know who our leader is? Mike Brown.” – DeVone Cruesoe, quoted in the New York Times (August 16, 2014)
After the initial week of rioting in Ferguson, the national media turned their attention to a ‘deeper’ analysis of some the problems and limitations of the rebellion. The role of leadership and organization was one such area that received attention. Much like their coverage of the Occupy movement, mainstream media have lamented the lack of leadership during the rebellion in Ferguson. However, unlike Occupy, where mainstream media identified a loose, anarchist structure of decision-making and organizing as the cause of the lack of leadership, in Ferguson mainstream media have focused on a supposed rift between undisciplined Black youth on the one hand, and the older official Black establishment on the other, including the old-guard of the Civil Rights movement such as the NAACP and the Urban League.
In this formulation, the legacy of the Civil Rights movement has a certain strategic function: to compare and contrast the unbridled militancy of today’s Black youth with the tactical discipline of the youth of the Civil Right’s movement. The supposed ‘generational rift’ identified by every major newspaper from the New York Times to the Washington Post has been deployed as a way to rhetorically discipline Black youth, to school them in the “art of protest” perfected during the days of the Civil Rights Movement.
The supposed generational rift obscures the fact that the youth of Ferguson, by their actions in the streets, were the leaders of the rebellion (both on a tactical and a political level) but that participants in the streets were both young and old. And in leading this rebellion, the youths actions call into question not only the current realities of race in American society, but the entirety of what passes as politics in the post-Civil Rights era. The actions of masses of Black youth in Ferguson constitute a challenge not just to the ruling racial order but also to the official institutions of Black politics and society: the NAACP, the Urban League, etc. This threat, so incomprehensible that all efforts to understand it have been merely attempts to contain it and to destroy it, marks the beginning of a new moment of Black struggle in the U.S. Nowhere is this leadership and new consciousness more apparent than in the moment when Jesse Jackson was chased out of a McDonald’s by a group of angry Ferguson residents. This sentiment was expressed again during the October 10-12th “Weekend of Resistance” when angry youth confronted religious leaders.
It remains to be seen what will happen and how the leadership seen on the streets of Ferguson will develop, and what effect this will have in Black politics and struggle nationally. The illusion that we have ever or continue to live in a post-racial society has been shattered irreparably. The significance of this moment is still to be determined, but we are convinced that Ferguson points to a rippling sentiment that faces us with a new set of questions. We believe the time is now to debate the significance and complexity of what is to come.