Aug. 18 — The air was again choked in Ferguson, Mo., with smoke bombs and tear gas. Protesters’ chants competed with bursts of firearms shooting rubber bullets. This was in late evening, after Saturday, Aug. 16, passed into the early moments of Sunday, shortly after the curfew took effect.
Residents of Ferguson, a small suburb in St. Louis County that is more than two-thirds Black, defied Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s martial law declaration. It had been made mere hours before, ironically in a Black church, and with Nixon flanked by Black politicians.
Many in the audience immediately disagreed with the imposition of police control over the city — not that it would be any different from the condition Ferguson had been in since late Sunday, Aug. 10, the day after 18-year-old Black male Michael Brown was shot to death by a Ferguson cop in broad daylight. His body was then left in the middle of the street for hours. Nixon’s official declaration provided legal cover and suspended habeas corpus, so those arrested could be detained without a hearing until the order is lifted.
Martial law was already effectively in place. It began as more than 150 cops from various police agencies descended in full riot gear upon the city of nearly 22,000 people. Justified anger had reached a fever pitch and turned into a mini-rebellion. Since Aug. 10, cops, local, state and other municipalities’ forces have displayed a full array of the weaponry at their disposal: assault rifles, tear gas, concussion grenades, smoke bombs, rubber and bean bag bullets, long-range acoustic devices, armored personnel carriers and Humvees. Their tactics include the declaration of a no-fly zone over the city, denying media access and even arresting some mainstream journalists.
Dozens of people had been arrested during the week prior to Nixon’s announcement. Many were arrested, not for participating in the rebellion or refusing to disperse, but because police picked them out of crowds during protests.
However, the more repressive the cops became, the more time ticked away without the arrest of the cop responsible for shooting unarmed Michael Brown for the “crime” of walking in the middle of the street. As time passed without the release of the cop’s name, the more the righteous indignation of the people of Ferguson and St. Louis County bubbled over.
Around the country, oppressed communities of color, especially Black, Latino/a and Indigenous, seethed with the knowledge that Michael Brown’s killing was not an isolated event. Support poured in from as far away as Palestine, where the people have lived under a constant state of siege since 1948 — at the behest of the U.S., in order to maintain its client state of Israel, which helps to secure U.S. hegemony in the region.
In Geneva, the United Nations committee “that oversees compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) placed the U.S. record under the spotlight,” reported the American Civil Liberties Union. “The Committee expressed deep concern at the circumstances surrounding Brown’s shooting [and] other recent deaths of unarmed African-American men … at the hands of law enforcement.” (aclu.org, Aug. 15
The strong responses from around the country and around the world are comparable to those following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Then, the conditions of poverty, racism and neglect were laid bare by hurricane winds, as the most vulnerable — tens of thousands of Black residents, especially in New Orleans — were left to suffer for days without safe haven, proper sewerage, food, water or medical care. Some died. Vigilantes and cops set upon the oppressed.
Brown’s killing spotlights rampant police brutality
It is not simply how commonplace police brutality is that illuminates the nature of the state; it also reveals that separate realities exist in the United States. The repressive state — the armed bodies of people, the military, the courts, jails and prisons — stands between poor workers and oppressed communities, on one side, and the elite, superwealthy bankers, corporation owners and their political lackeys, on the other.
The U.S., founded by colonial settlers, expropriated the land from Indigenous people through war and genocide and ensnared the people who built this country’s wealth — through slavery.
Black people, descendants of the enslaved or recent immigrants from the Black diaspora created by the Atlantic slave trade; those from Africa, as well as migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean; and people of color from around the world have been forced to migrate because of shooting wars or conditions of economic war created by neoliberalism. They live in differing oppressive and sometimes superexploitative conditions in the U.S.
In theory, the U.S. is one country, but in practice it is a land of many nations: a dominant white nation, which owes its privilege to the doctrine of white supremacy and the manner in which U.S. wealth was originally accumulated, and many oppressed nations.
The situation that has unfolded in Ferguson is indicative of the separate realities that exist in this country. Cops there were already on alert, and more than 100 cops were on hand from different police agencies, prepared with full tactical riot gear. They could all be deployed shortly after the rebellion began.
The heavy-handed police response has been used time and again in poor, oppressed communities. Cops in Anaheim, Calif., responded the same way two years ago when the community rose up to protest the killings of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo.
Throughout U.S. history, repression has occurred when the cops or National Guard have been called in. Every day, these communities look like occupied zones. If the constant police surveillance and patrols are not enough, neighborhood-specific ordinances, such as New York’s “broken windows” policing, give cops extra powers to profile and harass residents.
These “quality of life” ordinances are meant to scare people away from the neighborhoods in advance of real estate developers — or while they are buying land and building residences for new middle- and upper-middle-class whites who seek to live closer to city centers where many oppressed people live. If the period of the 1970s to the 80s was considered an era of “white flight,” then the years from the mid-1990s until today can be characterized as an era of “white invasion.”
In Oakland, Calif., during the Occupy movement and in Ferguson — up until now — the National Guard was not needed. But the armaments being displayed and employed and the tactics being used by police mirror what federal troops would do. The show of force is a sign of the increased militarization of police agencies across the U.S., aided by funds from the Department of Homeland Security. The Pentagon has also sent military vehicles and weaponry to the police force in Ferguson, and several others around the country. (USA Today, Aug. 14)
The conditions for rebellion are ripe in oppressed communities, and they existed in Ferguson before Michael Brown was fatally shot. His killing was just the catalyst.
In recent weeks, there have been many police killings of oppressed people in the U.S. John Crawford III, a Black man, was shot in a southwest Ohio Walmart, while holding a toy air rifle he had picked up in the store. Los Angeles police fatally shot Ezell Ford, an unarmed Black man, who suffered from mental illness, and beat to death Omar Abrego, still wearing his work uniform. Staten Island, N.Y., police choked to death Eric Garner, a Black man, for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. There are surely more such deaths, with the victims unknown to the public.
In addition to the killings are the conditions of poverty and unemployment that prevail in oppressed communities. They are highlighted now in Ferguson, where the effects of gentrification and growing suburban poverty are clearly seen. The city’s demographics changed, as it went from being an 85 percent white enclave in 1980 to a 67 percent Black community by the period 2008-12, reported Brookings Institute on Aug. 15.
The institute explains, “But Ferguson has also been home to dramatic economic changes in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.
“Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2010-12, Ferguson’s poor population doubled,” reported Brookings. By 2012, “roughly, one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,402 for a family of 4 in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.” More than half of Black people living in suburban communities live in areas that have a more than 20 percent poverty rate.
Along with the growing poverty and uncertainty in the U.S., because of the unstable nature of the capitalist system and its inability to contain crisis, neoliberalism is growing. It is manifested in attacks on unions and workers who are organizing, assaults on the right to quality public education and drastic slashes in social welfare programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. With cuts to food benefits invariably come rising food prices.
Conditions for rebellion ripe in oppressed areas
Police agencies in every locality and at the state level have been preparing for social explosions. Preceding the dramatic infusion of federal monies to cities and states after 9/11, the “War on Drugs” began in an era with a great increase in the incarceration of Black people. Black men, in particular, but also Black women, make up the fastest growing demographic in the prison system.
The mammoth prison-industrial complex today includes the marriage of the prison construction industry with the private prison industry, the use of prison labor, and vast numbers of prison vendors, telephone and surveillance companies that have contracts with private, state and federal prison facilities. The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world at 2.4 million. Yet, the numbers incarcerated do not even include the many hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrant workers held in detention centers.
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, passed during the Clinton administration, limits the amount of appeals that a person on death row can file. A host of laws hampering civil liberties were enacted, including mandatory sentencing and increased length of prison terms to be served.
These measures, along with laws signed under the Bush and Obama administrations, which include advanced combat training and massive arming of police, point to an increasingly militarized state.
What’s happening in Ferguson shows these repressive policies in action. The police there are showing what police forces will do in oppressed communities which protest their terrible living conditions. Ferguson is what national oppression looks like.
The police chief and the media have been slandering Michael Brown, even releasing a video that allegedly shows him stealing cigars — although this had nothing to do with why cops stopped and harassed him. But this is not surprising. This demonization is nothing new. Showing this video was calculated to nullify anger at Michael Brown’s killing that might have arisen in white communities.
It is not just the oppressed communities that need to fear the growing militarization of the police, but all workers. Police agencies are being trained in military tactics, as they are armed with high-tech and advanced military hardware for crowd control and squashing social unrest.
The police tactics used to try to suppress the Occupy Wall Street protests should have been an eye opener to all progressive forces. Increasingly, the repressive state apparatus is preparing for greater social unrest and upheavel. Although the powers that be anticipate struggle will arise in the oppressed areas, they expect that it will spread and become broader and more generalized.