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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.