By CLAY WADENA
The United States is moving closer and closer to a period of reckoning in regard to centuries of racist exploitation, oppression, and murder. The young Michael Brown, whose life was taken on Aug. 9 by Ferguson police, haunts the dreams of those who wish to beautify, hide, and deny the brutal treatment of African Americans in the United States.
Aug. 30 marked yet another set of solidarity demonstrations in Ferguson, with people joining from across the country, three weeks after Brown’s death. The exemplary conduct of the local community of Ferguson, the leaders of the present movement, must be noted again and again. Despite police showing up in military gear and physically cracking down on protesters (the “hard touch”) and powerful leaders attempting to cool out the people’s rage (the “soft touch”), community residents have defied them all and continually mobilized in the streets, forcing this issue into the national scene and beyond.
There are many factors involved in the creation of this movement, but none of them would matter were it not for the local community’s valiant commitment to hitting the streets. As a result, protesters across the country have mobilized in solidarity demonstrations, often making connections between Brown’s death and similar local incidents. With each death the contradiction is further exposed: this country can elect a Black president but can’t seem to face or stop the New Jim Crow.
As much as the events in Ferguson have become an inspiration to fight oppression for so many, they have also become a rallying point for the racists on the other side of the battle lines. The public has been subjected to the horrific and disgusting spectacle of fundraising websites for Officer Darren Wilson (the triggerman who murdered Michael Brown). These sites have raised over $400,000 and counting, leading some to conclude (rightfully so) that there are apparently hundreds of thousands of dollars in bounty money for any police officer who kills an African American.
The apologists for the police and vigilantes will always tell those who wish to protest to wait. They say, “we need more details” and “we must wait for the official investigation to be completed.” These are their rallying cries. But for those who have lived under the brutal heel of the New Jim Crow, waiting for the “official investigation” to be completed is outweighed by the understanding (backed by life’s experience) that law enforcement can murder and brutalize Black and Brown lives with impunity and does so regularly. This is reflected in a Pew Research Poll in which 76% of African Americans responded that they had little or no confidence in investigations (only 33% of whites responded the same).
To see the community fight back and to see the solidarity actions across the country, warmed the heart of activists and victims who have worked for the day of a mass movement to confront police brutality, racism, and mass incarceration. Are we turning the corner to a new era of nationwide activism to fight police brutality and the New Jim Crow? Only time will tell, and we have to do all we can to ensure that this is so.
One positive development is that connections are being made between activists and networking is happening across the country on a level unseen in a long time. When the mothers of Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown recently got together on CNN it was a powerful sight—demonstrating in front of our eyes the widespread and national character of the U.S. racism and police brutality problem. From New York to Florida, Missouri, and beyond, this nationwide problem needs a nationwide, mobilized response.
In Staten Island on Aug. 23, thousands marched in solidarity with Eric Garner (an unarmed Black man choked to death on camera by the NYPD earlier in the summer), and the national connection was visible; many held signs saying, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” which was made popular by protests for Michael Brown.
Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea shot 41 times by police in the Bronx in 1999, said at the Garner rally that “police cannot judge our sons and execute them for no reason.” Ramarley Graham’s mother also spoke at the rally; she has been waiting over two years for justice after the NYPD killed her unarmed 18-year-old son. It’s been a year since the Department of Justice said they had opened an investigation into it—without any results.
Justice is a righteous demand, and remains the primary demand. Even after the murder of Oscar Grant was caught on film, it only resulted in a “slap on the wrist” for his killer (he received a sentence of two years with time served and is now free). But due to the widespread nature of this issue, justice cannot be our one and only demand.
On top of justice, the movement needs to raise demands that are focused on exposing a society that prioritizes criminalization and death over the wellbeing of the community. To that end, one of the demands brought up by the #BlackLivesMatter group (which helped organized Aug. 30 demonstrations in Ferguson), was particularly interesting: “Decrease law enforcement spending/budget by ½ by 2016, and invest that money into Black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing, and schools.” This is a demand that directly attacks the premise that our youth are better served by hyper-surveillance, harassment, and brutality rather than investing into the community.
Another popular demand has been to de-militarize the police, and this is included in the demands released by #BlackLivesMatter as well. CNN quoted author and former Marine logistics officer Jeff Clement as saying, “Our [Rules of Engagement] regarding who we could point weapons at in Afghanistan was more restrictive than cops in Missouri.” The scenes of police that looked like soldiers, pointing laser-beamed weapons at unarmed protesters in Ferguson made the powers that be very distraught about the image of the U.S.
Already, and as a result of events in Ferguson, the San Jose, Calif., police department has made plans to get rid of armored vehicles made to withstand roadside bombs (which were given to them for free from U.S. Department of Defense), while the Davis, Calif., and Albuquerque, N.M., police departments are reviewing possibly giving them back.
Demilitarizing the police is an important demand, and links should be made between the militarization that people are subjected to in the United States and what the U.S. military subjects people to abroad. But let’s be clear that even without military equipment, the police forces of the U.S. will still be committing abuses.
We also have to point out that this problem is deeper than a few bad cops. This is a systemic problem, an institutionalized problem; it is not a problem that can be solved by removing one officer, or even one local department, as some believe.
Al Sharpton said at the Eric Garner protest in Staten Island, “Don’t act like we are here against police. We’re for police! But let me tell you something, you have a bag of apples, and there’s a rotten apple in the bag, the only way to protect the good apples is to take the bad apple out.”
But the level of violence against Black, Brown, and even white people by police is beyond a few bad apples. While there are truly are a few bad apples, and Darren Wilson most definitely is one, policing a population that is institutionally and purposefully held down will never look pretty. It will be brutal; it will be murderous. Until widespread racial and economic inequality is addressed, brutality and murder will be a common occurrence when “enforcing law and order.”
We cannot accept the “bad apple” theory of police brutality; the statistics and the reality force us to move beyond this simplistic explanation. The problem is systemic, not personal. The apple is rotten, the barrel is rotten, and the whole ship the barrel is sailing in is rotten.
Seize the moment! There is a Michael Brown in every city in this country! Double your efforts to mobilize people at this special moment! End police brutality! End the New Jim Crow! No Justice, No Peace!
Photo: New York City protest one year ago following the racist killing of Trayvon Martin. Today, the movement is in the streets once again to demand justice. Tony Savino / Socialist Action