Ferguson's dire new chapter: What happens next -- and why it matters

As we await grand jury decision, a state of emergency in Missouri is ready to chill dissent. Here's what's at stake

Published November 24, 2014 7:49PM (EST)

Marcelle Stewart confronts police officers during a march and rally in downtown Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 11, 2014.                         (AP/Sid Hastings)
Marcelle Stewart confronts police officers during a march and rally in downtown Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 11, 2014. (AP/Sid Hastings)

Provocateurs are steadily working to incite the dissent of would-be protesters who support the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson.  Follow the #Ferguson feed on Twitter and you’ll get a sense of the venom flowing in anticipation of the pending grand jury verdict. “Have you looked at the comments of any of the newspapers?” Stephen Houldsworth, a Boston native who has lived around St. Louis, asked a Huffington Post reporter.

Unfortunately, there is a determined effort to undermine the legitimate concern that police shootings and mistreatment of black citizens are a far too common experience in the United States. The shooting death of Kajieme Powell by St. Louis police caught on video only days after the shooting of Michael Brown showed the legitimacy of this concern justifying the community’s collective mistrust of law enforcement.

On camera, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson spun a story claiming that Kajieme Powell charged at the officers with a knife raised over his head in a threatening manner.  Review of a citizen video did not corroborate Chief Dotson’s version of the facts, compounding distrust and validating perceptions of official indifference.  In fact, Powell did not charge police and he was considerably farther away from the officers than claimed.  Most important, before any words were exchanged, officers had exited their patrol unit with guns drawn and pointed.

It didn’t seem to matter to either Chief Dotson or the national media that this video showed a completely different reality for Kajieme Powell; when does it become acceptable for the police to draw a weapon and point it at anyone?  If Powell had been white would they’ve drawn their weapons upon exiting their vehicle — before even speaking to him?  Worse, just saying that Powell had charged at police was apparently enough for most of America.

What will happen — in Ferguson and across the nation — if the grand jury fails to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown is anybody’s guess.  The primary purpose of Gov. Jay Nixon’s declaration of a “State of Emergency” and very public activation of the Missouri National Guard was clearly to chill dissent — protest.  Recently, under different circumstances, we saw the very same apparatus at work in Chicago leading up to and during the 2012 NATO Summit.

Although it’s not every day that a state governor calls out the National Guard, routine protests are back page local news only — unless they turn violent.  Then they’re called riots and become front page news.  Would President Lyndon B. Johnson have ever signed the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 but for that Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama?

After almost three months, the national media’s attention is again focused on Ferguson anticipating an unpredictable and dramatic life-threatening reaction.  But where is the discussion about class consciousness, growing inequality or any other awareness of injustice?  While Fox News hosts law enforcement and politicians to discuss justification for a militarized presence and their paramount concern — destruction of property — it’s striking that so little discussion was given to what seems a callous indifference to police killings in communities of color.  Isn’t that what this is really about?

Although the First Amendment promises that the government will not abridge our freedom of speech or prevent the right of the people to peaceably assemble, we don’t have to look too far into our historic rearview mirrors to know that these are empty words — a mere pretense continued over generations, helped by all-embracing verbal and physical symbols: democracy, public safety, the flag, patriotism, national interests, national defense and national security.

We live in a country so powerful and, at times, so pleasing to so many, that often a small number of people who were not content have been afforded the freedom of dissent. But rising inequality has greatly changed those numbers, which is leading to increased militarized control.

Make no mistake, the American system of control is vulnerable.  It cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going for the elite: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transportation and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen.  They have been drawn into alliance with the elite — the establishment — but they’re individually expendable whenever rewards outweigh their cost.

At present, postal workers are living this threatening reality of expendability.  The collective obedience and loyalty of those who guard this system for the establishment are increasingly less immune to the same violence — economic and physical — that has for too long been inflicted on blacks, the poor and immigrants.

The myth of inclusion — now accepted as fact — pretends that our government stands for everyone.  In fact, the Preamble to the Constitution begins with the words, “We the people …”  At its inception, however, James Madison feared a “majority faction.”  An understanding of our history would confirm that when those words were written, everyone was a conceptually limited idea. Today, the myth of inclusion lives on, but a myth nonetheless.

The complexity of the American system of control threads through our voting system, the work force, the church, the family, the schools and the mass media that simultaneously serves to enflame discontent while justifying controls and softening opposition.

This deeply held cultural myth — that our government stands for everyone — can be inferred from the recent words of Judd Legum, editor in chief for Think Progress:  “In America, the expectations that people may exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly should not be a 'State of Emergency.'”

I can think of no other system of control in world history more ingenious than one that distributes just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority — let’s call it the American way.

One percent of the nation owns more than a third of the wealth.  The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: blacks against whites, native-born against foreign-born, professionals against uneducated and small property owners against those who own no property.

When that picture comes into focus what’s so amazing is how these groups have worked against one another to obscure their common interests as sharers of the few crumbs left on the table. How skillful to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor and build resentment on top of humiliation! The total income earned by the top 1 percent of families exceeded 20 percent of all income generated in 2012; let’s call this 1 percent the elite or the Establishment.

Given our growing inequality it’s hard not to see Gov. Nixon’s entire deployment as a field exercise in anticipation of things to come, a sort of public conditioning toward accepting increasingly militarized domestic responses.

In Chicago, NATO Summit protesters were surrounded and “kettled-in.”  Once they arrived at the designated protest area and police decided it was time to go home everyone was forced to leave through a single 6-foot-wide opening at the west end of the pen, which had been created and planned well in advance.  Busloads of heavily armed ninja turtle-clad police officers brought up the rear, capturing unwitting protesters within the destination area where an army of officers — never shown on broadcast news — waited.

The police know this tactic corrals both innocent bystanders and peaceful protesters; we can expect to see a variation of this maneuver in Ferguson, particularly now that time has allowed for more studied strategic maneuvers.

As we later learned during the NATO-3 trial, police provocateurs were very much a part of the strategic deployment in Chicago. In the months since the August protests in Ferguson, dozens of officers, black and white, male and female, have had time to infiltrate and begin operating inside the various protest groups. Beyond the illegal spying, crimes are sometimes committed by these police provocateurs to avoid detection and gain trust within the various protest groups.  These officers — provocateurs — sometimes encourage, plan and even help people carryout illegal action.

Keep in mind that the enormous expenditures associated with this deployment in Ferguson will have to be justified to the public — taxpayers — because those in power plan to stay in power.  The fact that the Ferguson Police Department and city government are predominantly white, while the town is predominately black, underscores their commitment.

Blacks in Ferguson have been excluded almost completely from positions of power. When their voices are not heard — as has been the case in Ferguson — people have nothing to lose and protest becomes certain. In Ferguson, those who have power, who make policy decisions and who are charged with influencing police conduct, have been deaf to the voices of the black community. The City of Ferguson is 67 percent black, yet the police department of 53 commissioned officers had only three black officers.

Numerous blacks in Ferguson have recited to the media their past experiences with police mistreatment. Complaints about police harassment have long fallen on deaf ears. Residents have complained of being roughed up by police during minor traffic stops to no avail. Much of this mistreatment in Ferguson is evidenced by data on race, traffic stops and arrests.

Whether Michael Brown had his “hands raised” in surrender at this point, is almost a secondary issue.  The issue most paramount in this minute is that so many local residents found it believable that a white police officer would shoot six times an unarmed black man trying to surrender.  Something needs to give.

Increasingly, the multiracial character of this nation has begun to recognize that our permanent adversarial culture contributes only to continued domination by corporate wealth and military power.

Challenging the present and demanding a future is ours to choose, but like the women garment workers in New York once resolved, we too must:

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth, like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many; they are few!

—Percy Bysshe Shelly

By RA Monaco