Angry demonstrations erupted in New York and at least seven other US cities on Wednesday against a Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner by holding him in a chokehold last July. They joined the groundswell of protest against the exoneration of Darren Wilson, who shot dead unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson. Uncontrolled and unpunished police violence against people in black communities is a raw nerve that runs through American society, and stems from the strategy of aggressive policing of mostly minority victims of globalization who have been segregated from middle-class suburban areas. As Wilson said in his testimony to the St. Louis grand jury, poor black communities are regarded as hostile territory and their inhabitants are the enemy.
The New York Times reported that many protesters in Manhattan “expressed their outrage with some of the last words Mr. Garner uttered before being wrestled to the ground: ‘This stops today,’ people chanted. ‘I can’t breathe,’ others shouted.” According to the Associated Press, “Hundreds converged on the heavily secured area around the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting with a combination of professional-looking signs and hand-scrawled placards reading, ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘Fellow white people, wake up’.” The Washington Post reported “They shut down the Lincoln Tunnel. They shut down the West Side Highway. They shut down the Brooklyn Bridge, where officers threatened them with arrest if they did not move as a helicopter hovered above. … In Philadelphia … protesters disrupted the city’s Christmas tree lighting, shouting ‘No justice — no Christmas!’ ”
This followed a week of protests against Michael Brown’s killing, which reached into shopping malls on Black Friday, and student actions on campuses nationwide under the slogan “black lives matter” on Monday. Hundreds of St. Louis schoolchildren joined the campaign on Tuesday, for them the first day back at school after the grand jury’s decision. At the start of their game on Sunday, five St. Louis Rams footballers displayed the “hands-up, don’t shoot” gesture in solidarity with the protesters.
The Guardian published an eye-witness report of the Black Friday demonstration at St. Louis’ Galleria Mall. “Within one hour of kicking off marches through the packed-with-shoppers mall and staging a series of actions, including one where dozens of protestors lay down on the ground … the entire shopping mall was shut down. … Two black female Macy’s employees enthusiastically burst from the department store and joined in on the march, shouting ‘Fuck it, shut this shit down’ to the wild cheers of encouragement from protesters, who in turn echoed their cries.”
In Oakland, California, protesters shut down the subway system for two hours by chaining themselves to a train. In New York, Dante Barry, an organizer at Center for Media Justice & Million Hoodies, told Democracy Now: “a group of organizations, Million Hoodies, Rockaway Youth Task Force, some students from Columbia University and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, put together a protest … called Blackout Black Friday. We’re targeting Macy’s, the largest shopping center in New York City and also has a history of racial profiling around black people. We were targeting and we shut down Harold Square, Times Square, had about 1500 folks that turned out just for this one action at 1:00 p.m. About seven arrests.”
Nationwide demonstrations on Monday maintained the momentum of the protests. The New York Times reported: “people walked out of their jobs and classrooms with their hands raised, the gesture that has become a symbol for the death of Michael Brown. … In New York City, the police made several arrests as demonstrators undertook a meandering march from Union Square to Times Square. Demonstrators blocked streets in other cities. In Washington, protesters closed the 14th Street Bridge and lay down in front of the Justice Department. At Harvard Law School, some 300 people gathered and chanted, ‘No justice, no peace,’ and hoisted a banner reading, ‘Your peace is violence’.”
The renewed focus on police killings of unarmed people has made the public acutely aware of police abuses of power, which jeopardize the social consensus that gives police their authority and government its legitimacy. It brings home starkly the fact that citizens are not equal under the law. Police violence against African-Americans is not new, but Ferguson shocked Americans not only because of the killing of an unarmed man, but also because of the scenes of defiant protesters facing police using military weaponry and armored vehicles that were reminiscent of military clashes in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Eugene Robinson notes that “misuse of this power [to take life] is at odds with any notion of limited government. … it is hard to escape the conclusion that police in this country are much too quick to shoot. … The Michael Brown case presents issues that go beyond race.” Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, expressed a similar view. He said: “The underlying issues here are broader than just race. This goes to the foundational relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities that they’re sworn to serve and to protect.”
Despite the crisis in this foundational relationship, the right wants to double down on police repression. A spokesman for the Ferguson police union, Jeff Roorda, voiced police fury at the St. Louis Rams players’ show of support, demanding they be disciplined (which was refused). “Cops have first amendment rights too,” he said. “As the players and their fans sit safely in their dome under the watchful protection of St. Louis’s finest, they take to the turf to call a now-exonerated officer a murderer, and that is way out of bounds.” Columnist Sally Jenkins commented: “The implication was clear, that only police protection keeps the mob at bay, and if that protection was withdrawn, well, who knows what could happen.”
The threat of chaos if state forces are restrained from using lethal force in black communities is a narrative quickly taken up by politicians such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. While in the rest of the world crime is understood to be correlated with poverty, Giuliani informed Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who is black, that “black-on-black crime” was “the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community. White police officers won’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 percent of the time.” Giuliani was responsible for the introduction of “broken windows’ policing in minority neighborhoods, aggressively prosecuting low-level offences, a philosophy responsible for many of the fatal encounters with police.
Obama has not challenged this identification of blackness with criminality. His diffidence signals an acceptance of this narrative; while his administration perceives a threat to the social consensus, Obama, like Hamlet, cannot act. He is constrained not just by his nature, but also by his ideological ties to the militarized security state. The Guardian reported “In brief remarks on Thursday, Obama said he had spoken with De Blasio about the Garner case and added: ‘Too many Americans feel a deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis’.” But aside from the creation of yet another task force, he has not implemented any concrete proposals to make police accountable for unjustified deaths.
While the protests forced the president to bring carefully selected movement leaders and law enforcement to a dialogue at the White House on Monday, the New York Times reported: “Obama stopped short of curtailing the transfer of military-grade gear to local law enforcement authorities and continued to put off a visit to Ferguson. Instead, the White House tried to channel the rage over the fatal police shooting of a black teenager there into a national debate about how to restore trust between the police and the public. … The limited nature of the White House response also reflects the reality that transferring military-style surplus gear to police departments remains politically popular in Congress and in the municipalities. … The militarization of police has been part of a broader counterterrorism strategy of fortifying American cities, which took root after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has become a reliable source of federal largess for local authorities.”
In a CNN interview, Princeton professor Cornel West concluded: “I think Ferguson signifies the end of the age of Obama. It’s a very sad end. We began with tremendous hope and we end with great despair … because we have a Jim Crow criminal-justice system that does not deliver justice for black and brown people, and especially black and brown poor people.” He added that there had been a kind of class war and a kind of racial war against black and brown youth. “The sad thing is,” he continued, “we have a black president and a black attorney general, we have a black head of Homeland Security, but not one federal prosecution of a case against a policeman killing a black youth under the five-and-a-half years where we’ve had all black folk in place.” Racial progress “has affected primarily a black upper middle class and above, but the black working class has been devastated, the black poor has been rendered more and more demonized … so the issues of economic status and class are fundamental here.”
These issues are why local protests against police use of lethal force, such as the shooting of 12-year-old African American Tamir Rice last month in Cleveland, have found a national focus in the campaign for justice for Mike Brown and have merged with movements for a living wage and worker rights. Many of the protests are multiracial and are creating new leaderships that go beyond existing leaders who generally have ties to the Democratic party and Obama. It heralds the creation of a new politics of resistance to state surveillance and state violence that is inclusive and pluralistic.
UPDATE: And the protests continue to grow. Thousands of people rallied Thursday in Foley Square in Manhattan, and headed for the Brooklyn Bridge before splitting up into a number of groups and spreading out.