It is just over a month since Darren Wilson, a Ferguson Missouri pig, gunned down Mike Brown, a Black teenager, in cold blood. It is stunning how much has happened—maybe even how much has changed—since that day. Here are some reflections on one of the most important urban rebellions in the US in the 21st century.
1. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the real heroes here are the ordinary people of Ferguson. If they had responded with a night of angry protest on August 8 and then slipped back into their daily lives, Michael’s would have been just another name added to the long, long list of those lynched by the police.
But they didn’t return to their daily lives. They continued to protest. They stood up to a full-fledged occupation of their community by multiple militarized police forces and the National Guard. The young’uns defied the curfews. Some threw back teargas canisters at the invaders, some did a little trashing and burning. The elders stood between them and the po-po, making it clear that the cops would have to go through them to get at the youth.
And they never stopped. Just a week ago, angry residents disrupted the first meeting of the Ferguson City Council since things blew up, informing them that there will be no going back to business as usual.
To be sure, the people of Ferguson were lucky to have veteran local organizers, especially the radicals of the Organization for Black Struggle, on the ground, helping build the fightback. Even some of those who were drawn from elsewhere to help (as distinct from paper-peddling riot tourists) made contributions. But it was the residents of Ferguson and surrounding communities who deserve the credit.
I hammer on this because what the sustained resistance did was buy time. Time for the people of this country and the world to take a hard look at police terror in the US. Time to revive campaigns around other victims of police murder, like that of Eric Garner, choked to death in a Staten Island mall pleading “I can’t breathe,” and John Crawford III, dropped in his tracks in a Beavercreek, OH, Walmart. Time for people to grapple with the cold reality that lies behind the myth of “Post-Racial America.” Time, in short, for people to get mad and stay mad.
2. The rebellion in Ferguson highlighted how much social media, Facebook and Twitter especially, have changed the terrain of battle, amplifying the breadth, the depth and the reach of people in combat. A third of people under thirty in the US now get their news from social media, as many as do from television. This map shows Twitter exploding with the news of Ferguson, then amping up day by day.Most obviously, cell phone cameras and instant posting allow people to watch police violence as it happens or right after, unmediated by spin and commentary. By the time the pigs finally removed Michael’s body four hours after Wilson gunned him down, millions had seen it lying uncovered on the pavement where he died—in real time.
Even the status quo assumptions and racist disinformation of the capitalist mass media were undercut by journalists who posted tweets of their horror of the massive repression they were seeing—or experiencing themselves—as the rebellion continued. No editor was there to tone down the article, no anchorperson to switch to another camera.
And look at what people were able to do with the time the people in Ferguson bought them. The exposure of the workings of the racist and profiteering court system there. The firing of police officers who threatened to kill protestors. The spread of memes nation-wide—besides the universal Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, #iftheygunnedmedown on Twitter went viral because both the grim reality of the premise and the critique of media racism resonated so strongly with young African Americans. The revival of other cases around the country. The unmasking of and challenges to the white racists who rallied to Wilson’s defense. The building of international solidarity, especially between Gaza and Ferguson.
And people built actual protests using social media, starting with the rebellion in Ferguson itself. Folks in the streets used Twitter and Facebook to warn of police concentrations, to decide tactics on the fly and to strengthen their resolve to keep fighting as they realized that the whole world was indeed watching. I have no idea how much good was done by the numerous online petitions that proliferated. But people built actual rallies and protest meetings online. A Massachusetts woman named Deb Powers blogged “I Didn’t Mean To Organize A Rally” in summing up how she singlehandledly, in one day, drew 80 people to the Worcester Common.
3. The whole issue of white privilege got spotlighted, bigtime. Ferguson came on the heels of the stir created only a few months earlier by Black intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates with his article in the Atlantic magazine calling for reparations. While the question of reparations has not been raised much since Ferguson erupted (something we need to think about), his analysis of how privilege works has been mightily reinforced in the last month.
In particular, Ferguson has highlighted the contrast between the worlds that young Black males, and their parents, live in, and those of their white counterparts. Some of us have spent decades arguing this issue with white working class folks (and, alas, even with some socialist organizations) who wrap themselves in their own very real oppression and exploitation to deny the reality of racial oppression. It has been most heartening to see so much acknowledgement and discussion among everyday people, people of color as well as white folk.
There is a mother of three young blond boys who blogs about baby wraps and social issues as manicpixiedreammama. She got hundreds of thousands of hits and Facebook “Likes” for a perceptive blogpost that includes this passage:
When my sons are teenagers, I will not worry about them leaving the house. I will worry — that they’ll crash the car, or impregnate a girl, or engage in the same stupidness endemic to teenagers everywhere.
I will not worry that the police will shoot them.
If their car breaks down, I will not worry that people they ask for help will call the police, who will shoot them.
I will not worry that people will mistake a toy pistol for a real one and gun them down in the local Wal-Mart.
4. I would argue that we have reached the point in the ongoing Ferguson struggle where the work of summation is paramount. There are a lot of lessons to draw from Ferguson but we must try focus on the deepest ones, those which will help us understand the world in order to change it.
While the spotlight on white privilege is of high importance, we cannot make it the only thing or even the main thing in our summation. Privilege and white chauvinism are parts—essential parts to be sure—but only parts of the structure of national (racial) oppression on which this country was built and rests to this day.
Already some people have chose to make the issue of the militarization of police forces the central issue. Certainly we oppose the funneling of Pentagon surplus APCs, helicopters, machine guns and miscellaneous arms and ammo and other hardware by the ton to the po-po, but let’s remember: Darren Wilson wasn’t kitted out like he was cosplaying Robocop when he gunned down Mike Brown. Neither was Daniel Pantaleo when he put the chokehold on Eric Garner. Neither was Sean Williams when he lit up John Crawford III in a Wal-Mart.
Other police-centric summations focus on the prosecution of individual police perpetrators, the need to mandate lapel cams, diversification of police forces, retraining cops in the “proper” use of force or establishing civilian review boards to rein them in. All commendable, all important, all far short of dealing with the real issues.
Some summations, from left groups and even Black hoopster-turned-pundit Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Time magazine, tend to downplay race and national oppression and instead emphasize class, pointing to the increasing divide between the vast majority of people in this country and those the Occupy movement dubbed the 1%. Again there is considerable truth here, but it misses the heart of the question, the fact that in the US race and class have been intimately entangled from the founding of this country.
Further, a summation which overemphasizes class tends to avoid dealing with the brutal racism of a not insignificant section of working class whites, racism which erupted, virulently, in many discussions and in comment threads online. A more concrete manifestation was the willingness to donate more than half a million dollars to Darren Wilson, a man about whom the givers knew only three things: he is a white cop, he killed an unarmed Black teenager and he didn’t even bother to file an incident repot.
To my mind the best analysis of the lessons of Ferguson so far is a short piece by Bill Fletcher, Jr. called “Suspected For Being Black.” Writing during the first week of the eruption, he looks at the same social inequities that manicpixiedreammama from the point of view of a Black man—and a Marxist. His argument is captured in a single paragraph:
The racial terror that we experience is not about abstract hatred but is about assuring the larger society that we shall not constitute any threat. In that sense, it is preemptive; preemptive in the sense that the demands by Black America for consistent democracy are antithetical to the objectives of the ruling elite and they are felt to be threatening by the dominant white bloc of US society. The racial terror against African Americans seeks to ensure that we remain immobilized and disorganized. As such, this violence and terror is not irrational. It is inhumane; violates our civil and human rights; but is not irrational.
This resonated deeply not only with me but with literally thousands of people who read it on the web. It plugs into the history of the Black experience in the US and opens the door to a deeper understanding of what has been called the New Jim Crow, and of other forms of oppression and super-exploitation people of color face in this country. There is obviously more to discuss about Fletcher’s formulations. What is the nature of the dominant white bloc? What does this mean for the understanding that the core of any socialist revolution in the US will have to be the unification of the powerful movements of Black, Latina/o, Asian-American and First Nations communities with the struggle of the multinational working class majority?
5. So what do we do now? By we, I mean first and foremost reds, revolutionary socialists (and my comrades in the Freedom Road Socialist Organization in particular), but I include as well anyone who was outraged by the Ferguson murder and wants to insure that this wave of anger and protest does not recede entirely in the months to come.
What follows are a few suggestions, suggestions moreover made by an individual and not arrived at through any structured collective process. Still, they may provide a starting point for further discussion.To start with, of course, we need to support the folks on the ground in Ferguson and the St. Louis area. There is an easy way to do that, via the Organization for Black Struggle. OBS has been organizing for 35 years; it has a building in St. Louis, and now full-time staff funded by donations made in recent weeks. Calls they issue for particular activities should be given serious attention.
NOTE! As this was being written, OBS and other St. Louis area forces have just issued a National Call to Action: Mass Mobe in Ferguson for October 10-13! Check their website for details and plans.
Even as people are preparing to answer this call, remember that it’s not the be-all and end-all of this struggle. If you can’t make the Ferguson run, there’s plenty to do closer to home. Jamala Rogers of OBS made this important point at the height of the struggle, urging folks not to roll up on Ferguson just because things were hot there at that moment. Almost any community of any size, she pointed out, has issues of racist police violence of its own. I saw the truth of this two weeks ago, when 6000 people marched in Staten Island for justice for Eric Garner, one of the largest NY-area police violence protests in years.
This raises the question of coordinating, or at least starting to link these diverse and usually very local struggles—the killing of Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa CA a year ago, Albuquerque, where the cops have gunned down 23 people since 2010, Yvette Smith in Bastrop Texas, Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee … the list seems endless. Another project already on the ground that folks might consider checking out is the October 22 Coalition, which has held protests of police violence on that date in cities across the country since 1996.
Summation is a task that has to commence at the local level. If you have participated in any protest since August 8, write up a few paragraphs about it. Who called it, who took part, what local cases were raised, what interpretations of police killings were offered, what courses of action were suggested? It is also important to reflect on conversations with friends, family, classmates, fellow workers. Send it to us, paste it on some other blogsite. Post it on Facebook. And encourage others to do the same.
And such summation can help us with the longer term task of developing a deeper understanding, embodied in political line, of what is going on. With such understanding we can do more to educate folks in the struggle even as we learn from them. We can better develop strategy and tactics for the battles to come, and adapt them as they are tested in the world.
Can Ferguson contribute to a revival of the Black Freedom Struggle, the movement which more than any other has changed reality in this country over the decades and the centuries? Time will tell. But it has already raised the prospect, the sparks of hope. Let us do our part to fan the flames.
Dennis O’Neil is a retired postal worker and founding member of FRSO/OSCL.