In the seventies — like all good liberal children — I believed that peaceful protests led to change. I learned this through the massive advances made by the civil rights movement in the decade before my birth. I knew racism still existed, because I grew up a few miles from the national HQ of the Aryan Nations. I remember the bizarre Nazi parades that the locals protested. I’ve seen skinheads with swastika armbands at the grocery store.
But segregation was over. Slavery was a distant memory. Even in high school (where there was exactly one black student), I believed that the institutional forms of racism had ended in this country. We just had the crazy fringe of Klans and ignorant old people who would soon die off. By the time I was in Seattle watching the Rodney King riots on TV, that optimism was a thing of the past.
I’ve kept my mouth shut about Ferguson until now, mostly because everyone is saying plenty about it already, to the point that it just becomes noise. Also, I am a middle-aged white woman from the whitest place on Earth, so I’m not exactly qualified. As the conversation becomes more about broken windows and less about why this matters, a few things are bugging me.
First, it’s not up to the internet to decide who is innocent or guilty of any crime. I’ve been seeing excerpts of testimony, forensic sketches, and wild speculation all presented as arguments as to whether the jury made the right decision. In my opinion, the jury made an immoral decision, but that does not necessarily make it (legally) incorrect. Given the standards for use of deadly force and the highly suspect testimony of Darren Wilson, it may have been completely within the law for him to shoot the kid. That doesn’t make it okay. In fact, that’s a big part the problem.
Given the forensic evidence, the fact that Michael Brown was unarmed, and conflicting witness statements, it seems pretty much impossible that Wilson was in mortal danger when he killed Brown. But did he “believe” he was? That is pretty much his defense. And I suspect he was more angry and frightened than he was out to shoot a black man. That still doesn’t make it okay.
I think Wilson should have been indicted. This tragedy is suspicious enough to warrant a thorough investigation and trial. But the jury may not have had enough evidence to contradict Wilson’s fanciful tale. Is the justice system broken? Yes. Should police be held to stricter rules about use of deadly force? Yes. Is the constant killing of unarmed young black men a symptom of institutionalized racism? Absolutely.
And that’s what the rioting is about. All that progress made in the sixties was illusory. You just need to barely scratch the surface to find plenty of evidence of this, and is most abundantly clear in the criminal justice system. The privatized prison system is a new, sanctioned form of slavery. US prisons are becoming for-profit labor camps, and in order to keep up profits, they need prisoners. I’m not being hyperbolic here. This has been happening for years.
This isn’t just about race, it’s also about private property and class. Destruction of private property is an age-old form of protest against oppressive institutions. It’s not very polite, but sometimes being polite doesn’t get the point across. My friend reposted an eloquent rant from Chris Tharp on Facebook, in which he says,
Protests outside of the fatty, protective womb or our “great” nation are rarely civilized. Look to Europe, Latin America, or especially South Korea, where I call home. They chuck Molotov cocktails; they battle with riot cops like scenes out of Braveheart; they burn smash and rage. Probably the single worst legacy of the civil rights movement is the expectation among so many Americans that protest must be utterly passive. It worked during that era because the power against the movement was so manifestly unjust that the whole world got it.
I still want to believe that peaceful protests and non-violent civil disobedience can bring change, but sometimes the powers that be need a wake-up call. Sometimes the apathetic need a reminder there are some pretty deep problems we haven’t solved, and unless we take notice and take action, things won’t get better and may get worse.
I’ve spent most of my adult life becoming increasingly disappointed that the utopia of equal rights, peace, love, and understanding I was promised seems to be getting further away, rather than closer. There’s more fear of the “other” among white Americans now than I have ever seen before: immigrants, feminists, people with brown skin. The conservative (bigoted) pundits are fear mongers, stirring up suspicion and hatred from the dark corners.
I’ve seen a few people post “White People Rioting Over Stupid Shit” — and I think this makes a good point about American delusions. Rioting over sports is a sign that your view of what matters is incredibly skewed. Unarmed black men being gunned down is just “normal,” but if your football team wins (or loses), you need to burn a car.
Darren Wilson made a terrible, irreparable error of judgement. We’ll never get the other side of the story, but Michael Brown may have made an error in judgement as well, in how he reacted to the cop. Whatever he did, he did not deserve to get shot to death for it. The fact that Wilson won’t be prosecuted is unjust, but he will still have to live with this for the rest of his life. Is he blatantly racist? I have no idea, and that misses the point. This isn’t about an isolated incident, it’s about systemic injustice.
The reason we should all be angry is that this situation is not only still possible and legally acceptable, but also quite common. It’s not an isolated “mistake.” Police need to be held accountable for when and how they use deadly force, especially against unarmed citizens. There should always be a thorough investigation of evidence in these cases, regardless of the race of the victim.