The city of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in anger on Monday after the grand jury’s decision that there were no grounds for indicting Michael Brown’s killer Darren Wilson. The verdict was widely anticipated, but the release of the evidence shows the way St. Louis prosecutors enabled Wilson to pose in front of the jury as the victim – allowing him to describe Brown in a four-hour testimony as a “demon” and that “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots.” As Josh Marshall notes, “Wilson portrays himself as almost literally in the hands of a monster and in a fight for his life.”
Wilson’s defense was based on the racist stereotype of African-American men as violent thugs terrorizing innocent suburbanites. It was in line with the earlier police release of video of Brown taking a pack of cigars from a shop, setting him up as a criminal to imply he deserved his violent end. This strategy “has not only persisted; it’s been extended to the protesters now taking to the streets of Ferguson.”
Washington Post correspondent Dana Milbank pointed out: “[St. Louis prosecutor Robert] McCulloch essentially acknowledged that his team was serving as Wilson’s defense lawyers, noting that prosecutors ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ witnesses by pointing out previous statements and evidence that discredited their accounts,” while passing over inconsistencies in Wilson’s own statements and his supporting witnesses.
Brown had become the symbol of aggressive police repression of black youth across America, and in refusing to indict Wilson the St. Louis prosecutors gave notice that the federal “ghetto” strategy of military containment of minority communities would be continued and intensified. But now more people facing unemployment and house repossession are being drawn into struggle and will face the same tactics.
Nowhere was the disconnect between the political elite and reality more apparent than Obama’s talk of “enormous progress in race relations,” shown on TV news in a split screen with live images of teenagers in Ferguson trying to overturn a police car. In this sense, Ferguson is America. It is a microcosm of America’s alienation from government.
The demonizing of protesters as rioters has been recast as the official justification of militarized policing. The roles of police and military have been conflated: The Guardian reported that National Guardsmen took at least one demonstrator into custody on Monday night. The legal system has reinforced the ideological justification for unpunished police killings in defiance of public sentiment.
In a typically insightful comment, Gary Younge writes: “when it comes to the lethal use of force the police do not just constitute a special category, but a protected and elevated one … police power and black life [are set] at opposite ends of a value system which is not only morally indefensible but, ultimately, socially unsustainable. … [Wilson operates] in a culture where armed white men can cite their fear of unarmed black men as a defence. A fear so intense that they have to shoot them.”
The confrontational fury released by the decision was heightened by the hope that had been sustained over the past 100 days that the legal system would give some modicum of justice over the killing of an unarmed black teenager. Those hopes were dashed and the message rubbed in by the lead prosecutor. Director of Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut Jelani Cobb told Democracy Now, over the past few months “There was some small scale skirmishes, but largely, people kind of withheld their anger in hopes that the actual system of legal recourse would grant them some relief in a situation of Michael Brown’s death. That did not happen.”
The protests in Ferguson itself and in most major cities across the country and abroad were multiracial and political in nature, and the preparations of the authorities in Ferguson no less political. Black-owned business areas were left unguarded while white areas were swamped with aggressive police. Tory Russell, one of the founders of the group Hands Up United and a member of the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle, commented: “That lets you know not only does this country value property over people, they even put a special caveat on whose property. If you go to Clayton, you go to Kirkwood, you go to some of these affluent places in the city, National Guard … are already there, they’re stationed. You go to the black communities, you go on West Florissant, or the most black small businesses … Their dreams weren’t being protected. Meanwhile on South Florissant where the white property is, their dream was protected.”
The ongoing experiences of the protests and police reaction crystallized a political development among protesters, latent in a social movement that had had already been apparent in the responses to Trayvon Martin’s shooting and Zimmerman’s acquittal. At the same time that the Supreme Court and the right is chipping away at the civil rights won in the 1960s, African American youth want more than those achievements. With political and supposedly legal equality, they perceive the system denying their worth as human beings.
The Nation explained: “This new generation of protesters represents a marked break with the older generations of black leaders in the city. They disagreed with the tactics of the civic leaders and clergy members who, for example, urged protesters to obey police curfews widely viewed by the young people as disrespectful of the community’s legitimate outrage. Most of these older leaders already had a stake in the political process in St. Louis through nonprofits or as politicians.”
The Guardian reported on the broadening of the campaign: “A group of ad hoc organisations born out of alliances formed on the streets … used unrelenting, sometimes in-your-face protests to keep alive demands that the officer who shot the unarmed teenager, Darren Wilson, be put on trial. But as the campaign grew and gained momentum it shifted to a broader focus on racial profiling and the use of force by the police in Ferguson, St Louis and beyond. … [Ashley] Yates and other leading activists regard the tactics of an earlier generation as dated. She says what was right in pressing for specific goals such as ending segregation on buses or the right to vote is different from attempts to confront what she describes as a state of mind among many Americans that views black people ‘as a threat and savages’.”
St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe wrote in Time magazine of his disenchantment with Barack Obama’s disengagement from their fight: “We assumed that our beloved, black president would come to our defense and speak about the perils of police brutality, racial profiling, and Mike Brown’s unfortunate demise. Instead we felt as if he co-signed this unfair treatment and endorsed the brutal show of force the police displayed towards us. … The city is overflowing with civil unrest and we simply want answers for the many wrongdoings that have been committed against us. The officers of the Ferguson Police Department continue to stand in solidarity with their brother Darren Wilson. The entire system is corrupt from top to bottom.”
Obama’s presidency, despite his executive actions on immigration, is a spent force. In the midterm elections, when they were unable to mobilize their supporters to vote, Democrats proved themselves unable to answer voters’ sense of the political system’s corruption. A new politics is being born in the fight for justice and a living wage that will sweep aside politicians tied to corporate interests and Wall Street money.