Ferguson and Tomorrow: King and Du Bois, Foretelling Riots, and Perfect Victim Frames


Ferguson, Missouri.

No indictment. Far from over. Split-screen Presidential speech. Sirens over Obama’s words. Mediated and medicated. Our recent mid-term elections highlight our collective disillusionment. “We understand you are frustrated,” fell flat. “Please act nice,” he told us. He spoke clinically, He is fatigued and disillusioned, too. A disillusioned President, without the audacity of hope he used to bring. What we want is not what we get. A fearful small-town America has taken over. We get circles and we are asked to run around in them.

Cameras desperate to catch images of rage, without explanation. How do you explain a nation’s legacy in a sound bite? All becomes spectacle.

We should be uniting, but we’re not. Apathy is pathology. Numbness doesn’t allow for urgency. Remember these words:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

What keeps us from recognizing ourselves in each other? Privilege? Power? Ignorance? Fear? What keeps us from collectively feeling that fierce urgency? Everywhere you read social criticism, and nobody is shocked by anything. We become resigned and cynical because it is what we have been taught. It is our collective defense mechanism and it is defeatist. From W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within a Nation” (1934). (Thanks to Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom via Twitter)

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

— W.E.B Du Bois

DuBois was a staunch integrationist through most of his life. However, five years after the stock market crash, as the nation struggled, and as he resigned from the NAACP, he seemed to sense that integration would be a long and obstacle-filled road. Today, our communities and schools are more segregated than they’ve been in decades.

It begins with segregation and ends with narcissism. Empathy shrinks. Sarcasm reigns. If it’s all about me, it’s never about us. When every media outlet is trying to out-do the other media outlets, spectacle wins. When everything is spectacle, nothing is spectacular.

While we focus on ourselves and our technology, we remain blind to the regression of our society.

***

“Chronicle of a Riot Foretold” by Jelani Cobb, New Yorker (November 25, 2014)

FERGUSON, Missouri—For a hundred and eight days, through the suffocating heat that turned the city into a kiln, through summer thunderstorms and the onset of an early winter, through bureaucratic callousness and the barbs of cynics who held that the effort was of no use and the prickly fear that they might be right, a community in Ferguson, Missouri, held vigil nightly, driven by the need to validate a simple principle: black lives matter. On November 24, 2014, we learned that they do indeed matter, just less than others—less than the prerogatives of those who wield power here, less than even the cynics may have suspected.

Last night, the streets of Ferguson were congested with smoke and anger and disillusionment and disbelief, and also with batons and the malevolent percussion of gunfire and the hundreds of uniformed men brought here to marshal and display force. Just after eight on Monday evening, after a rambling dissertation from the St. Louis County Prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, that placed blame for tensions on social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and ended with the announcement that the police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for shooting Michael Brown six times, the crowd that gathered in front of the police headquarters, on South Florissant Road, began to swell. Their mood was sombre at first, but some other sentiment came to the fore, and their restraint came unmoored. A handful of men began chanting “Fuck the police!” in front of the line of officers in riot gear that had gathered in front of the headquarters. Gunshots, the first I heard that night, cut through the air, and a hundred people began drifting in the direction of the bullets. One man ripped down a small camera mounted on a telephone pole. A quarter mile away, the crowd encountered an empty police car and within moments it was aflame. A line of police officers in military fatigues and gas masks turned a corner and began moving north toward the police building. There were four hundred protesters and nearly that many police officers filling an American street, one side demanding justice, one side demanding order, both recognizing that neither of those things was in the offing that night.

What transpired in Ferguson last night was entirely predictable, widely anticipated, and, yet, seemingly inevitable. Late last week, Michael Brown, Sr. released a video pleading for calm, his forlorn eyes conveying exhaustion born of not only shouldering grief but also of insisting on civic calm in the wake of his son’s death. One of the Brown family’s attorneys, Anthony Gray, held a press conference making the same request, and announced that a team of citizen peacekeepers would be present at any subsequent protests. Ninety minutes later, the St. Louis mayor, Francis Slay, held a press conference in which he pledged that the police would show restraint in the event of protests following the grand-jury decision. He promised that tear gas and armored vehicles would not be deployed to manage protests. The two conferences bore a disturbing symmetry, an inversion of pre-fight hype in which each side deprecated about possible violence but expressed skepticism that the other side was capable of doing the same. It’s possible that, recognizing that violence was all but certain, both sides were seeking to deflect the charge that they had encouraged it. Others offered no such pretense. Days ahead of the announcement, local businesses began boarding up their doors and windows like a coastal town anticipating a hurricane. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a preëmptive state of emergency a week before the grand jury concluded its work. His announcement was roughly akin to declaring it daytime at 3 A.M. because the sun will rise eventually.

From the outset, the great difficulty has been discerning whether the authorities are driven by malevolence or incompetence. The Ferguson police let Brown’s body lie in the street for four and a half hours, an act that either reflected callous disregard for him as a human being or an inability to manage the situation. The release of Darren Wilson’s name was paired with the release of a video purportedly showing Brown stealing a box of cigarillos from a convenience store, although Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson later admitted that Wilson was unaware of the incident when he confronted the young man. (McCulloch contradicted this in his statement on the non-indictment.) Last night, McCulloch made the inscrutable choice to announce the grand jury’s decision after darkness had fallen and the crowds had amassed in the streets, factors that many felt could only increase the risk of violence. Despite the sizable police presence, few officers were positioned on the stretch of West Florissant Avenue where Brown was killed. The result was that damage to the area around the police station was sporadic and short-lived, but Brown’s neighborhood burned. This was either bad strategy or further confirmation of the unimportance of that community in the eyes of Ferguson’s authorities.

The pleas of Michael Brown’s father and Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, were ultimately incapable of containing the violence that erupted last night, because in so many ways what happened here extended beyond their son. His death was a punctuation to a long, profane sentence, one which has insulted a great many, and with damning frequency of late. In his statement after the decision was announced, President Barack Obama took pains to point out that “there is never an excuse for violence.” The man who once told us that there was no black America or white America but only the United States of America has become a President whose statements on unpunished racial injustices are a genre unto themselves. Perhaps it only seems contradictory that the deaths of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, John Ford and Michael Brown—all unarmed black men shot by men who faced no official sanction for their actions—came during the first black Presidency. Or perhaps the message here is that American democracy has reached the limits of its elasticity—that the symbolic empowerment of individuals, while the great many remain citizen-outsiders, is the best that we can hope for. The air last night, thick with smoke and gunfire, suggested something damning of the President.

***

“The Danger of the Perfect Victim Frame” by Jamilah King, Colorlines (August 19, 2014)

On March 2, 1955, a black girl boarded a bus in a mid-size city in Alabama. She took a seat toward the front, something she knew went against the laws of the Jim Crow South. She didn’t get up as more white people boarded the bus. When the driver told her to move to the back, she refused. She did the same when two police officers commanded her to move. As police officers forcibly removed her from the bus in handcuffs, she repeatedly exclaimed that she had constitutional rights. Still, she was later convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the state’s segregation law and assault.

Civil rights activists had long wanted to wage a campaign against segregation on public transit, but this girl— Claudette Colvin—wouldn’t serve as the public face. Although she was active in her NAACP’s youth council, the Birmingham native didn’t fit the bill. She was 15, visibly poor, and soon, visibly pregnant, qualities that some civil rights leaders saw as flaws. Nine months later Rosa Parks—a middle class, churchgoing 42-year-old who served as the secretary of her local NAACP and a mentor to Colvin—refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Colvin never became a household name, but Parks’ planned act of civil disobedience made her one of the most recognizable and admired black victims of white racism of the 20th century. “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” Colvin, who is dark-skinned, said 50 years later in an interview with NPR. “She fit that profile.”

In other words Parks was a perfect victim. Her morals were unassailed.

Today, if we are to believe law enforcement and personal responsibility-loving politicians such as President Obama, black victims of white racism must still, as Colvin put it, “fit the profile.” Their victimhood is only supposed to matter if their lives are pristine. That’s why St. Louis County law enforcement keeps trying to chip away at the popular image of Michael Brown as a college-bound gentle giant. Last Friday, while identifying the 18-year-old’s killer as Officer Darren Wilson, local police released surveillance footage from a convenience store that allegedlly shows Brown stealing cigars and assaulting a clerk. (Later that day, Police Chief Thomas Jackson admitted that Wilson didn’t know that Brown was a suspect.) On Monday, unnamed sources from the St. Louis County medical examiner’s office told The Washington Post that Brown had marijuana in his blood at the time of his killing.

These tidbits are an obvious distraction from the most urgent matter: a police officer’s killing of an unarmed young man.

This is why we must be clear about the danger of the perfect victim frame. In cases like the Brown killing, this structure serves to legitimize the sometimes-lethal police brutality of people of color. Think about all of our imperfect victims: Oscar Grant did time in state prison. Trayvon Martin was suspended from school and occasionally smoked weed. Remarley Graham also smoked weed. Jordan Davis played loud hip-hop. Renisha McBride was allegedly intoxicated. Eric Garner was accused of selling unlicensed cigarettes. See how this works?

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