They don’t give a damn if Black America burns

December 3, 2014

Politicians and the media were outraged by the protests after the Ferguson grand jury decision, but if anyone should be outraged, it's the Black community of Ferguson.

IT WAS the result everyone expected, but it still came as a punch to the gut when the grand jury decision was announced: Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson would get away with the murder of unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown.

But then came the insult on top of injury: The media's ugly racism and phony outrage during its round-the-clock coverage of the justifiably angry response in Ferguson--especially when the protests included cars set on fire and businesses looted.

For millions of people, the last several months have provided all the evidence anyone could want to indict the whole system of racism and inequality that caused Mike Brown's death, along with hundreds of Black and Brown people across the U.S. killed by police and state-supported vigilantes every year.

But the mainstream media focused on burning stores and overturned police cars. It was a lesson in the diversionary tactics of the media: Ignore the decades-long economic destruction of Ferguson. Ignore the shredding of civil liberties by militarized law enforcement. Ignore the statistics that show there are more Mike Browns being killed by police every single day. Point the cameras at the fires.

Police clad in riot gear after the Ferguson grand jury is announced

WHAT MAKES this even more galling is the conclusion reached by many anti-racists--that the authorities wanted Ferguson to burn.

The announcement of the grand jury's decision was delayed until well into the nighttime hours of November 24, guaranteeing that the first protests would be confined to a smaller number of demonstrators, more used to confronting police from the first weeks after Mike Brown's murder.

The heavily armed cops set about provoking violence, firing their first volleys of tear gas even as President Barack Obama was still speaking about the decision--and, according to some accounts, setting the first cars on fire. Nearby white areas like Clayton, where the grand jury deliberated, were well guarded. The Black neighborhoods of Ferguson, like the one where Mike Brown was gunned down, weren't.

Democracy Now's Amy Goodman asked Rev. Al Sharpton about this at a press conference the day after the grand jury decision came down:

[L]ast night, as we covered the protests in front of the Ferguson police station, it was packed with riot police, state troopers were there, all the advanced weaponry was there. When we went over to West Florissant and expected to be stopped there by the police as we were at the protests months ago, it was wide open. We saw no state troopers and we hardly saw police. Do you think the authorities let Ferguson burn?

The crowd at the press conference burst into applause and a chorus of "yes" at Goodman's question. "I think the...question has been answered," came Sharpton's response.

Likewise, community activists who had been in negotiations with local officials before the grand jury decision viewed the rhetoric of St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch and the actions of law enforcement as open provocations. Montague Simmons, a leader of the Don't Shoot Coalition, told NPR:

I put what happened last night directly at their feet. We knew what would happen if they released this at night...They haven't been willing to be engaged with us. There's no rational explanation I can offer unless this is what they wanted to happen.

If that seems like conspiracy-mongering, remember that the media focus on looting and arson fit perfectly with the racist narrative pushed by the authorities for days before the grand jury decision was announced: the "bad protesters" versus the "good protesters."

Every political figure and media commentator proclaimed their support for the right of peaceful protest against the grand jury decision. But actual protesters in Ferguson were portrayed as animals, bent on mindless violence. That was Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's excuse for a pre-emptive mobilization of the National Guard. And it was the excuse for the media's constant refrain after the decision: "Why would they burn their own communities?"

All the while, atrocious crimes in Ferguson that may be part of a racist backlash are being ignored. This includes an arson that burned down the church where Mike Brown's father was recently baptized. Then there's the reported murder of 20-year-old DeAndre Joshua, whose burned remains were found in his car the day after the grand jury decision. As police towed his car from the scene, Joshua's grandmother Renita Towns said, "Police don't care--he's Black."

Perhaps the most grotesque example of racist hypocrisy, however, came after a video surfaced of Mike Brown's mother and stepfather reacting to the announcement of the grand jury's decision not to indict. In that moment of anguish at the failure of the system to bring any justice. Brown's stepfather Louis Head exclaimed, "Burn this bitch down."

That was all Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder needed to demand that Head "should be arrested and charged with inciting to riot."

IF ANYONE has a right to be outraged, it's the Black community of Ferguson and around the U.S. The legal murder of Mike Brown has shown a spotlight on a country where African Americans are 21 times more likely to die at the hands of police than whites.

The statistics are horrifying enough. But then there are the stories behind the numbers.

Like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed while holding an air pellet gun in a public park in Cleveland last month. Police claim they told the boy to drop his toy gun three times before opening fire. But that's an outright lie--surveillance video shows officers opening fire just two seconds after their squad car pulled into the park.

Or there's Darrien Hunt, a 22-year-old Black man killed by police in Saratoga Springs, Utah, while holding a plastic toy sword, part of an anime samurai costume. Hunt was killed in September, but video footage released last month shows him running for life before cops shot him six times in the back, fatally wounding him. That evidence directly contradicts police claims that Hunt "lunged" at officers with the sword before they began shooting.

Not only were these lives stolen by trigger-happy cops, but it took no time before the victims and their families were put on trial in the media. One Cleveland newspaper chose to report that Tamir Rice's father had a history of domestic violence (it didn't check on the criminal records of the officers who murdered his 12-year-old son). In the Utah case, news outlets tried to twist alleged online comments by Hunt to imply he meant to commit "suicide by cop."

But this is par for the course in an American injustice system where cops have near impunity to injure and kill, especially if their victims are Black.

IT'S WORTH pointing out that there is bipartisan support for police terror in America. Remember that it was a Democrat, Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, who refused to push for an indictment of Mike Brown's killer, and a Democrat, Gov. Jay Nixon, who called in the National Guard long before the grand jury decision, in order to squelch dissent.

After the non-indictment last week, some protesters put hope in the Justice Department to pursue federal civil rights charges against Darren Wilson. But McCulloch made it very clear in his November 24 press conference that his office had worked hand-in-hand with the Justice Department and federal investigators in sifting through evidence--a signal that a federal indictment is unlikely.

And don't expect America's first Black president to be any more likely to take up racism and police violence in his last two years as president than he has been in his previous six. Obama was forced say something about Mike Brown's murder and the grand jury decision, but he hasn't said much of substance.

The Obama administration pledged to fund the purchase of 50,000 police cameras, training for the "responsible" use of paramilitary equipment like assault rifles and armored personnel carriers, and "outreach" between local communities and police forces.

But this isn't a solution to killer cops.

For one thing, 50,000 cameras is less than 10 percent of the 750,000 police officers working in the U.S. today. And overall, as the exoneration of Darren Wilson shows, the justice system, from prosecutors to judges, is all too willing to give police the benefit of the doubt when they claim they were "in fear for their lives."

So long as that continues, the mere possession of a police badge is a license to kill--and the obstacles to holding killer cops accountable are high.

THE ONLY realistic hope for curbing police abuse and violence is to mobilize the widespread outrage against the corruption, brutality and murder that infects police departments around the country.

Winning accountability might seem like an impossible task. But the explosion of anger following the killing of Mike Brown--coming in the wake of the protests after the racist murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, along with dozens of other local campaigns for justice against police violence--shows what is possible. Not too many months ago, most people around the U.S. had never heard of Ferguson, Missouri. Now, that city's name was been on the lips of people around the country during strong and ongoing mobilizations.

The wide scope of the unrest about justice denied in Ferguson was given dramatic expression over the weekend, when several St. Louis Rams football players came onto the field making the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture used at anti-police violence demonstrations. That was enough to drive right-wingers around the bend, with some demanding that the players should be fined for showing "solidarity with a criminal."

Darren Wilson is free today--and the recipient, if media reports are correct, of a six-figure payout for his first interview with ABC News, in which he claimed to have a "clean conscience" and would shoot Mike Brown again without the slightest hesitation. After the grand jury decision cleared him of criminal charges, Wilson resigned from the Ferguson Police Department, citing "security fears."

But the Black residents of Ferguson have far more to fear from the likes of Wilson and his brothers in blue.

The killing of Mike Brown is now the best-known example of a national epidemic of police violence that stems from structural racism and the role of police protecting wealth and property. The fact that his murderer never spent a moment inside a jail cell or courtroom, much less on trial, begs the question: Will police ever be held accountable for their crimes if the victim is Black or Brown? And if not, then what does the justice system have to do with actual justice.

As political leaders wring their hands about violence in Ferguson or offer platitudes about rebuilding "trust" with police, we should remember the lessons of the urban rebellions of the 1960s and '70s--which were touched off by racism, poverty and police brutality. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote for

The riots, in effect, were the "forcible entry" of the Black masses into political discussions that usually treated them and their communities as invisible or irrelevant. Black poverty, deprivation and racism in urban areas went from being political non-issues to one of the most important issues of the decade...

Rebellions, of course, don't go on forever. They eventually run into the power of the state, and the rebels become fatigued once the adrenaline of feeling politically alive subsides. To bring about the substantial changes needed to really transform the lives of workers and the poor, something more is needed: strategies, politics and organization.

We need a movement today that builds on the anger over the denial of justice in Ferguson and the rallying cry that "Black lives matter"--and that can develop the strategy, politics and organization to confront the epidemic of police violence.

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