“But they’re looting and burning down stores”: Debunking the Logic of Oppression in Ferguson | AmericaWakieWakie
"This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one’s voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy."
— Marcus Garvey
Ferguson protesters pulled nearly two city blocks back from police as they demonstrated in song last night. They held their empty hands high, an action symbolic of the “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” chant which has come to embody the circumstances of Mike Brown’s unarmed death at the hands of Ferguson, MO police. Yet, despite the peacefulness of the crowd, in an episode of déjà vu reminiscent of the crackdown on the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement, Ferguson police closed-in on protesters in military fashion, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed civilians.
Indiscriminate violence against black communities has long been the norm for police departments across the U.S. In the wake of Mike Brown’s death, many people (read mostly white people) have consistently defended the actions of Ferguson police (and police in general).
The latest iteration of this defense has come on the heels of a burned-down gas station and reports of alleged looting. On Tuesday I received an anonymous message saying “They burned down a gas station, stop crying racism.” I received another today which read, “Those people shouldn’t be in the middle of the road doing anything. Imagine how many of them have guns. Look up how the are looting and robbing.”
This line of reasoning ignores totally the slaying of Mike Brown and the antagonisms of a militarized police presence at a community protest (mind you, Ferguson, MO is over 60% black while its police force is 95% white). It is victim blaming which says inanimate objects ought to become the center of discussion and outrage surrounding the death of a living, breathing, vibrant human being, and that never should we mention the white supremacist institution which murdered him or the cop(s) who pulled the trigger.
Context Always Matters
“Individuals do not create rebellions; conditions do.”
— Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown)
A while back I tweeted that the most powerful weapon to destroy a people’s resistance is to erase their history. For the phenomenon that is victim blaming, this is absolutely essential. If people (read mostly white people) can erase an oppressed population’s history, they effectively erase the oppression they themselves committed and make invisible the power they obtain from it.
“Looting” rhetoric is a method of erasing the previous violence and oppression visited upon Ferguson’s black community, specifically the killing of Mike Brown, but also even before it. This rhetoric conveniently rejects greater sociopolitical, economic, and historical context for the sake of bolstering itself and in doing so it can dismiss the continuation of white supremacy in contemporary institutions (like police departments).
St. Louis County, home to St. Louis and Ferguson, hardly has a good civil rights record. White supremacy has a long, strong history there.
“In May , three thousand white men gathered in downtown East St. Louis and attacks on blacks began. With mobs destroying buildings and beating people, the Illinois governor called in the National Guard to prevent further rioting. Although rumors circulated about organized retribution attacks from African Americans, conditions eased somewhat for a few weeks.
On July 2, a car occupied by white males drove through a black area of the city and fired several shots into a standing group. An hour later, a car containing four people, including a journalist and two police officers, Detective Sergeant Samuel Coppedge and Detective Frank Wadley, was passing through the same area. Black residents, possibly assuming they were the original suspects, opened fire on their car, killing one officer instantly and mortally wounding another.
Later that day, thousands of white spectators who assembled to view the detectives’ bloodstained automobile marched into the black section of town and started rioting [joined by the Guardsman called to stop it]. After cutting the water hoses of the fire department, the rioters burned entire sections of the city and shot inhabitants as they escaped the flames. Claiming that “Southern Negros deserve[d] a genuine lynching,” they lynched several blacks.”
In the aftermath conservative estimates put between 40-150 black Americans dead and nearly 6,000 homeless.
These events are telling. Throughout them we see the black community responding to white initiated violence, yet because whites held power, black people suffered. Recent events in Ferguson reflect the same relationship: Violence is wielded by the powerful while any retaliation by the oppressed is systematically and brutally repressed.
Ultimately, the role of “looting” rhetoric removes the context of these power dynamics, its history, and allows for a game of moral equivalence to be played — one where to white people property damage is just as bad, if not more heinous than killing a young man. Considering that for the majority of U.S. history black people literally have been treated like property, it is unsurprising this reasoning is so pervasive.
It’s Institutional Racism, Stupid
“As an officer of the law, I am committed to administering justice swiftly and even-handedly, regardless of whether the suspect has dark skin or really dark skin.”
— Fictional Police Officer Vincent Turner, as quoted in the Onion
America’s justice system is racist. There is no other way to put it. From its racist policing built on profiling, to its war on drugs which dis-proportionally incarcerates black (and brown) people, to its sentencing laws that increase in severity if you are black, to the fact that a black man is killed by cops or vigilantes every 28 hours. It’s murderous and racist to its core. So when “the law” is the instrument of oppression, this leaves little recourse for communities like Ferguson.
But the logic of oppression will always place the onus for civility on the victims of oppression, never itself. In Ferguson this means restricting protesters to a few normalized avenues of addressing their grievances, which almost always are prescribed and deemed reasonable and legitimate by the very same racist legal system which kills black youth. Even then, if black Americans effectively exercise their legal rights, this too is met with brutal repression.
Such has been the historical example of gun ownership and self-defense in the black American community:
“[On] May 2, 1967, 30 fully armed members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and their supporters were in the California State Capitol at Sacramento, California, protesting the infamous Mulford Act. The bill on its face was aimed at banning a U.S. citizen’s right to carry loaded weapons in public, so long as the weapons were “registered, not concealed, and not pointed in a threatening manner.”
In actuality the Mulford Act – or “the Panther Bill,” as it was tagged by the media – was designed to end the BPP Police Patrols that were organized against police brutality in the Afrikan community; as it was the Panther Party’s belief that “armed citizen patrols and the arming of the citizenry as guaranteed by the Constitution were the most effective deterrents to excessive use of police force.”
The alarmed and instantaneous reaction to the fully armed BPP in Sacramento further confirmed this, and then Gov. Ronald Reagan’s signing of the bill into law catapulted the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense into national prominence.
Three months prior to this, in March 1967, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had begun an “internal security” investigation of Huey Newton, prompting then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to announce, on Sept. 8, 1968, that the BPP was considered to be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” At the time, the Black Panther Party was barely known outside of Oakland, Calif.”
—Bay View National Black Newspaper
In the following years the Hoover Administration meticulously and ruthlessly initiated campaigns to delegitimize and eviscerate the Black Panthers.
Here, yet again, we see the black community responding to white initiated violence, in particular the Black Panther declaration to halt police brutality in their neighborhoods. And, you guessed it, yet again, because whites held power, black people suffered.
Next time you see somebody trying to equivocate a burned-down gas station or a little looting with the violence perpetrated against black bodies, with Mike Brown’s death, stop them. Check them. Reframe the conversation again. Make them talk about the robbing of memories from marriage, kids, grandchildren, an infinite number of moments never lived because those years were fleeced from a young man with fire, gunpowder, and bullets.
Force them to talk about the theft of a system that denies Mike Brown’s family, and countless others, any effective recourse, let alone justice. Don’t be fooled into thinking a gas station burned somehow levels the field of brutality and injustice levied against the black community. Don’t play that game, because that’s what it is to them: A game where they can say “I’m right and you’re wrong,” a game that ignores the reality that they’re alive and black boys like Mike Brown are dead.