[News] Ferguson: Escaping Post-racial Hypnosis

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Aug 21 12:16:40 EDT 2014

  Ferguson: Escaping Post-racial Hypnosis

on 20 Agosto 2014


/Our first question has to do with the way that Ferguson exploded after 
Michael Brown's murder and the police response. What are the social 
dynamics that led to and preceded these intense riots? What led to the 
uprising of the black community and how can you explain the violence of 
the police response there?/

To get into the broad historical context, especially for those not in 
the US, it is important to say that police violence here is not an 
abstract or universal phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that has focused on 
certain peoples and certain "problem" populations, specifically although 
not solely on African-American and black Americans. When we look at 
Ferguson and the fact that it is a suburb of St. Louis, this in 
historical and racial terms is already in many ways a point of conflict 
and racial tension. Ferguson itself was almost entirely white until the 
1970s, but has become a city that is in its large majority black, around 
70-65%, and yet the police force is almost universally white. And when 
we look at some of the recent FBI data has come out we find that, for 
example, 92% of those arrested in Ferguson for disorderly conduct are 
black, which gives a good insight into the way that people are 
systematically harassed. People in Ferguson are harassed by police and 
petty charges like disorderly conduct are used by them as a social 
control over this population. And again what we have is not an abstract 
problem but a manifestation and repetition of historical, white, 
supremacist police violence in which black lives are worth nothing and 
black death is almost always legitimized. And this is continuing to play 
out with the media narrative that follows, as if coherence were 
completely irrelevant, the 3-4 police explanations that serve to 
legitimize this violence against this young man to the public. They say 
Michael Brown was maybe involved in a robbery, which the police claim 
was earlier that day although he seems to be wearing different clothes 
if that's him in the videos they released; maybe he was jaywalking, 
which again needs to be understood in a context where the police are 
harassing people for minor crimes. And, of course, this makes it very 
clear to the white populations nearby that this is a question of black 
or white, just as when the police released images of the so-called 
"looters" in Ferguson, which they did to remind everyone that police 
were out there protecting property against the so-called violence of others.

/You referenced "white flight" in the Midwest above. Can you talk about 
its relationship to deindustrialization, which has important class 
implications, and how that "white flight" has produced class and racial 
tensions in Ferguson?/

We're talking about the geography of race, and race is always a 
phenomenon that manifests geographically. The way that it manifests in 
the US more often than not has been the flight of whites into the 
suburbs, which began as a process a long time ago but especially in the 
periods of deindustrialization in the 1970s when it accelerated. So you 
have large cities in the Midwest and elsewhere, such as where I live in 
Philadelphia, where what you find in this so-called post-racial era is 
that race is more likely to be coded geographically than it is to be 
coded openly in racial terms. So whether it is through a coded language 
of school districts or dangerous areas or moving to the suburbs to give 
your kids opportunities, what we're talking about are the ways that 
segregation is actually an /increasing/ phenomenon in the U.S. Ferguson 
is clearly one example of those places that once was exclusively white 
and has now become a predominately black town; so you know, we're 
talking about another example of this geographic manifestation where the 
police are there not just to police the population but also the borders. 
The function of the police is to keep people in line and in their zone 
or in their lane as it were, and Ferguson, a city that went from being a 
white city to a black city, is a city where the population has to be 
terrorized by police, but where the police also have to keep the 
population away from whiter suburbs in that area.

/Because you were just talking about the police and the black community, 
can you suggest what the people in Ferguson are bringing to the streets, 
or what kinds of experiences and feelings they are bringing there?/

This is one thing that many white observers but also liberal observers 
just don't grasp about the police killing of blacks in the States, which 
is that it is always embedded in this long historical trajectory that is 
not even a long memory. I mean, we are even talking about the highly 
publicized murders of at least 5 black men in the last month by police 
in this country, so this is a constant trajectory of police murder. And 
the off-the-cuff expressions of people in Ferguson attest to that when 
they say that this is about everything from Emmett Till to Trayvon 
Martin to the present, that is a long trajectory, and the failure to 
recognize it is a failure to grasp the depth of rage in these moments. 
That rage is in many ways a product of feeling slightly helpless about 
the constant repetition of this violence, but is also the dedication and 
the insistence that something must be done, and that in the absence of 
legal reform which accomplishes anything, in the absence of electing 
officials and congressman accomplishing anything, maybe these rebellions 
and riots will work. Which, historically speaking, is actually not a 
terribly inaccurate judgment if you look at cases throughout U.S. 
history. Riots and rebellions have played a huge role in, if not 
directly, then at least indirectly in transforming the political sphere 
and political action and leading to concrete results. If we look at 
Ferguson we see the withdrawal of the St Louis county sheriff from 
policing the situation as a direct result of this intervention in the 
streets and the conflicts with this heavily militarized police force.

/Can we follow up on your point about how liberal whites deal with 
situations of violence or the question of violence in protests? It seems 
that within the past day or two the media has latched on to images of 
police officers marching with protesters, giving preference to vigils 
and peaceful actions over what appeared in the beginning to be not only 
riots but also looting and protests in the streets. What does such 
privileging of "peacefulness" over "violence" do to obscure the history 
of racism in the U.S. but also to misunderstand what it might take to 
respond to that history?/

Absolutely. We should be perfectly clear. There's a headline now from 
when the state highway patrol went to the protests yesterday, and the 
headline was "Police Join Protests." We should be perfectly clear: the 
police were not joining the protests. This is counter-insurgency, this 
is a historic strategy of counter-insurgency that involves backing away 
from the heavy-handed, iron fist of military response, which is what the 
police force brought initially, and a turning to the velvet glove or 
soft strategy to disarm protest. This doesn't change the fact that the 
goal is to disarm the protest and weaken the mobilization of the people 
and to do so through cooptation, and that should be understood as a 
starting point. It is not a good thing that the police went to the 
protests, although it is a less brutal phenomenon. And this gets to the 
second part, which is that what is going on in Ferguson is not about the 
militarization of police. That militarization is a huge phenomenon that 
has occurred over the past decade, especially since Sept. 11, through 
which police departments acquired military grade technology through the 
Department of Defense, through grants and counter-terrorism funding. But 
if the terrorist threat never existed or if it dissipates, this military 
hardware is there and asking to be used. The old saying goes that if you 
have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is exactly what we're 
seeing in the streets with these county sheriffs deploying armored 
personnel carriers. If you're sitting on the top of one of these 
personnel carriers looking through a scope of a sniper rifle, then 
everything looks like an insurgent. Everything looks like an enemy 
combatant. And that's crucial but its not at the essence of what is 
going on; because if we look at the essence of what is going on with the 
militarization of police we neglect the fact that the police of the 
1950s, 60s, and 70s were not militarized but were still racist, brutal 
occupiers of black communities. And so we need to keep both these 
threads in our analysis, while avoiding the easy recourse to simply 
saying that we need to reform the police or take away their tanks. 
Again, Ferguson police are almost entirely white and policing a black 
community, doing so brutally and terroristically. Taking away their 
heavy weaponry won't solve that. We need to understand this within the 
long-term history of white supremacy, which is one of continuity rather 
than change. And we can pair that up with the transformation of 
policing, which has indeed been a progressive process of militarization.

/To your point about the continuity of race relations and violence in 
the US, we could propose two poles that could be mapped onto Ferguson, 
MO and New Orleans, LA. So on the one hand in New Orleans, the impact of 
Hurricane Katrina attested to the mass, systemic abandonment of a 
largely black population, and in Ferguson, we see the intervention of 
direct violence on the part of the police applied to a black population. 
How might these two instances point to an important historical relation 
in the U.S. that suggest that when there's not direct violence, there is 
always a consistent environment of abandonment?/

This question of abandonment versus direct violence is actually more of 
a spectrum. I've never been to Ferguson, but my guess is that it's 
somewhere in between in the sense that in the course of becoming a 
heavily black city that it was increasingly abandoned. And yet this was 
not simply a city that was sealed off and allowed to govern itself. It 
was structured according to this systematic police violence as many 
black cities are. And so that two really work hand in hand. So 
understood in the long context we're talking about firstly, in the most 
recent history, this process of deindustrialization, as a process that 
renders huge numbers of the U.S. population irrelevant to the process of 
production, and these populations are almost entirely black; in other 
words these become surplus populations. And the response of the state is 
to incarcerate them on a massive level or to essentially warehouse them 
in facilities and maybe then extract some surplus through forced labor. 
But the point is really about warehousing and abandonment on a certain 
level. Seen in the broader context this is also a shift in the 
historical tension, especially in the 20^th century, which has to do 
with the process of formal abolition and the anxiety that results 
immediately upon abolition, which is namely what do we do with these 
former slaves. And here again, continuity is a huge part of the 
aftermath of slavery, which was an aftermath of sharecropping and also 
the immediate turn to convict leasing in which prisoners could be could 
be legitimately enslaved thanks to the 13^th amendment of the U.S. 
Constitution. And this entire process of developing police institutions 
begins directly with that continuity of slavery. The police are a part 
of this process, because they emerge as an institution in response to 
the threat posed by free black labor, the mobility of free black labor 
after abolition. And so this is really one long historical complex that 
we see playing out.

/To pick up on this point about incarceration we might think about the 
popularity of Michelle Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow", which has 
been important in the U.S. for demonstrating that continuity between the 
end of slavery and the advent of mass incarceration. But much of the 
response to that book has been to advocate for reforming the law around 
incarceration. How does Ferguson demonstrate the failure of something 
like legal reform to address the history of race in the U.S.? /

On the one hand the question of reform is the constant temptation in 
these moments and it goes hand in hand with the question of pacification 
and of essentially shutting up and silencing the people who are in the 
streets in Ferguson, who are after all some of the most silenced people 
already. And you have this really unfortunate tendency of liberal 
commentators to engage in this double silencing, when they say, "yes 
maybe its legitimate to resist and protest, but we would really like to 
police and dictate the terms of that protest." They make certain claims 
about understanding how social change occurs, when actually those claims 
are almost entirely wrong. The way that social change occurs is often 
through these moments of mass eruption and spontaneous riots and the way 
change often unfolds is through this attempt by reformists to co-opt 
them. So on the one hand I think we definitely need to be hesitant and 
resistant and critical to these reformist temptations. We also need to 
recognize that they are inevitably going to surface and that's actually 
more likely how change is going to occur. But the danger, especially in 
this situation, is the question of what kind of reforms are we talking 
about? Are we talking about reforms to police training, about 
sensitivity training for police, are we talking about some kind of 
quotas to change the demographic nature of the Ferguson police 
department? The reality is that the function of the police will remain 
the same. You can have a police department that is entirely black and 
the function of that police department will still be white supremacist, 
not only because they protect property but because of the relationship 
between property and whiteness in the U.S. Police protect whiteness as 
well, they uphold the color line by dictating which populations are 
subject to violence and which are not, and which populations need to be 
contained and which do not. So the reforms won't really solve these 
questions and this again brings us again to the question of so-called 
post-racial America, in which the election of a president allegedly 
tells us a great deal about the nature of society. In reality in can be 
understood in dialectical terms as the opposite, it can be the latest in 
a new strategy to counteract popular resistance to white supremacy and 
to obscure that fact. So we have Obama going on television saying things 
that are correct about the police in regards to the protest, but also 
saying that there's never any excuse for violence against the police. 
Which even just on the face of it, even though people were eating it up, 
was a nonsensical statement, because it doesn't say anything about the 
Civil Rights struggles in which the police were violently abusing black 
Americans. Even Obama himself would have to recognize the legitimacy of 
self- defense in these things. So reformism also doesn't tell us much 
about how to respond in the present to those very same phenomena. The 
danger of reformism is easy to see in the request to the FBI to handle 
investigations; the FBI, I mean, come on, this is not a serious 
suggestion. And yet, many so-called civil rights organizations are going 
in for that as opposed to going in for claims about more substantive 
community control over police, which themselves often are too reformist. 
These community oversight boards are often toothless institutions that 
don't have any potential to fire violence and abusive police officers.

/Can we think about the frequent murders of blacks by police that you 
mentioned above as a strategy to control the black community that works 
together with the mass incarceration?/

Absolutely. And I think mass incarceration is not just about prisons, it 
is the police and prisons as a complex. It is a process of terrorizing 
communities and gathering nearly at random certain members of those 
communities to put them in prison---we say nearly at random but again 
92% of those arrested in Ferguson for disorderly conduct are black. It 
doesn't even need to be said that the statistics show that white people 
don't get charged with disorderly conduct because it's the kind of 
bullshit charge that you throw at someone who is either talking back to 
you, or as Michael Brown allegedly was, jaywalking in the street. If 
you've ever been near a police officer in the States, and I'm guessing 
many other places, all you have to do is question their authority to 
really see the fury that they are prepared to unleash. This is because 
what the system requires is that they have not only the legal force that 
they're granted, but also a discretion on the street which is really a 
sovereign discretion to decide who is going to jail and who is not, who 
is subject to including legal violence and who is not subject to that 
violence. I myself walking down the street am not judged to be subject 
to that violence for the most part, but any black youth is always 
already potentially a legitimate target for violence. And so policing is 
part of this mass incarceration system that inflicts terror on these 
communities, that destroys communities and tears families apart just as 
slavery did for the most part, and it is really an attempt to contain 
through submission these communities. It is not simply to take away a 
large percentage of their numbers, which it does, but it is also to 
terrorize and force the others into submission. You have had, as I said, 
young black men killed several times in the past month but what stands 
out about Ferguson is not the killing but the resistance, and the really 
truly heroic nature of the resistance. This is not a resistance of 
thousands of people, but a resistance of small numbers in a small town 
who regardless of all of the force and all the attention and attempts at 
cooptation are in the streets every single night, who are responding in 
many ways to the police attempts at cooptation which were touted in the 
media yesterday, by again rebelling last night and saying we're not 
going to buy this line about police being on our side.

/In response to what you said above about the resistance of small 
numbers of people, we could talk about the importance of 
subjectivization in what is going on in Ferguson, or in other words how 
the black community in Ferguson has been able to transform a fear of 
police control into a will to take to the street. Sometimes this 
transformation happens but not always, so what could account for this 
change? And has the preceding event of the murder of Trayvon Martin 
contributed to that capacity?/

That's right. We're in a historical moment that needs to be understood 
as very specific and the same time, which is part of a long historical 
trajectory. This means that the emotional response to another killing in 
your community of a young black man is the cause for anger but also the 
cause for desperation and a sort of helplessness, as I said before, that 
maybe nothing will happen to change this, that this is constant and not 
a new thing or an exception. It's a constant reality but at the same 
time the very same course of helplessness gives rise to sense that 
there's not a great deal to be lost by resisting. If you're talking 
about putting yourself in the shoes of a young black man, who merely as 
a result of being a young black man has a 30% chance of spending a good 
portion of their lives in prison, there the stakes of continuing the 
status quo are almost as high as the stakes of going out and resisting, 
even if you're not guaranteed any kind of transformation. So you have to 
combine that underlying situation with the sense that we are breaking 
out of the post-racial hypnosis that reached a peak around 2008 with the 
election of Obama. Ever since then the morning of Jan. 1 in 2009, just 
before Obama took office, Oscar Grant was murdered by a police officer 
in Oakland, sparking a series of riots in which I was involved in, and 
giving rise to a major transformation of the political situation in 
Oakland and in CA. Not long thereafter Trayvon Martin brought to the 
national stage a very similar debate and discussion. And so you do see 
people gradually realizing that the idea of post-racial is a sick brutal 
joke and moving out of the comfort zone of the Obama presidency to enter 
into a greater willingness to resist. I think that is a huge step in 
historical terms, and despite everything it was important for Obama to 
be elected because it was very important for people to come to this 
realization that he was not going to save us. Now that we've passed 
through this and we have a black president who is willing to turn a 
blind eye to this kind of racialized violence, to make such ridiculous 
statements about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, to continue to fund 
the Israeli government when it continues to bombard Gaza, and now that 
we have a potential candidate in Hillary Clinton who is willing to do 
much worse, then it gets much easier for people to come to a clear 
conception of the reality of the situation and to act accordingly.

/One other historical precedence to ask about is that of the Occupy 
movement and the national connections that it established, which we see 
quickly emerging between Ferguson and other cities in the U.S. Can we 
think about Occupy as a key moment that activated the level of 
collective resistance we see today?/

The answer as with the answer to any question about Occupy is yes and 
no. Yes, because Occupy is an important touchstone for recent political 
phenomena in the U.S. it certainly influenced a whole generation of 
radicals and militants nationwide, and it has galvanized the willingness 
to act and it has forged and reinforced certain modes of action like 
assemblies, popular democracy, street protests. No, in the sense that we 
need to understand Occupy itself as part of a historical trajectory; in 
the Bay Area, Occupy had its radical, militant nature in large part 
because of the organizing around Oscar Grant's death in 2009. That 
organizing provided an understanding of the reality of police and a 
willingness to engage in street action and recognition that that action 
could bring very real transformation and benefits. These were all 
lessons that were brought into Occupy. And even beyond that local 
reality, if we're talking about Occupy on a global scale then we're 
talking about the Arab-North African Spring, we're talking about the 
/indignados/ in Spain, the waves of rebellions across the world and that 
have become a defining element of the last ten or twenty years. And so 
Occupy itself is part of this broader trajectory that allowed it to 
press forward in certain ways and that has drawn from existing 
understandings and connections. And part of the reason we can't center 
on Occupy is that then we run the risk, again, of failing into civil 
libertarianism or falling into neglect of the historical realities of 
what policing means in the U.S. So you have, for instance, Anonymous, 
which for all the criticisms you can have of them has played a very 
important role in many political advances and in the events of Ferguson, 
and has done more for the events of Ferguson than all of the other 
liberals out there on Twitter. But even Anonymous is calling for limited 
reforms in regard to police oversight and militarization, because if you 
abstract away from the history of police and white supremacy, you can 
understand what's going on in Ferguson as a question of the technical 
apparatus that the police carry as opposed to the structural function 
that the police play. And that's where we need to keep both these things 
together. That relates in many ways to Occupy, which itself was torn and 
divided over this question of are we simply reforming US democracy in a 
way that brings us closer to the U.S. Constitution or are we 
radicalizing U.S. democracy in a way that understands the white 
supremacist history that Constitution is a part of?

/A last question could be again about the black community in Ferguson, 
because we have seen some images of black males in the mainstream media 
that were talking against violence, but without producing a distinction 
between police violence. Instead everything became violence. And so our 
question is, do you think this could be a sign of a fracture in the 
black community, both in Ferguson and outside, that runs around class 
issues? /

Yes, but understanding and bearing in mind that class is not manifesting 
strictly as an economic phenomenon, but as a political one, in the sense 
that to be middle class is very much a mindset and very much an identity 
regardless of one's income. So I think you do have this fracture, and 
the phrase often used in the U.S. has to do with what is called 
respectability politics, in other words demonstrating that how 
well-behaved you can be, in the hopes that behaving well will actually 
transform social relations, when we know in reality that that's not the 
case. And so the constant argument that is made is that if young black 
men would dress a little better and pull their pants up, if they would 
talk better, then maybe their situation would change. But we know from a 
structural reality that that's not the case, that there are not jobs out 
there waiting for people who behave better and that the situation is a 
far more structural one. But you do see the same thing manifesting and 
you see it even in some of the ore radical spokespeople, you see it in 
Al Sharpton coming out and grabbing the family of Michael Brown and 
putting them behind him and trying to urge people to calm down. And you 
have a whole number of liberal commentators doing the same thing and 
emphasizing the question of violence of the protests, which is really an 
amazing an inverse perversion of the reality of protests that are 
protests /against/ violence. It almost doesn't need to be said, but the 
protestors in Ferguson haven't killed a single human being, which cannot 
be said for the police in the streets. So if we're talking about 
anything other than the violence of the police then we're really already 
in enemy territory. But it even goes beyond that, because even those who 
emphasize the violence of the police, who say well, this is about the 
militarization of the police or about how the police responded in a 
brutal way they do so in a way that excises and cuts off the actual 
cause of the protest---namely, the violence against Michael Brown. And 
so that needs to be the starting point. People did not go to the streets 
to protest against the police response to protest, they went to the 
streets to protest against white supremacist murder of Michael Brown. 
That needs to be kept in focus and there will be a number of voices 
calling for a more non-violent response, but if we understand violence 
as violence against human beings, there really hasn't been much if any 
violence in these protests. The violence has been in the violence 
against Michael Brown and the violence of the police against protesters 
and we shouldn't g in for this rhetoric although it will be very 
dangerous. I think the protestors themselves in their response last 
night sent a very clear message about those self appointed mediators 
that they don't speak for them, that they don't speak for the people in 
the streets who, I argue, have a better understanding of social change 
then these liberal spokespeople who insist that the best way to change 
US society is to go through the established channels, to elect 
representatives, to elect a Democrat. I think that all of U.S. history 
and the arguably the history of the world shows that that is quite 
simply not true, that the Civil Rights movement succeeded as a result of 
the threat of the Black Power movement, that political institutions in 
Oakland when Oscar Grant was murdered only began to move when people 
rioted and rebelled. And the same exact thing is happening in Ferguson 
today. We can simply point to the fact that the county sheriff has been 
withdrawn from the streets to say that these protests have already begun 
to work.

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