Ferguson and the Long Life of Slavery

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” – Ella Baker

Darren Wilson, a white police officer who shot an unarmed black, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, said in his defense that he was attacked by Brown. “It looked like a demon,” he said. He referred to his victim as “it”. The evidence considered by the grand jury that decided not to indict him is available here.

A day after the announcement of the decision of the jury – which has led to widespread protests across the country – DeAndre Joshua, a black 20-year-old, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in the same neighbourhood that Brown was killed. DeAndre was a friend of Dorian Johnson, principal witness of Brown’s murder. A man who drove his car into an ensuing protest in Minneapolis, injuring one, was questioned but not arrested. The church in which Michael Brown’s father had been baptised recently was also destroyed by a mysterious fire.  The media has produced a stream of reports of looting and vandalism. Few are asking questions about the mysterious death of a friend of a murder witness and the equally mysterious fire at the victim’s father’s church, that occurred under an alleged state of emergency’ with the National Guard on standby to quell protests.

Shortly after the murder of Michael Brown, the police proceeded to produce conflicting narratives, first claiming that Wilson knew Brown to be a suspect in a strong-arm robbery, then conceding that Wilson didn’t know about the robbery at the time of the shooting, then proceeding to release a security video showing Brown shoving a clerk at a store. The narrative defending a similar murder of Vonderrit Myers shot from behind by an off-duty police officer on October 9, also intends to paint the victim of murder as deserving an extra-judicial execution. The owner of the store, which Myers visited before he was murdered, promptly released footage from security cameras to ensure that the police would not be able to give their latest victim the same post-mortem character assassination that they gave to Brown. About a month after the New York Times ungraciously back-pedalled from describing the murdered 18-year-old Brown as ‘no angel’ (presumably they meant that he hadn’t ascended to heaven yet), the St. Louis police union held a press-meet to defend (yet) another murderer by claiming that his victim, Vonderrit Myers, was ‘no angel’. Both victims, who were no angels, were unarmed and running away from the policemen who murdered them when they were gunned down. Maybe African-Americans require angelic status to remain alive in the United States. Or maybe only white people can be angels.As Eartha Kitt asked, asked, “When I walk into a church, I only see paintings of white angels, why?”

Surely the heavenly ranks must have swelled during that gigantic and forcible transfer of around 12 million Africans to the Americas through four centuries. That genocidal trade deprived millions of their lives and millions more of their homes and languages. The genocidal slave trade was a source of great profit to Europeans who conducted it and to their settler colonies. Systemic prejudice against dark skin is ingrained across countries that were built by slaves of African origin and descent. The abolition of slavery is rendered meaningless by these constant reminders of how race continues to stratify American societies. Stark racial wealth gaps persist. Black people continue to be incarcerated at staggeringly disproportionate rates. Michelle Alexander has named the disproportionate confinement of black bodiesthe new Jim Crow,– the set of rules that were once used to enforce segregation in the southern United States. The repeated and violent enforcement of racialized hierarchies is reason enough, as Ta Nehisi Coates cogently argues, to provide reparations to the descendants of the enslaved, to pay them back for the theft of their ancestors’ bodies and labor; for the continued theft of their right to life and dignity.

Several commentators and activists have linked the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to the long history of slavery and racist violence in the United States. Sharifa Rhodes-Pitt sees the murder and the protests that followed as one more instance in the “struggle to assert the humanity of black bodies in a country built on its denial”. The tiresome and heartlessly racist parade of a murder victim’s minor misdemeanours is used to devalue their lives, to justify their murders and to insidiously hint that the murderer had sufficient reason to commit murder, even when ignorant of his victim’s history. The most shocking recent instance of this criminal attitude towards human life was when the police in Cleveland, Ohio, murdered 12-year-old Tamir Rice for daring to carry around a toy gun and then proceed to justify the murder by claiming that he reached for his waistband when ordered to put his hands in the air. (Of course white ‘gun rights’ fanatics have been known to visit shopping malls and restaurants carrying war weaponry with no repercussions.)

Outrage at these continued violations of human rights has taken the shape of creative and powerful protests across the country. Journalists who suffered the might of the militarized police were the most vocal about the heavy-handed suppression of protest that followed. Other coverage had an emphasis on ‘unrest’ and the sporadic instances of looting. Spaces of consumption were clearly of higher priority to such coverage than black lives, shopping malls more important than the slow overflow of anger at one too many deaths, one too many racist murderers set free.

The question remains: What does freedom mean? Does freedom mean the absence of slavery? Or does it mean the right to live with access to food, housing, shelter, healthcare and education, without fear of sudden and meaningless incarceration or executions?

The Civil Rights movement in which Ella Baker played a quiet, yet powerful,role to secure basic rights for African-Americans in the United States shows that freedom is forged in the crucible of social movements. The ‘emancipation’ that followed the Civil War in the nineteenth century did nothing beyond providing a hollowed-out status of ‘free’ to African-Americans, a status devoid of many rights. While dominant narratives about emancipation claim that the Civil War was a defining moment, Ferguson shows us how little has changed, how deep inequalities persist. While many critics of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, have both pointed to his shortcomings and acknowledged how racism constrains his actions, Angela Davis sees the problem as lying elsewhere. Popular movements are needed to guide leaders and their actions, she points out. “The problem was that people who associated themselves with that movement [to elect Obama] did not continue to wield that collective power as pressure that might have compelled Obama to move in more progressive directions,” she said in her interview with Jadaliyya. As protests against the exoneration of Darren Wilson continue with the heart-breaking slogan ‘Black Lives Matter!’ (why do we need to say this at all?), her words show the way forward. They remind us that qualitative change only occurred for black America through the struggle for civil rights. Today again it is through protest – through protests that looks terrifyingly similar to those of the 1960s – that justice may well be won again.

This post was written by Malarvizhi Jayanth.

Malarvizhi is a PhD candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilization at the University of Chicago.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/youthradio/15027906161

 

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