"As long as justice is postponed we always stand on the verge of these darker nights of social disruption." So said Martin Luther King Jr. in a speech on March 14, 1968, just three weeks before he was assassinated.
Michael Brown's killing in August continues to send shockwaves through Ferguson, Missouri, and beyond. Last Monday night, Saint Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch unleashed a night of social disruption when he announced that no criminal charges would be filed against Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Brown. McCulloch inexplicably delayed release of the grand jury findings until nightfall. The prosecutor's press conference deeply insulted many, as he labouriously defended the actions of Darren Wilson, while attacking the character of the victim, Michael Brown.
Soon after McCulloch's announcement, Ferguson erupted. Buildings were set ablaze, burning to the ground. Cars were engulfed in flames. Aggressive riot police, ignoring much-touted "rules of engagement" agreements with protest organizers, fired tear gas canisters at outraged residents. Random gunfire rang out through the night.
"Black lives don't matter," said one young man protesting in the freezing cold in Ferguson on Monday night. Tear gas mixed with noxious smoke from raging fires nearby. Another protester, Katrina Redmon, explained her frustration with the failure to indict Darren Wilson: "He killed an unarmed black teenager. There is no excuse for that. A man was killed and somebody walked away ... we want answers. Because it seems like the only way you can get away with murder is if you got a badge."
I was interviewing the demonstrators outside the Ferguson police station, which was ringed with riot police. We were not far from the spot where Michael Brown was killed, shot at least six times by Darren Wilson, and where his corpse was left in the road, face down and bleeding, for more than four hours under the hot August sun as horrified friends and neighbors looked on. After protests grew following Brown's killing, state and local law enforcement unfurled a shocking array of military gear and arms, helping expose how the Pentagon has been quietly unloading its surplus war-making materiel from Iraq and Afghanistan to thousands of cities and towns across the country. Since 9/11, over $5 billion worth of this gear has been transferred. The United States now has an occupying military force: the local police.
The riot police and National Guard swarmed the white side of Ferguson, while the black side of town, along West Florissant Avenue, was ablaze. There were almost no cops there. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency a week before the grand jury decision came down, yet the National Guard troops he deployed were nowhere to be seen in this part of town. About a dozen businesses went up in flames. Why was West Florissant Avenue left unguarded? Did the authorities let Ferguson burn?
In his 1968 speech, "The Other America," Dr. King addressed fears of a forthcoming summer of riots like those that consumed Newark, New Jersey, Detroit and other black inner cities in 1967. King said:
"It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."
Those unheard, the citizens of Ferguson who have been taking to the streets for over 100 days, weren't the ones setting fires. They were demanding justice. Solidarity protests involving thousands around the country and around the world are amplifying their demands, linking struggles, building a mass movement.
"We're going to shake the heavens," one young man told me, as he faced off with the riot police. His breath was visible in the freezing night air. He was shivering in the cold, but he wasn't going anywhere. It is that fire, that inextinguishable commitment, not the burning embers of buildings, that those who profit from injustice have most to fear.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.