The Caveats of Ferguson and the Murder of Michael BrownDr. Jason Michael Williams I Race & Ethnicity I Commentary I August 14th, 2014
"A riot is the language of the unheard"
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The amount of critics voicing concern regarding the rioting that had occurred in Ferguson during the early morning hours on August 8th, 2014 has been tremendous; however, many are failing to understand the foundation on which the riot was executed. For example, there have been reports that Brown's parents condemned the riots, and their condemnation has been rallied around by media agents from a variety of platforms and perhaps rightfully so. But, what the media and some citizens fail to mention or understand is that the riot is a response to centuries of bullying, harassment, and differential treatment on behalf of law enforcement. The display of rage witnessed in Ferguson is a direct consequence of the racial animus that the social control apparatus in the U.S. has long hauled against racial minorities, especially African Americans. Why is this not the quintessential caveat of Ferguson?
If society fails to identify and process Ferguson as a major lesson then it will be guilty once again of the very action that caused the riot and the rage in the first place. The continued execution of unarmed, young African American men is a crime that nobody should support, whether directly or indirectly. It should be condemned as a crime against state-agents and prosecuted accordingly. However, studies continue to show that when it comes to perceptions of justice, law enforcement, and dangerousness, whites, in particular, continue to believe that Blacks are dangerous and criminal, and therefore deserving of harsher treatment. It is these attitudes that prevent change from occurring. So long as the majority believes in the legitimacy of differential law enforcement, ostensibly based on myths of Black criminality, police will continue to be justified in responding disparately to African Americans, which to many African Americans includes the outright execution of unarmed, innocent, Black males.
Those who are genuinely concerned will understand the need to forthrightly address the rage that stems from Ferguson. Nevertheless, while many are rushing in to judge the protestors' response to Mr. Brown's death, it is clear to see however that there is an emphasis on the riot itself-the crimes against property as opposed to the fact that a life has been unjustly taken. This too sends an excruciating message not only to those who participated in the riots but also to Blacks around the world-concretizing that the value of Black life is less than material goods. There is something to be said about a society that values material goods more than life itself. Meanwhile, many critics of this reality claim that it's Blackness itself that is undervalued-that perhaps if the murdered teen was white then the response would be profoundly different.
The continued murders of young Black males at the hands of the state is reminiscent of a time when the forbearers of these executed men were lynched with impunity, often times by agents of the state. The audio-visual displays of eyewitness accounts and other commentaries from those in Ferguson further underscores the extent to which the residents are truly tired and defeated, an emotion shared by Blacks around the nation.
More important, in a city that is 2/3 African American, there is no major representation of their community in public office. Yet Americans are told on the daily how much we are hated for our freedom and democracy. Why should anyone in his/her country have to face the horrors of a subjective citizenship and constant, legally-sanctioned terror? Why must one, in America, be confined to a living space that is essentially occupied by law enforcement because they are perceived as 'dangerous animals'? Why should Black citizens have to fear police more than a stranger on the street, and the rest of the country believe it to be ok? Why do we as a nation tolerate the blatant disrespect and utter brutality against Black human bodies on behalf of law enforcement and other entities, including other Blacks?
Another key concern in Ferguson is the response of law enforcement to the demands of a hurting people deserving of justice. For example, immediately following the outcry of the Black community, police began to militarize as if they were preparing for war; as if the community of Ferguson was a certified enemy-combatant capable of anything. Strikingly, there was an inclusion of tanks and other military-grade tools used to respond to what was essentially an outcry of discontent regarding the blatant socio-political exclusion experienced by the majority in that city. Sadly, though, most Blacks who are confined to the inner-city- third-world districts of America are all too used to police occupation, which is why the military style presence did not steer protestors in Ferguson away from their objective. However, one must contemplate whether or not the use of military style riot gear and trucks was the appropriate response, or whether the same tactics would have existed had Ferguson been a majority-White city.
The appropriate response to the debacle in Ferguson is for people to sit and listen to the concerns of the protestors. Listen to those who have long been silenced and targeted, which is confirmed by state data, especially those data collected by the attorney general regardingracial profiling/ (for the gov't website click here). People can start by putting themselves in positions of powerlessness and desperateness. See how it feels to be part of the marginalized and the targeted. As one protestor indicated on video, feel what it is like to be "shot down in the streets like dogs and niggas." Submit yourself to the understanding that your humanity and struggle is not recognized by your neighbors, as another protestor accentuated. Feel what it is like to be told that you live in a nation where opportunity exists en masse, but know that you are least likely to participate in said opportunities because you are marginalized. See what it is like to be a mother or father of a Black son, and to wake up one day to learn that your child has been executed unjustly by the police.
In addition, know what it is like to be John H. White, a Black father and husband who was not allowed to protect his family from harm - even with Second Amendment protections - because, as a Black, he is likely perceived as guilty before innocent. Ask why it is ok for White males to openly carry or conceal guns without any suspicion, but it be preemptively dangerous and criminal for men of color to exercise their gun rights - a lesson the late John Crawford sadly had to learn the hard way, albeit he was holding a toy gun in a Walmart store when he was gunned down by police. When will the use of the double-standard be laid to rest?
Furthermore, the perception of Blackness as dangerous is one that is reflected in a fear complex possessed chiefly by Whites. This perception stems primarily from the period of reconstruction (although it began during slavery) when Blacks were then able to engage in self-determination, at least until laws were drafted to reintroduce them into virtual slavery and dependency. But, it is the fear of Black retribution that Whites must deal with, and this is a process in which White anti-racists will need to pursue aggressively. Like Blacks, Whites should not have to matriculate through society fearing that every Black person is going to harm them somehow when, in fact, most Blacks just want to be full citizens and afforded the same opportunities as anyone else. But this fear is deeply rooted in our nation's purposeful choice to disregard dialogues on race and social control. Ferguson has shown us that if we continue to disregard these dialogues more riots will occur, and the rage that currently exists will someday explode to unprecedented levels while the world stands as a witness to what appears to be a self-inflicted national catastrophe.
In closing, it is important to note that the brutalization of Black human bodies does no good for society. It deepens the racial divide and justifies the continued existence of disparity. This continued and obviously tolerated inhumane treatment further italicizes the extent to which the liberties and freedoms of Blacks stand in stark contrast to their White counterparts. This holds to be true in Ferguson as well as in the aggregate, and this is certainly an issue that should be a priority on all levels of government and within public dialogue. America can no longer act as a beacon of hope and the warrior for freedom and justice abroad when, in its borders, it has long tolerated systems of caste and blatant brutalization. In the era of social-media-related consciousness, such a lie will no longer be tolerated as it will fall effortlessly on deaf ears.