The United States of Ferguson

Hands up. Don't shoot.
The Kerner Commission, 1967.
Ferguson police watches demonstrators.
Urban Shield Oakland California - supporting agencies
By Michael Reagan
August, 2014

Washington's Wars and Occupations:
Month in Review #112/August 31, 2014

Faced with Two Societies, Separate and Unequal, mass rebellion sweeps Ferguson and resonates nationwide. Michael Reagan reports.   

In the summer of 1967 riots exploded in the nation’s cities. In two of the biggest, Detroit and Newark, dozens of people were killed, the national guard and U.S. Army soldiers, fresh from Vietnam, were deployed to enforce curfew. 

The precipitating event in almost every '60s uprising was police violence: raiding a Black club, beating a motorist, or beating a cab driver. But the Kerner Commission, tasked by President Johnson with investigating the riots, found that the causes went much deeper – systematic racism and discrimination in the nation’s institutions, from housing and education, to lack of job opportunities, and police brutality. Even with the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the Commission found that America was moving toward “two societies, one Black, one white, separate and unequal.”

That was nearly fifty years ago. With the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems little has changed. It’s hard to disagree with the assessment of the foreign press, for example Ziet online, a German daily news-source, that finds that “the situation of African-Americans has barely improved since Martin Luther King” and that the “dream of a post-racist society, which flared up after the election of Obama, seems further away than ever before.”


The heartbreaking loss of Michael Brown, another Black teenager, a young man with so much promise, is compounded by other factors. His murder is only remarkable for the resistance it inspired. Black life is so valueless in mainstream U.S. society that the murder of Black men, women, even children, is commonplace, regarded as hardly worthy of comment. 

In the weeks around the Brown killing, four unarmed young Black men were killed by police. Using Center for Disease Control information, the Sunlight Foundation writes that Black Americans are three times more likely to die by police violence as white. And a 2013 Malcolm X Grassroots center study found that including police, security guard and vigilante violence, a Black person is killed every 28 hours in the U.S. Perhaps most heartbreaking is that no one actually keeps track of national killings of Black Americans by the police; the CDC data for example only covers 19 participating states.

The police racism in Ferguson and St. Louis is bad, but no worse than that of police officers and departments nationwide. Ferguson police have a history of targeting Black residents.  In a city that is over two-thirds Black, only three of the fifty officers on the force are Black. Black residents in Ferguson are eighty-six percent of the vehicular stops by police, and a whopping ninety-three percent of the arrests. A study released this month by a legal advocacy group in St. Louis found that in a city of only 21,000 residents, the Ferguson PD issued 33,000 traffic warrants. The court fees, totaling over $2 million, were the second largest source of revenue for the city in 2013. 

The extreme and callous behavior by Ferguson PD has been evident for years. In 2009 the Ferguson police mistakenly arrested and beat a handcuffed Black man already in police custody. Despite jail house cameras, no video evidence could be found, and the police charged the man for damage to government property - for bleeding on their uniforms.

In 2011 Ferguson PD tasered a mentally ill man to death. Early in the summer, a St. Louis officer told a gathering of Oath Keepers that “I've killed a lot, and if I need to I'll kill a whole bunch more. If you don't want to get killed, don't show up in front of me,” adding, “I’m into diversity – I kill everybody.” Such practices, argues a St. Louis public defender and author of the racial profiling report, “destroys the public’s confidence in the justice system and its component parts.”

On top of this, like much of Black America, residents of Ferguson face economic deprivation. In 1970 Ferguson was ninety-nine percent white, now it’s only a third white, and as the city has become increasingly Black, it has become increasing poor as well. 

One in four Ferguson residents live in poverty, and half the Black male population is unemployed.  Median household income fell twenty-five percent from 2000 to 2011, to below $36,000 a year. This loss was compounded by the housing crisis, which wiped out a generation of gains of Black wealth, cutting national Black wealth in half, and exacerbating the racial wealth gap.  Average Black household worth is roughly $6,300, with white averages closer to $110,000 – a disparity greater than that found in apartheid South Africa. And the Black-white income gap is currently greater that it was in 1967, the year of the Kerner Commission report, by nearly forty percent. (Much of this is due to the gains of the top one percent, which is almost exclusively white.) On top of this, institutions that serve primarily Black constituents are falling apart. Michael Brown’s high school for example, lost its state accreditation last year. 


Even against this background, police actions in Ferguson were egregious. From Brown’s shooting on, it seemed as if police took pains to inflame the situation, contributing only more violence and intimidation. After Brown was shot, his body lay in the street, uncovered for hours, while friends and family members were kept away. Once a memorial went up at the site, with flowers, notes, and mementos memorializing Brown, police again cordoned off the area – while police cursers raced by damaging the memorial, and one officer let his police dog urinate on Brown’s memorial site. 

Demonstrators attempted to block police access to the scene, but they were met with overwhelming violence, and a militarized police presence.  When Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson told reporters that Michael Brown was shot “more than just a couple times, but not much more” – the callousness of the force could not have been clearer.

By all accounts, the police of Ferguson and St. Louis County went to war with the Black population of the city.  Mostly young, the protestors, for their part, seemed to recognize what no one else could. “There’s a war against us,” said Clarence Bledsoe, a Brown supporter and by-stander drawn into the protests, “we don’t see justice at all.” Rosa Clemente, activist and scholar, wrote from the scene that “This is a war zone, a military occupation and our children are the cannon fodder.” The slogan that the movement embraced – “hands up, don’t shoot” – expressed the innocence of the victims, and the egregious nature of the police crimes against them.  No matter what Black people do, from acting in the most non-threatening and accommodating ways to police officers, as Michael Brown did at the moment of his death, their lives are worthless in the eyes of law enforcement. 

The Hands-Up, Don’t Shoot slogan was undergirded by militant protests that brought national attention on these issues. Without the riots, Brown’s murder would have been one of dozens, hundreds, that happen every year – Brown, forgotten in a list of names as long as American history. But because of the demonstrations, national attention was forced on race, police violence, inequality, and injustice. 

Despite the impact of the protests, serious tactical and political disagreements emerged in the protestors. Clemente noted heated political arguments between younger and older activists over the use of rioting. For the youth, she writes, “they were longing for direction and leadership that is definitely not coming from the older generation . . . they shared with us their frustrations with so-called leadership in our communities. And I cannot blame them. In the midst of last night's unrest, I saw many older people of color shaking hands and laughing with the police.” Dontey Carter, a 23 year old protester form St. Louis told buzzfeed that “I feel in my heart that they [contemporary civil rights leaders] failed us,” he said. “They’re the reason things are like this now. They don’t represent us. That’s why we’re here for a new movement. And we have some warriors out here.” The mood carried over to crowds who booed Jesse Jackson off stage as he solicited funds for civil rights work.  A tweet from Bloodbath&beyond criticized Jackson for taking money from a “community that is relatively poor.”

Police Chief Jackson’s comments, that Brown was shot more than just a couple times, applies to police action nationwide.  Police violence and racism, from Eric Garner, to Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and the countless others, has happened “more than just a couple times.”  It’s pattern woven into the fabric of American society. 

Indeed, a pattern of racism and violence that this month's events from Gaza to Iraq and beyond showed extends worldwide. No wonder several Ferguson protesters were quoted as saying that in the wake of the police occupation, Ferguson "looked like Gaza." (For a balance sheet on the results of the U.S.-backed Israeli massacre in Gaza, see "Lessons from the Gaza War" here.


“You can’t have patience,” another protester, Taureen Russell, told reporters at the beginning of the month.  “We been stuck on the same page in history for the last 60 years, patience is gone. Local police came and said y’all need to leave, we stayed. They shot tear gas, we stayed. They shot rubber bullets we stayed and got stronger. They gave us a curfew, we stayed all night.” As Black youth organize, mobilize, and act in concert, they force the importance and value of Black lives on the racist, unaccountable institutions that govern them.  Whether in the newly formed Justice For Michael Brown, the Dallas-based Huey P. Newton Gun Club, Black Youth Project 100, or resistance to Urban Shield in Oakland, there are positive steps that can be supported. 

In 1967 the Kerner Commission highlighted issues of racial and economic inequality because of the riots in Black communities across the country. In 1968 the whole nation exploded in the wake the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Fifty years later, in Ferguson, the history of the 1960s resonates in booming echo. 

Dr. King, who committed his life to social justice through militant, non-violent direct action, deeply empathized with the rioters of ’67. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he wrote, “And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Comments that could hardly be more true today.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Michael Reagan is an organizer with the Seattle Solidarity Network andstudent at the University of Washington where he studies the history ofAmerican capitalism.

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