Smears won’t stop the struggle for justice

October 27, 2014

The divisions among African Americans about the fight in Ferguson aren't so much about age as they are about politics and strategy, writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

IT HAS been close to three months since unarmed teenager Mike Brown was killed in the streets of Ferguson, Mo. The protests and organizing that erupted immediately after the murder have continued all that time--despite the lies and scapegoating of the media and political leaders, and the intimidation and violence of local and state officials, which Amnesty International described as "numerous human rights abuses," using language more often associated with Third World dictatorships.

The main demand of the protests is simple: Arrest Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown. But with every passing day, it appears more and more unlikely that Wilson will even be charged, let alone held accountable for his crime.

Instead, local officials along with a compliant media have parroted Wilson's version of events through selective leaking of his grand jury testimony and the findings of the St. Louis County medical examiner's autopsy report.

In particular, the findings of the coroner's report, as leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have taken to be validation for Wilson's claim that Brown inexplicably reached for his gun. But both Michael Graham, the medical examiner, and Judy Melinik, a forensic pathologist interviewed by the Post-Dispatch, insist that the article misrepresents the actual findings of the autopsy and took their quotes out of context.

Demonstrating against police brutality and racism in Chicago
Demonstrating against police brutality and racism in Chicago (Sarah Rhee)

"I made it very clear that we only have partial information here," Melinik said in an interview with MSNBC. "We don't have the scene information. We don't have the police investigation. We don't have all the witness statements. And you can't interpret autopsy findings in a vacuum."

What we're seeing and hearing today is yet more desperate attempts to smear Mike Brown. The defenders of Wilson and the police are trying this case in the newspapers and on cable TV news, where authorities don't have to account for or respond to the multiple eyewitnesses who say Mike Brown was shot when his hands were in the air.

The campaign of leaks and slander--Mike Brown, like Trayvon Martin before him, now stands accused of having smoked marijuana, based on the autopsy results, as if that had anything to do with why he was murdered--also demonstrates how much authorizes fear the ongoing Ferguson protest movement.

Perhaps St. Louis officials believe that selective leaks bolstering Wilson's version of events will sow doubts among those who want to see Wilson arrested. But Wilson's story demands people suspend reality. His account hinges on believing that Mike Brown, who was days away from beginning college, decided to punch a cop in the face and grab his gun, presumably to shoot him, all to avoid a charge of jaywalking.

WAVES OF protests have continued through the month of October as activists try to keep up momentum in case Wilson is not indicted. This has been an important strategy for maintaining the important networks of anti-racists that were established during the August protests.

The ongoing movement has brought into sharper focus debates over the politics, strategies and tactics needed to sustain a struggle against racism and police violence if Wilson is not indicted. It has also brought new attention to the strategic differences between activists, elected officials and others in Ferguson.

There has been a lot of focus on the political divisions and differences among those who have protested in Ferguson. They have been described as the result of a generational divide--which to some extent is true. It has been mainly young activists who are responsible for not letting the momentum around the Ferguson protests die down. And it has been crowds of mostly young people who were the least fazed by the threat of police repression--the clouds of tear gas used against demonstrators in the early street confrontations and the continuing threat of arrests during marches and protests.

Meanwhile, the older generation of Black politicians and mainstream civil rights leaders seem to be more interested in voter registration drives--and avoiding confrontation with the authorities.

In reality, this divide around the struggle in Ferguson is much more substantial than a matter of age, or even tactics--where there is a false picture being painted of one side for "nonviolence" and the other in favor of "violence."

For example, at one forum during the "Weekend of Resistance" held several weeks ago, young activists turned their back on the new president of the NAACP as he was speaking. One of them interrupted the forum, shouting, "I don't care how this looks, this isn't made for TV...This ain't your parents' civil rights movement."

The statement certainly captures the schism between the older leaders of the civil rights establishment and a new generation of young activists that has emerged around the Ferguson struggle. But it captured some other differences as well.

One is that activists who have been the mainstay of protests in Ferguson were angry when the featured speakers at the forum hadn't actually been active in the demonstrations of the preceding two months. None of the younger activists, without titles and official credentials to attach to their names, were promoted as featured speakers.

Another is how out of touch the leadership of mainstream civil rights organizations like the NAACP seems in the face of the upsurge of protests in Ferguson. For example, the NAACP recently appointed as its new president Cornell Williams Brooks, as a replacement for the popular Ben Jealous. Brooks' one claim to fame is that he worked on transition team for New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

THE NATURE of the discord here is politics, not Brooks' age. The NAACP is having financial problems, so it opted for its new president a well-connected lawyer who could lead fundraising campaigns, but who has no activist background or credentials--and therefore no basis for connecting with the Ferguson movement.

In general, the NAACP--like the Congressional Black Caucus and others from the Black political establishment--is more interested in turning the page on Ferguson, in order to focus on the midterm elections in November, where the Democrats are faced with "crushing Democratic losses across the country" if there isn't an enormous Black voter turnout, according to the New York Times.

Thus, few if any mainstream Black leaders have had anything at all to say about the continuing movement in Ferguson, built through the actions of grassroots and radical organizations.

The discussion about the midterm elections captures the enormous gap between mainstream politics and the kind of movement-building taking place in Ferguson.

Democratic Party officials believe they can count on the Black vote without ever having to promise, let alone produce, a single thing for African Americans. There have been no pledges to look into the current string of police murders--and not only that. Where are the promises to bring Black unemployment into the single digits for the first time since before Barack Obama became president? Where is the promise of federal legislation to end racial profiling? Where is the promise to end mass incarceration and the effects of the New Jim Crow? Where is the promise even to prosecute a single killer cop, Darren Wilson, to the fullest extent of the law?

Not only are there no promises for action, the silence about the question of Ferguson and racist police violence is so obvious in Senate campaigns around the country that Christian Science Monitor devoted a story to reporting on the fears of white Democratic candidates that even mentioning Ferguson might alienate conservative voters.

Black Democrats, led by the president himself, have been pounding the pavement to cajole African Americans into turning out to vote. But there is none of the "hope" and "change" that were the themes to Obama's presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Today, fear is the rod used to prod Blacks into voting.

It won't be lost on many African Americans that the Black political establishment has been much more active and vocal about voting in the coming election than they have been on ending the epidemic of racial profiling, police brutality and murder. These "leaders" have nothing to say--except that life will get worse with a Republican Senate.

The Democrats are usually able to get away with this line of reasoning. But in a year that has included several high-profile police murders of unarmed African Americans, it's a hard sell that voting for yet another white millionaire for the U.S. Senate will make a difference--regardless of whether they're a Democrat or a Republican.

THE REAL division around Ferguson is between those who want to limit and contain the protests and those who not only want to expand the movement to win justice for Mike Brown, but see themselves as part of a larger movement against racism and the criminal justice system.

Those activists are the visible face of a small but significant break with Obama among African Americans. The president remains overwhelmingly popular among Blacks, but his negative rating has doubled to 12 percent since the 2012 elections.

This isn't the only factor, but surely some significant portion of the growing unpopularity of Obama among African Americans has to do with the rising discontent among a generation of young Black people who were told the election of the first Black president would begin a new era in U.S. history.

It may not be completely clear where the bitter anger on display in the Ferguson protests is heading. But most of the young activists driving this struggle forward are clear that there is a potential Ferguson in every major city in the U.S.--and there's a need to cohere a national movement as a priority.

The emergence or re-emergence of new organizations led by young Black activists over the last few years can help in this project. From the Black Youth Project based in Chicago to the Dream Defenders who came together in Florida to the new Black Lives Matter network and We Charge Genocide effort, these activists have been able to connect local struggles to nascent national organizing efforts against police brutality, racial profiling and the criminal injustice system in the U.S.

These relationships will be even more important in the coming weeks and months as the struggle for Mike Brown continues to unfold in Ferguson. In an interview with, Dontey Carter captured the mood of many of these activists when he described how this movement is changing everyone around him, "Now we got people coming down here from out of town and saying, 'I don't want to leave. I want to stay here,' like it's sacred ground," Carter said. "People chasing it like a high: this thing called freedom."

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