White supremacy's latest round: Retracing the real history of Ferguson

The Ferguson nightmare is just another reminder of a world exemplified by slavery, Jim Crow and "stop and frisk"

Published August 15, 2014 4:31PM (EDT)

Kenan Morrison stands with his arms raised in the middle of a street, near other protesters, Aug. 12, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.                        (AP/Jeff Roberson)
Kenan Morrison stands with his arms raised in the middle of a street, near other protesters, Aug. 12, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

The news that a police officer shot an African-American teen several times in the chest was shocking, horrifying, gut-wrenching. But it was not surprising. As even a weekly perusal of newspapers tells us, the murders of black teens and men by private white citizens or police officers are common, ordinary, everyday events. Two days after the shooting of Michael Brown, another young unarmed black man, this time in Los Angeles, was shot by a police officer.

Yet, in the initial 24 hours after Michael Brown’s shooting, I saw flashes of the same questions in the comments to news articles and on Twitter: “What did he do?” “Why?” “Wtf?” Certainly, some of these were plaintive questions asked by grieving persons. But others reflected an earnest, though frustrating, innocence — one that found a shooting of a black teen by a policeman to be unusual, accidental, coincidental, extraordinary. Their questions echoed as I flipped through the fleeting images that followed the news of the shooting — rows of police officers with shields and batons and terrifying looking dogs, pumped up and ready to attack -- accompanied by articles about “looting and riots,” tear gas, sniper guns and bullets.

Photo 6 in this New York Times slide show, among others, remains in my mind.

In the first three days after Michael Brown’s shooting, as the black community gathered to protest his death, “left” media analyzed this event as if it were just a case of the police accidentally losing control. Elsewhere, mainstream news sites reported on the protests as if commenting on two equally strong baseball teams: The Cops versus Black people, rather than a case of black protests against continual injustice.

Other news sites report “rioting” and “looting,” as if looting is the prime obstacle to safety, rather than protecting blacks against an arrogant, secure police force.

I can hear the objections: But aren’t the police there to protect the general public? If that is the case, then where was the police response to the unconscionable looting of American homes, workers’ pensions and minority homeowners, by American bankers -- on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars — none of which engendered policemen with rifles, dogs, bullets and shields to stop bankers and capitalists from plundering the meager wealth of poorer and darker persons, especially minorities? Why were there no police stopping banksters then?

Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s defense attorney during his murder trial in the death of another young black man, Trayvon Martin, claimed that the only reason that the officer’s name was being withheld was because of “social media threats,” and to avoid directing the community’s anger onto the police officer. But it doesn’t take a law degree to understand that this is a fiction of legal defense, articulated to cement a long-standing narrative of innocence, to undergird the contrived narrative that the death of a black teen somehow needs to be probed, explored cautiously, as if it were a unique event — before declaring that it was needless. In fact, as we know, Michael Brown’s life, as viewed by the proper bourgeois denizens and police force of Ferguson, was expendable. According to journalist Adam Hudson, a black man is killed every 28 hours, justified by state-led policies from anti-loitering to the war on drugs. How else to explain the consistent, multiple, constant deaths of black men, except to understand their lives as expendable by a wealthy elite?

On CNN, African-American journalist LZ Granderson was interviewed about his poignant, mournful column on Michael Brown’s death, in which he named the many aspects of this shooting that had made him tired. Many of these statements were critical about the police, about the shooting of yet another young black man, about fearing for his own and his son’s life, whenever they come into close proximity with a police officer.

Yet, the white talking head who interviewed Granderson picked up on his statement about being tired of the looting after a peaceful rally. This — this — was the statement that the white anchor picked up on: the looting (although he briefly acknowledged that the police needed to take a good hard look at themselves). But the CNN talking head did not raise the fact that Ferguson police felt justified in facing a mourning community, mostly composed of black residents and friends of Michael Brown — with batons and shields and tear gas and guns and hostile-looking dogs. Nor the fact that the Ferguson police were shooting “beanbag rounds” at protesters. Nor Granderson’s statement about the fatigue of being afraid of walking in front of a police officer.

The shooting of Michael Brown is not a sudden, excessive, abusive or random imposition of state power. It is rather a reminder of a certain state of the world that has been in existence for centuries — from slavery, to Black Codes and Jim Crow, both designed to maintain the indentured servitude of blacks, to “stop and frisk” policing.  The above picture pulls back the curtain on the sheer, profound, constant presence of police power, protected by the law, in the service of elites. Philosopher Charles Mills gives it the technical term of “white supremacy,” and points to the racial contract -- promising equality to all persons while withholding it from all sub-persons — black slaves, their descendants, and other vulnerable minorities -- as its evidence.

When we see pictures of officers behind clear shields, spraying tear gas at peaceful protesters, using dogs to hold black men and women and teenagers and children at bay, the message that we are reading is not — as liberal journalists and pundits tried to persuade in the early days after Michael Brown’s death — that “the law” was attempting to “keep peace” and manage “social unrest.” Rather, the message that is being communicated is a reminder of the racial contract: Black Americans should know their place and submit to the orders of those who work on behalf of white wealth -- the police force, the bankers, the realtors, the tax collectors, our local and state representatives.

This message can be seen in the history of Ferguson, as told in a New York Times editorial. The history of Ferguson is the history of racial covenants, restrictive racial zoning, white flight and white police power.

As black families moved into Ferguson, the whites fled. In 1980, the town was 85 percent white and 14 percent black; by 2010, it was 29 percent white and 69 percent black. But blacks did not gain political power as their numbers grew. The mayor and the police chief are white, as are five of the six City Council members. The school board consists of six white members and one Hispanic. As Mr. Gordon explains, many black residents, lacking the wealth to buy property, move from apartment to apartment and have not put down political roots.

The disparity is most evident in the Ferguson Police Department, of which only three of 53 officers are black. The largely white force stops black residents far out of proportion to their population, according to statistics kept by the state attorney general. Blacks account for 86 percent of the traffic stops in the city, and 93 percent of the arrests after those stops. Similar problems exist around St. Louis County, where earlier this year the state chapter of the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging widespread racial profiling by police departments. (links in the original)

The history of Ferguson is the history of the racial contract; it is the history of the consolidation of wealth through the legalized economic and social exclusion of African-Americans.  The police are now being carefully tracked by mainstream media, who realize that their initial story has gotten away from them: It will not do to discuss looting at the expense of the anger of black Americans.

Many are pointing to the militarization of police — as evidenced by the presence of SWAT teams, advanced weapons, military gear — as a place to begin to counter their abuse. But the militarization of police is only the latest expression of the racial contract. It is true, as Alex Kane argues, the equipment of the war on terror is being brought home and directed at its black population. But the militarization of police is only the most recent symptom of the Racial Contract: Black Americans, Muslim Americans, and other brown folks — from migrant labor to refugee children — will be controlled and managed through the concerted efforts of an administration and Congress who will work on behalf of the wealthy, who like their streets clear of black Americans, their lawns and children attended by brown people, and their schools reserved for the children of the elite — even if it requires privatizing education. How else to explain the second-term election of a president who has exculpated his predecessor’s administration from charges of torture, who has strong-armed Congress into passing budget bills that extended increasing detention powers to the executive, who has given himself and his Cabinet the power to drone U.S. citizens and foreigners alike based on computer algorithms?

The militarization of police is but the expression of the general political will to militarize and expand police from the federal level down to the municipal level — this is what Homeland Security looks like. Demilitarizing the police will be a soothing symptom, but it will not stop the unaccountable murders or the political and social suppression of black Americans. As long as capital and power rest in the hands of the wealthy elite — as guaranteed by the legal creation of the mortgage and banking crises, and the lawful failure of the current administration to hold any high-level bankster accountable, African-Americans will continue to be at the mercy of white supremacy.

But this story is neither old nor unfamiliar. Rather than asking “why,” let’s focus on the banal laws and policies needed to redirect the distribution of wealth — stolen from black Americans, such that whites can no longer summon police, law or politicians on their behalf to erase or suppress black Americans, and other minorities. That will require more than revealing the name of the police officer who shot Michael Brown; it will require asking who, in the next round of city council elections, state elections and, of course, presidential elections, is ready to compromise their political career in order to work toward redirecting wealth, jobs, opportunities toward black and Latino populations that constitute the majority of the United States. Only when wealth changes hands will black Americans have a fighting chance to resist police power and violence.

By Falguni A. Sheth

Falguni A. Sheth is a professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. She writes about politics, race, and feminism at translationexercises.wordpress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FalguniSheth.

MORE FROM Falguni A. Sheth