This article originally appeared on the My Fluid Self blog
Michael Brown was unarmed. He was 18 years old. A recent high school graduate he was shot dead by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Witnesses, including his friend Dorian Johnson, claim he was shot whilst surrendering to the police officer. Wilson claims Michael Brown was attempting to grab his gun. A post-mortem appears to validate the witnesses. Gun wounds to the hands, and the trajectory of the fatal head shots indicate that Michael Brown was indeed in the surrender position at the time of the fatal shot. The police officer is suspended with full pay. What has followed the shooting is an ugly reminder of what it really means to be black in America.
Before the blood had dried on the curb the legacy of Michael Brown was the subject of an ideological tussle. America’s mass media wound up its motors, and using the coded language and images it has moulded through centuries of racism, it attempted to justify the killing in the same ways it always has; he was violent, he was a criminal, and without having to mouth the words, he was black.
The Brown family, and the residents of Ferguson, retaliated as anyone might expect them to, they refuted and resisted, extolling the virtues of Michael Brown. This wrangling over the identity of a young man brutally shot dead by a police officer is an added injustice and a testament to just how ingrained American racism is. When a black man is shot in America, the first thing people ask is: “was he a criminal?” Many don’t even ask. Their conclusions are pre-drawn like the police officers gun.
These attempts to frame the incident as an episode of crime and punishment in action are part of an insidious network of systematic repression and misrepresentation that criminalises black youth and manipulates images and information to present inner city black neighbourhoods as sites of pathological criminality. Mainstream American news perpetually saturates its broadcasts with stories of black criminality featuring images of black men framed as brutes, loaded with coded racial stereotypes harking back to the nadir of American racism.
The institutions of popular culture are so adept at manipulating the discourse on black life that they have succeeded in using black culture itself to reinforce regressive depictions of blackness. The proliferation of Gangsta rap in the nineties, driven in large part by a burgeoning white market, presented conceptions of blackness that, taken out of their political and cultural context, aligned with the already ubiquitous suggestion of pathological criminality and violence. This cultural distortion denies black America its heterogeneity and supports white assumptions about the cause of inner city poverty, cementing the status quo. It is not just police that view black Americans as criminals, large sections of American society are conditioned to as well. How can can marginalised communities resist such monolithic racist portrayals?
And, this is just one part of the machinery of oppression. Social and economic segregation dating back centuries, exacerbated and intensified by Reaganomics and its legacy, leave black communities with little prospects and devastating poverty. In many inner city neighbourhoods black youth unemployment reaches 50%. With such limited avenues for success, crime is not an act of violence but an act of survival. That’s not to say that violent crime is not a problem or that it doesn’t exist, but it needs to be contextualised to be understood.
Michael Brown had been studying throughout the summer to get the required grades to graduate from High School. But that school has recently lost its state accreditation. It’s another poignant moment in this tragic story that serves as a compelling reminder of the ways in which the US state abandons Black Americans. If they study for an education it’s of poor quality ,or not accredited. If they look for work it’s either not there, they’re “under-qualified,” or it’s underpaid. If they turn to crime they’re stood up as an example of what’s wrong with black people.
Reading about life in what people seem reluctant to call the ghetto: Seeing the pictures of militarised police and the National Guard rolling in to confront peaceful protestors: Watching international news coverage of police violence and riots in black neighbourhoods. All bring to mind 1960s America. How different is protestors being shot at by police snipers with rubber bullets from people being hosed down by water canons? Is there any difference between the Watts riots in 1965, the L.A. riots in 1992, and the riots in Ferguson? All were triggered by incidents of police brutality. Why is it being reported as a shocking revelation? This is a continuation of the inner city blues familiar to generations.
Racism was not eliminated by the civil rights movement. In reality much of what was won was quickly eroded and Black Americans found themselves facing familiar inequalities. But, as a result of the successes of the period, racism and inequality in America transformed to preserve itself. It evolved into New Racism, and alongside the legalistic notion of black progress that prospered during the latter decades of the 20th Century, it benefited from a selective growth of “positive” black visibility. Now, with Obama in the White House, we are told we have reached the post-racial era. The reality is Obama is the embodiment of an antiquated design for equality; he is the descendent of W.E.B. DuBois’ talented tenth, far removed from the lives of ordinary Black Americans. Those lives, that reality, is not far from that of 30, 40, 50 years ago.
The same conditions that led to the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1966 exist in Ferguson today. Like Oakland, Ferguson is a majority black neighbourhood, but police officers are overwhelmingly white, making up 94% of the force. This disparity cannot be ignored. It is evidence of clear structural racism, not in an academic sense, but in an everyday discriminatory manner. In the organisation and pride of the Ferguson residents the spirit of the Panthers lives on. They are out every night fighting to take back their streets and reclaim the memory of Michael Brown. There is a militancy and cohesion about them. They may not be under the banner of an organisation but their resistance is clear with a strong voice. But as with the Panthers it has been met with a fierce repression. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and a protracted campaign against media reporting have all been used to “restore peace.”
Predictability the reporting of the protests has been distilled into categorisation; peaceful or violent. Placing it within the same “positive/negative” dichotomy as black communities are situated. Rioting, as chaotic and counter-intuitive as it might seem, is often a necessary assertion of agency by the dispossessed. And as Ferguson shows; when even non-violent resistance is met with violent suppression it leaves little choice.
Huey Newton once described black neighbourhoods as colonised spaces, and whilst his own relationship to this idea grew more complex as his theory developed, it remains an incisive comparison. The situation in Ferguson cannot help but be compared to that of an occupied space. When your soldiers are riding in and violently crushing dissent, when you restrict and control the media, and when you target innocent civilians, you are occupying. When Palestinian and Bahraini people are tweeting advice on how to deal with American tear gas and offering messages of solidarity it becomes impossible to deny the analogy to military occupation.
In 1957 the National Guard was used to protect nine black students entering Little Rock Central High School. Today they are being used to deny black citizens the right to protest. If the comparison is a little crude it remains a potent symbol of American racism.
Michael Brown’s memory should not be stolen from his family or his community. His life should have been his to achieve what he wanted to achieve. Institutionalism racism took that opportunity from him as it had his entire life. We should do what we can to stand in solidarity with those in Ferguson and beyond who will not be moved. They are the true Black America.
As I put the finishing touches to this article another young black man was shot and killed by police in Ferguson.