Civil Unrest? “Beyond the City of Ferguson” By Paul Street
October 17, 2014 “ICH” – “ZNet” – According to a recent report from Reuters, “Missouri authorities” are meeting three times a week. They are asking local police departments around the country for intelligence on “out-of-state” activists (“agitators”). “Missouri law enforcement officials,” Reuters observed, “have been in contact with police chiefs in Los Angeles, New York, Florida, and Cincinnati, Ohio.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has been involved in the discussions. The FBI’s top St. Louis official, Agent William Woods, “attended a strategy session last week.”
Also attending the get-togethers: Ferguson mayor James Knowles and representatives of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County Police, St. Louis City Police, and the Ferguson Police.
The subject of these multi-jurisdictional Missouri meetings and information requests to police departments across the nation? The development of “contingency plans” for the effective management of the local and even national “civil unrest” the “authorities” expect to result when and if a St. Louis Count grand jury chooses not to indict the white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson (currently held in a secret location) for executing an unarmed 18 year-old Black man named Michael Brown last August 9th. Wilson killed Brown with multiple shots to his chest and head as Brown surrendered with hands raised.
As the “authorities” surely know, white police officers are rarely indicted and even more rarely convicted for murdering Blacks – an all too common occurrence in the not-so “post-racial” United States. They are no doubt also aware that the Los Angeles “Rodney King” riots occurred not in response to the videotaped 1991 police beating of Rodney King but to the acquittal in April of 1992 of the four white Los Angeles police officers who had abused King.
Mayor Knowles told Reuters that “the unrest is going to go far beyond the city of Ferguson.” If Wilson goes uncharged, St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar added, violence will break out “not just in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson but across the greater metropolitan area and even in other US cities” (Tim Reid, “Missouri Police Plan for Possible Riots if Darren Wilson Not Charged,” Reuters, October 10, 2014, http://www.popularresistance.org/fbi-multiple-cities-preparing-for-riots-if-no-ferguson-indictment/)
What They Police
Knowles, Belmar, Wood and the rest of the “authorities” gathering regularly in Missouri have reason to anticipate discontent in St. Louis. In that racially hyper-segregated and unequal city, white police have fatally gunned down two black males since the Brown killing. The most recent incident occurred last week, with the hotly disputed police shooting of 18-year old Vonderrit Myers Jr.
The “Missouri authorities” are correct also to think that “civil unrest” is possible in other cities and towns around the US. It’s not just that the Brown killing and the protests and the over-the-top militarized police state repression (commandeered by Belmar) that followed got leading and graphic media attention last August. It’s also that that the US seems to be in the middle of “a national epidemic of in which a disproportionately high number of unarmed black men are fatally shot by white police officers” (Reuters’ words). The Malcom X Grassroots Movement calculates that on average a Black US civilian is killed by a(n almost always white) police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante once every 28 hours. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are tragic links in a vast chain of Black corpses created by local, county, and state police. Recent victims include Denzel Curnell (killed by South Carolina police in Charleston last June), Ezell Ford (shot to death by an LAPD officer last summer) and Eric Garner (choked to the death by the NYPD last July), Dante Parker (Tased to death by county police in Victorville, CA last summer) and Kajieme Powell (killed by 10 police bullets after stealing pastries and waving a knife in St. Louis not long after Brown was killed), Vonderrit Myers, and …the list goes on.
The killings take place a context of persistent harsh racial segregation and related savage racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households. Fully 39% of US Black children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, comparted to 36% of Native American children, 34% if Hispanic children and 13% of white children.
The killing epidemic occurs against the backdrop of a four-decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking. More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three Black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what Ohio State Law Professor Michelle Alexander has termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.
The Civil Rights charlatan, corporate media personality, and White House front man Al Sharpton went to Michael Brown’s funeral to say that the Ferguson protests were about “how we gonna police in the United States.” While police methods do need to change, Sharpton left out the fundamental question of what “the authorities” police in the US. Among other things, US local, county, and state police serve and protect a “homeland” regime of harsh and interrelated racial and class disparity. Are any “authorities” in Missouri and/or Washington or anywhere else in the US meeting to discuss how to call off the racist police killing epidemic, how to end the massive over-incarceration of Black Americans, and what to do to close the absurd national racial gaps in wealth and income? Not really. The forces of order are deliberating on how to repress the Black anger that naturally emerges from egregious racial abuse and disparity in the post-Civil Rights US.
A white reader wrote me recently to relate his concern that recent reports on white police killing black men might lead us to ignore the terrible problem of Black on Black violence in ghetto communities, “Even if we protect the ‘disproportionately high number of unarmed black men [who] are fatally shot by white police officers,’ how do you stop the scourge of black men killed by other black men? If you find a cure for the former, you are still left with a whole lot of dead black men.” Here was/is my response:
“I’m not sure why you use quote marks around the racially disparate killing problem: that problem unquestionably exists. That aside, the cure is well known: undo endemic and deeply entrenched US race-class apartheid. De-segregate the currently existing overlapping and interrelated spatial and social hyper-concentrations of poverty and race. If you penned whites up in hyper segregated jobless opportunity-less disinvested communities like the north side of St. Louis, the west side of Chicago, inner Benton Harbor, Michigan and (the list goes on) and if you locked up and felony-branded millions and millions of white men mainly for non-violent drug crimes, then you’d have an endemic scourge of white men killing white men. It’s actually that basic and simple. “Find a cure”? Please. What do you think the cops who kill and otherwise oppress the Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins and .Denzell Curnells and Vonderrit Myers (killed by St. Louis cops last week) are protecting and enforcing? Racial Apartheid, American-style. Put this on your reading list – its mainstream social science (not by ‘dangerous radicals’ like me): Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Black Teddy Bears, White Smith & Wessons
Many whites in Ferguson and the St. Louis area are not content to rely on the ever-more militarized and high-tech US local, state, and federal police state to keep them safe from “civil unrest.” They are stocking up on weapons and ammunition. Reuters reports that:
“while mostly black residents hold small protests outside the police station each day, gun store owners reports a jump in sales to white residents….A memorial to Brown on the spot where he died, and where his body lay uncollected for four hours, still stands, a crucifix surrounded by teddy bears, photographs, flowers and handwritten notes decrying his loss and the alleged brutality of police…..Adam Weinstein, co-owner of County Guns, said sales were up 50 percent since Brown’s shooting, mostly among white residents fearful of riots who are buying Glock, Springfield and Smith & Wesson handguns, and shotguns. ‘They are afraid the city is going to explode,’ Weinstein said, a former member of the U.S. Navy and St. Louis firefighter with heavily tattooed arms.”
A white worker in a Ferguson liquor store told Reuters that he now brings his personal handgun to work and is “ready to shoot anyone looking for trouble.”
The white worker might want to think about “looking for trouble” himself – with the very disproportionately white US economic and power elite, not with poor and ghettoized Blacks. White Americans should consider the possibility that they’d be better off joining Blacks and other nonwhite Americans in mass civil unrest. After all, it isn’t just “people of color” (a phrase that seems to imply that Caucasians have no hue and shading) who suffer under the current American System of savage inequality. The mostly working class white population has remarkably little say on politics and policy in an ever more transparently oligarchic and plutocratic New Gilded Age America, where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than 90 percent of the population and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected officials.” Majority public opinion – including the opinion of most whites – is technically irrelevant in the US today, ruled as it is by an “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase) that regularly eliminates and offshores jobs formerly held by white and other US workers.
You don’t have to be a Marxist, left-anarchist, or other kind of “dangerous radical” to note that popular governance or democracy has been badly trumped by oligarchy and plutocracy in the US. In a study released last April and scheduled for publication in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported that U.S. democracy no longer exists. Over the past few decades, Gilens and Page determined that the U.S. has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule,” wielding wildly disproportionate power over national policy. Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2012, they found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” (M. Gilens and B. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” April 9, 2014,).
A story about Gilens and Page’s study in the online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last April bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” The story contained a link to an interview in which Gilens explained that “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence.”
The social, economic, and political gains that the working- and middle class white majority have attained in British colonial North America and the US through at least the early 1970s can be traced to no small extent to ordinary white Americans’ willingness to engage in civil unrest that challenged the prerogatives of propertied elites. Examples include the Boston Tea Party of 1774 (when a large and highly organized crowd composed largely of white laborers and artisans put the nation on the irreversible path to independence by destroying a large quantity of private property owned by the British East India Company) and the sit-down strike wage of 1936-37 (when mostly white industrial workers occupied capitalist workplaces across the nation). The great rollback of white working and middle class incomes, security, and power and the relentless upward concentration of wealth and power in the US since the mid -1970s reflects in part the terrible decline of organization, militancy, activism, and civil unrest on the part of white working and middle class Americans.
“He Won’t Notice You Picking His Pocket”
The nation’s super-wealthy economic and power elites love it when American working and middle class whites focus their anger and resentment on lower and working class Blacks, other nonwhites, and officially designated foreign enemies (Soviet-directed “communists” for most of the second half of the last century and Islamic jihadists in the current century). Racial and ethnic “divide, divert, and rule” for and by the white elite is a rich US tradition, as old as the nation’s history. It is arguably the taproot of the vicious system of black chattel slavery that poisoned the birth, youth, and long life of the nation (see historian Edmund S. Morgan’s powerful book American Slavery, American Freedom, 1976)
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man,” the future US President and veteran Southern US politician Lyndon Baines Johnson told Bill Moyers in 1960, “he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” (Bill Moyers, Washington Post, November 13, 1988)
As race-class thinkers and activists have long observed, racism has long proved perversely attractive for a significant number of white lower- and working-class Americans struggling with their subordinate status in capitalist America. By W.E.B. DuBois’ account, anti-black racism grants lower and working-class whites a “public and psychological wage”—a false and dysfunctional measure of status and privilege used “to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships.” White workers in the U.S. have long tended, as historian David Roediger has noted, to “define and accept their [subordinate] class position by fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and ‘not blacks.’” As Martin Luther King Jr.’s observed in a 1968 speech titled “The Drum Major Instinct,” racialized capitalism gave its Caucasian working-class victims the sad “satisfaction of…thinking you are somebody big because you are white.”
Join the Rage
“Missouri authorities” who don’t want civil unrest might want to secretly instruct the Darren Wilson grand jury to indict and the subsequent jury to convict. Without indictment and conviction they’re going to have disturbances and thus another pretext to deploy their militarized policing hardware. If not this case, then another one, perhaps. The national racist police-killing epidemic creates new incidents on a regular basis. On top of the ferocious persistent racial segregation and hyper-inequality and racist mass incarceration that is so endemic in “post-racial” America, the shoot-fest fuels seething anger across much of Black America.
My recommendation to everyday whites is to think about joining the unrest, not cowering or arming up in fear of it. They should stop being satisfied with being given others to look down on. They should get their American History X on and aim upward, turning their anger against the propertied and privileged elites who own and run the country, and who are running it into the ground. They should refocus their anger on the wealthy Few, who (by the way) are pushing the environment past the point of livability, stealing prospects for a decent future.
We all need some civil unrest – a lot actually, on a mass scale, each and every day on behalf of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called in 1968 the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like, say, the technical racial or gender identity of a corporate-imperial US president): “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” Imagine.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2014)