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Nation Reacts to Ferguson Verdict, Systemic Racism

Ferguson, Missouri exploded in anger Monday night, moments after the announcement of a grand jury decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Despite the frigid temperatures, dense crowds gathered outside the police station in anticipation of the verdict. Police and the National Guard found themselves unable to prevent widespread arson, and a dozen businesses were burned to the ground before night’s end. By Wednesday, over 2,000 troops had been brought into the area, bringing the number of U.S soldiers in St. Louis up to levels comparable with the military occupation of Iraq.

Flames rage on the frame of a torched police car in Ferguson, November 24th

Flames rage on the frame of a torched police car in Ferguson, November 24th

Demonstrators massed across the country in anticipation of the verdict, and joined Ferguson in expressing deep frustration with a system that seems incapable of delivering justice for Black Americans. I want to start with a brief round-up of events across the country between November 24th and 27th, before moving on to commentary and analysis of the way in which media outlets and internet commenters have reacted to the national crisis this week. The virulent racism of the right, and the deeply ingrained riot-shaming of liberals and the left both have plenty to teach us about where we stand in America today.

Unrest round-up

In Los Angeles, police arrested over 300 demonstrators total on Tuesday and Wednesday nights after consecutive nightly shutdowns of the 101 and 110 Harbor freeways. Hours after the freeway closure late Tuesday, nine demonstrators again brought the 101 to a standstill Wednesday morning, making headline news across a county of 12 million people.

CHP moving in to to clear the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, November 25th

CHP moving in to to clear the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, November 25th

In Oakland, hundreds of protesters took to the streets following the verdict, leading to several nights of looting, vandalism, and street battles with police. An ABC helicopter livestream Tuesday night captured dramatic footage of destruction in Oakland’s gentrified neighborhood of Temescal. Fires in the street raged late into the night, and over 80 arrests were reported in the morning. On Wednesday, Oakland Police brought in hundreds of reinforcements from the California Highway Patrol and neighboring agencies. Windows were smashed at the headquarters of pro-law enforcement newspaper The Oakland Tribune, but a heavy police presence prevented a repeat of the widespread disorder seen Monday and Tuesday nights.

Helicopter footage of looting at a T-Mobile in Oakland's affluent Temescal District

Helicopter footage of looting at a T-Mobile in Oakland’s affluent Temescal District

On the East Coast, thousands marched in New York City and Washington D.C, holding signs and banners reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Jail Killer Cops”. November 25th, protesters shut down a freeway in Rhode Island, and demonstrators in Baltimore blocked streets near a college campus. In Manhattan, protesters and police faced off at the Lincoln Bridge, resulting in a complete shutdown of traffic between Midtown and New Jersey. On Thanksgiving, a group of over 100 protesters in New York City attempted to disrupt the Macy’s Parade, leading to several arrests.

Large demonstrations took place throughout the South, in Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas and elsewhere. On Tuesday November 25th, after a night of mobile protests, anarchists smashed windows at the National Guard Armory in Durham, North Carolina, an event covered in both the mainstream media and a communique urging “a continued escalation in local, combative struggle against racism, capitalism, and the state”. Protesters blocked the freeway in Dallas, taking up the call to #shutitdown issued across Twitter and social media.

Black Lives Matter vs #AllLivesMatter

The #ferguson hashtag dominated social media throughout late November, as both supporters and detractors of Darren Wilson fought for space and legitimacy in the unruly terrain of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Administrators for a Facebook page called “Black Lives Matter” warned against “feeding the trolls”, and Twitter users bickered over the meaning of the #AllLivesMatter hashtag gaining traction among clueless white people.

screenshot from twitter search #alllivesmatter

screenshot from twitter search #alllivesmatter

Commenters on conservative news blog such as The Daily Beast let loose with racist vitrol; A good portion of 400 comments on their Ferguson coverage  November 24th hurled every slur imaginable at Black Americans. “Destruction and steeling is in their blood [sic]” one commenter said, while another dismissed 18 year old Brown as “common criminal street trash….who brought his own death on himself”. Ultra right-wing news site Breitbart.com was blighted by comments denouncing “animals” and “drugged up black thugs.” Breitbart user Toms18 advanced a theory that white people were “under attack…. by 4-5% of the population, young black males.”

If you’re feeling triggered and afraid the vitrol could get worse, it does. From behind the veil of anonymity, internet warriors have routinely called for rioters in Ferguson to be “shot in the street”, “run over”, and “gunned down”. Its hard to imagine the kind of people who can harbor such tremendous insensitivity to those reacting against police murder, but its safe to say their views are a world apart from the anti-police and anti-brutality rebels finding each other in the streets over the past several days and weeks.

And Who’s to Say We Shouldn’t Loot and Riot? 

Willie Osterwell, in an excellent new piece for The New Inquiry points out the underlying white supremacist structure of the corporate media. It’s worth quoting him at length to make the point:

“The dominant media is itself a tool of white supremacy: it repeats what the police deliver nearly verbatim and uncritically, even when the police story changes upwards of nine times, as it has thus far in the Brown killing. The media use phrases like ‘officer-involved shooting’ and will switch to passive voice when a black man is shot by a white vigilante or a police officer (‘shots were fired’). Journalists claim that ‘you have to hear both sides’ in order to privilege the obfuscating reports of the state over the clear voices and testimony of an entire community, members of which witnessed the police murder a teenager in cold blood. The media are more respectful to white serial killers and mass murderers than to unarmed black victims of murder.”

What follows, Osterwell argues, is a necessary reconsideration of the way in which looting and rioting are framed in public discourse. “In making a strong division between Good Protester and Bad Rioter…the narrative of the criminalization of black youth is reproduced.” Instead of trying to paint unrest in terms of (ahem) black and white, we’re better served looking at disruptions to the social peace as a wake-up call for Americans still harboring a naive trust of police and the justice system- let alone the mirage of a postracial society. A burned down strip mall can be rebuilt; looted goods can be replaced. But Michael Brown is gone, and comparing the destruction of property to the loss of a person’s life is insulting and plays into the hands of power.

Screen Shot 2014-11-27 at 2.48.58 PM

Much has been made in recent days of the dramatic split-screen televised November 24th: on one side Obama pleaded for calm, and defended a nation “built on the rule of law”. On the other, tear gas canisters flew and Ferguson began to burn. In an opinion column for The Guardian, Steven Thrasher argues that “the gap in our collective split-screen” is an inability to recognize the racism inherent in our system; in the weeks and months ahead, Americans will decide if that gap is turning into a skirmish line.

You can check out Paul’s blog here.

For further reference check out these essays on Ferguson and the purpose of rioting. 

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18 thoughts on “Nation Reacts to Ferguson Verdict, Systemic Racism

  1. Hmm. I’m doing some research on the Ferguson thing, as well as the Tamir Rice incident. I’ll probably be doing a blog post on it at some point, but for now I’m just collecting all of the information possible. This was very helpful, thank you.

      • I’m not sure I am entirely settled in my position on the issue. I struggle to determine where blame lies via media outlets, but then again I am constantly on the fence. This is not to say I am without conviction, but rather fear to commit to the wrong idea. I see the topic as an issue involving much more than this singular incident. I personally, and tentatively, see Michael Brown as guilty, however this incident shouldn’t take away from the foundation for which many are protesting. I don’t mean those looting, the majority of these individuals, in my opinion, are only using this incident as an excuse to shake inhibition and behave in an acceptable manner under a mask of anonymity. Those individuals do not care for a reform of police force utilization, racial profiling, or the elimination of economic and ethnic stratification. That behavior is motivated by self-interest. Just my thoughts. Thanks for enaging!

          • I think, if you had a chance to talk with people who riot and loot, you would be surprised at how educated they are about issues of police violence and racism. You talk about looters acting in self-interest and I would agree with that; isn’t it possible that fighting police violence and acting in self-interest are one in the same? If capitalism is a system of stratification and inequality, and depends on the police to protect those inequalities, why would looting mega-corporations preclude an understanding of a desire for change and end to police violence?

            • That’s an interesting take on the justification for destruction of property. However, can we prove that local businesses were, in fact, left untouched? I would find that difficult to believe considering the mob mentality leads to the same anonymity and lowering of inhibition just as a law enforcement institutions do. Nonetheless, I guess there is an unusual silver lining to rioting, intentional or not. I think that end goal might be a stretch though, haha. Also, for the record I don’t believe intelligence plays any part in an individuals participation in such behavior, rather I think it is their mindset at that given time. We are all capable of many things we could instantly regret.

              • I know for a fact that small local businesses were damaged in Oakland, but with the Eric Garner verdict piling on top of this, I really do not give a fuck. Sometimes shit has to burn. It’ll never outweigh the injustice or the peoples’ right to outrage at this garbage world

  2. I am African American and I don’t see this as a racial issue. I think it’s way too easy to label these incidences as racial injustices where there is little evidence to prove that. I don’t what happened that day. I wasn’t there, and apparently those who claimed they “saw” what happened couldn’t get the story straight either. Please understand that this story was not aired for no reason. How many times is a white person killed for no reason in this country (and even by a black officer)? How many times is an injustice happening against Asians, Hispanics, and even Native Americans? But you’ll never see those on tv. Why? Because they don’t cause such an uproar like a white-on-black crime does. This is a tactic by the media to distort and divide the people. I also believe that too many African Americans (not all of them of course) are way too sensitive and see everything through race-colored glasses. Life is not like that and that is NO excuse for arson and robbery. NONE! Each time the media showcases these kinds of incidents (that are really just a drop in the bucket compared to others) it gets way out of hand. They want that! Instead of turning on other people of different races of business, turn on the people who started the chaos in the first place…the media.

    • I think you nailed it. The media has yet to look at themselves at accept responsibility for the mess they caused. If they cared about race relations, they would find and discuss the systemic injustices that actually exist. Blaming cops is easy. It allows juries (and jurors) to operate without reflection on their motives, it allows politicians to not write (and pass) legislation that would correct the wrongs, and it prevents real CHANGE from ever occurring. It’s sad. There must be another way to monetize journalism.

  3. Pingback: New kids on the blockade: thoughts on the new anti-racist, anti-police revolt | Cautiously pessimistic

  4. I just have a couple things to say.

    Firstly, I think that it is a mistake to typecast “the right” as “people who hurl vitriol in the comments of articles.” There are bigots and lunatics on all parts of the political spectrum. By constantly pointing out the idiocy of the trolls, we lose focus on the central point of any debate, or, what we are really arguing about. For example, does calling someone out for saying black people should be gunned down in the street actually help anything? Not really, in my opinion. It just makes everyone more angry and less rational.

    Secondly, I don’t believe that your quote about the media is entirely accurate. The Washington Post, and The New York Times (both examples of mainstream, popular newspapers) have been overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the liberal interpretation of events in Ferguson. So have many of the broadcast networks. Fox is, typically, supporting the conservative view. Anyway, my point is that saying the media at large is reporting on one issue in a single, unified way is very misleading and factually incorrect. There are both liberal and conservative outlets. Perhaps we only notice the ones that dissent from our views…Fox calls liberal media “mainstream,” liberal media calls Fox “mainstream.”

    Also, Nicole, you had good points. Thank you for saying something that I cannot, as a white person. For some reason, whenever a white person voices his/her opinion on race issues, he/she immediately becomes the subject of brutal ad hominem attacks.

    Well written article!

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