Black ’hood, white cops. “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.”
And so it begins, and begins, and begins. An African-American boy dies for walking in the street — for yet one more insanely small transgression. Protesters cry for justice. The legal bureaucracy hunkers down, defends itself, does what it can to paint the deceased 18-year-old, Michael Brown, as a bad guy. Sides harden in the media. Once more it’s us vs. them. Nobody talks about making things right; nobody about healing.
But we can’t talk about healing — yet. We can’t talk about Ferguson, Mo., and the standoff between angry residents and the heavily militarized police, now two weeks old, without talking about institutional racism. In a healthy, free society, the idea of a “standoff” like this would be absurd, because the police aren’t a separate entity, controlling that society on outside orders, like an occupying army. In a healthy society, police serve the community; they’re part of it.
What has happened, and is happening, in Ferguson is sufficiently preposterous and cruel that the mainstream media coverage hasn’t completely surrendered its sympathy to the police and portrayed all the protesters as rioters. A young man, walking in the street with a friend, was shot six times — twice in the head — by a police officer. Even if the police version of events (he was defiant, there was a struggle) is true, the shooting was an act of breathtaking aggression and should never have happened. And so many witnesses dispute this story, the reality looks a lot more like cold-blooded murder; thus the residents of Ferguson have a right to demand answers, and justice.
What they also have a right to demand, though most of the coverage hardly acknowledges as much, is control over their own community and complete assurance that they are not regarded by their “protectors” as the enemy. They have a right to demand deep justice — and deep change. Michael Brown’s shooting was not an isolated incident; it’s part of the legacy of manifest destiny, a.k.a., racism that has shaped the United States of America.
“Michael Brown’s tragic death,” writes Nadia Prupis at Common Dreams, “is part of a much more pervasive trend of police brutality on large and small scales that is strengthened and perpetuated by militarization — one that encourages the police to see the people as an enemy, and vice versa.”
The enemy, in particular, are people of color. Prupis quotes Eastern Kentucky University professor Victor E. Kappeler: “The institution of slavery and the control of minorities . . . were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing.”
Slavery, of course, is “history.” The conventional understanding is that we’re long past that regrettable era. Human enslavement occurred so long ago it might as well be part of some other national history — some other universe. Bringing it up, at least in the media, is in poor taste, apparently, guaranteed to summon groans and eyeball rolls. This is the case even though it’s been barely a generation since the civil rights movement curtailed slavery’s direct descendant, the Jim Crow laws and vicious racial discrimination on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Confederate flags still decorate public space and private consciousness. No matter. Slavery is history. Let’s move on.
But, as Kappeler, who is in the School of Justice Studies, goes on to say: “The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.
“The legacy of slavery and racism did not end after the Civil War,” he adds. “In fact it can be argued that extreme violence against people of color became even worse with the rise of vigilante groups who resisted Reconstruction.”
One phrase lingers: “control of minorities.” Could it be that such an imperative is part of our social DNA? This is institutional racism. It would put the Ferguson killing into an all-too-graspable context, beginning with Officer Darren Wilson’s command — “Get the fuck on the sidewalk” — to Michael Brown and his friend. The officer wasn’t keeping order in Ferguson; he was controlling the movement of two young African-American males, who are “minorities” despite the fact that Ferguson is mostly black.
I have no doubt that the standoff in Ferguson — the demand for change — goes this deep. I also have no doubt that teargas won’t pacify the protesters and replace their anger with fear of authority. Neither will all the military hardware the Defense Department can supply.
Fascinatingly, the standoff between police and protesters all but ended for one evening a week ago, when the governor pulled the local police force off the front lines and gave control of the situation to Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Instead of confronting the protesters as the enemy, Johnson, who is black and grew up in Ferguson, joined them. There were no gas masks, no armored vehicles — and, suddenly, no standoff.
At Michael Brown’s memorial service, Johnson said: “I will protect your right to protest.” Turning to the boy’s family, he added: “My heart goes out to you. I’m sorry.”
This was a mirage, of course. The tear gas and confrontation — the occupying army — returned soon enough, and the community split apart again.
But deep change is coming. The events in Ferguson have forced our history out of hiding.