There’s a lot to discuss when it comes the ongoing ‘events’ taking place in Ferguson, Missouri. I put scare quotes around ‘events’ because part of what’s at stake as Ferguson continues developing into a national news story and culturally significant moment is how we define the circumstances surrounding it.
Is Ferguson home to ‘social unrest’ or more accurately ‘under siege?’ In the wake of looting over the weekend, some are quick to construe community-wide ‘protests’ as ‘riots’ based only on the actions of a few. Police on the other hand are thought to be acting with ‘restraint’ and ‘non-violently’ as long as they merely shoot tear gas to disperse crowds rather than firing rounds of ‘non-lethal’ ammunitions for the purposes of ‘crowd control.’
I wanted to post something on the subject, anything really, because Ordinary Times has already gone too long without at the very least drawing attention to the miniature police state that has formed in Ferguson. Whether it’s the decades long militarization of local law enforcement, persistent social and economic disparities between white and black communities, or the unique pathologies of fear that perhaps animate so many of the United States’ fundamental contradictions when it comes to the rights and liberties we are afforded as its citizens versus how those rights and liberties are protected and safeguarded, and for whom, there’s plenty to talk about.
Race, though, is the essential issue cascading through out all of the others, and yet it’s surely the one which is hardest to address and build consensus around. This is partially why, I think, the story has moved so quickly beyond the shooting of one black kid by a white police officer to the Storm Trooper-esc image police ‘forces’ across the country have been cultivating with help from the funds made available by the ‘War on Terror, Inc.‘ The militarization of police is something that, even though it disproportionately impacts people of color, white people can also self-interestedly rally against. For those white people who are more afraid of the black people protesting in Ferguson than the martial law they’ve been subjected to, a debate over the proper role and equipping of law enforcement isn’t likely to go very far, but for everyone else it’s a tangible starting place for something productive to happen.
As someone who could be characterized as ‘radical’ on many of these questions (yes to reparations, yes to a guaranteed income, yes to robust affirmative action programs, etc.), I’m not really interested with trying to breakthrough to this kind of person. For everyone else who is even marginally conflicted about what’s going on in Ferguson though, a greater understanding, sensitivity, and empathy when it comes to race can come later. Sometimes it’s crucially important to recognize how we and our institutions treat people differently based on race, sex, class, etc. Other times it’s imperative to focus on how superficial these differences should be in practice because we are all human beings equally deserving of respect, compassion, and justice.
Casting Ferguson in the light of a ‘race relations’ problem, which doesn’t even come close to capturing what’s going on there, overlooks a simpler starting place: U.S. citizens in Ferguson, Missouri are having their rights abused, or ignored altogether, which for one citizen in particular, Michael Brown, cost him his life.