“Now, then, in order to understand white supremacy we must dismiss the fallacious notion that white people can give anybody their freedom.” -- Stokely Carmichael
The murder of Michael Brown by the Ferguson Police creates an opportunity for millions of people to confront the tragic and mundane daily realities of White Supremacy and Anti-Blackness, which are part of everyday public and private life for so many people in this country. It is imperative to rethink the spectacle that has been created out of Ferguson, and to contextualize it within as many structural realities of racism that we can comprehend.
In the past three decades, we’ve seen patterns of racist violence continue in America. Less than 25 years ago, we saw L.A. Police excessively chase and beat Rodney King, and the racially charged riots that followed. Now, we see Ferguson. Less than ten years ago, we heard "I am Oscar Grant” (after Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by BART police in Oakland). Now, we hear Ferguson. Less than 5 years ago, we saw the largest police department in the U.S.A employ racist Stop and Frisk Policing tactics, and the enormous campaigns that rallied against those tactics. Now, we rally around Ferguson. Less than 3 years ago, we saw millions of Black and Brown youth wearing hoodies declaring, "my skin color is not a crime," in honor of Trayvon Martin. Now, we honor the memory of Michael Brown. And Ferguson.
Less than a week after we saw protests in Ferguson, we saw the police killing Kajieme Powell just blocks away.
This is not to compare the lives of our fallen brothers and sisters. May they rest in peace in a heaven of liberation. May their families know that their pain is important. It’s just as important as analyzing why local police departments get millions of dollars to purchase military weapons from the equivalent of the U.S. Military's Goodwill Store, and analyzing why we don’t see the police kill White young people in the same way. These are two different ways of recognizing the trauma inflicted on those directly affected by White Supremacy; they are equally necessary in resisting the cruel and unusual force being used against People of Color by the U.S.A.
We must look at Ferguson as another battle of resistance to make People of Color relevant to the redistribution of power in the United States. The 13th Amendment was a work in progress from when the first person was abducted from Africa and deposited as property, and not as a person, in the eyes of the United States of America. The implementation of the 13th amendment to end slavery is still in process. We need to recognize the difference between a true end to slavery and the mutations of slavery that we currently live in.
The creation of capital through the killing of the Black body became slavery. During Reconstruction, a sense of solidarity grew between "freed" Black people and poor White people. Jim Crow made segregation laws to enforce that even the poorest White person was still not Black in the eyes of the U.S.A.
The rise of mass incarceration has been driven by the same mechanism that drove slavery -- the creation of capital through racism. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and non-White people are incarcerated at rates much higher than White people for all crimes, especially non-violent and petty crimes. This all only took approximately 400 years to create in this country. Dismantling this reality is not only going to take a long time but will also require numerous acts of resistance.
"What we have been doing is not working. We must stop pretending to have answers and instead ask some different questions. We are in a reform dance." -- Michelle Alexander
Public education likes to declare that the Civil Rights movement was a victory. In fact, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, Black men are nearly right where they started economically, but with a very high incarceration rate.
A person does not just end up in prison as an exchange for an alleged crime. Our incarceration rates start with police forces.
Cops (Constables on Patrol), originated in the U.S.A. as brigades of (White) people who surveilled both public and private property and searched for "runaway slaves." Slaves were considered property of a slave owner, and if they fled for freedom they were “runaway property.” Eventually, there was too much work for these private slave brigades so every level of government in this country began to fund these patrols. These patrols became police departments.
The police were not established as a response to public safety. The police were not established to help people in bad relationships, or to solve problems between groups of people. The police were created as a response in order to protect property that was already stolen through the process of slavery, and keep it safe for self-declared slave owners. When a country is founded by slave owners and founded to declare their capital independent of Great Britain -- when a country is built on slavery and colonialism -- what else would be the plight of this country’s public institutions?
For two years I worked as a social worker at the Rhode Island Public Defender. Public Defenders were created in the 1960s in order to provide legal defense to people charged with alleged crimes. I worked with defense attorneys to mitigate criminal cases by assessing an individual’s social, health, and economic context in order to put their alleged crime in context of their personal history. For example, we might research the client’s history of mental health diagnosis, an economic crisis, a life-altering childhood, or a physical illness and this impacted an alleged behavior.
Sometimes, I made an impact on these people and their cases. Other times, prosecutors or judges would easily dismiss these people, making comments like, "Don't tell me, they were abandoned by their parents," or "Don't tell me, mental health issues." The judge did not care about why a police officer gave someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder a black eye, while they were crying and wailing in the police car because they were off of their medications, homeless, and going through a panic attack. The judge did not ask why someone had been addicted to cocaine since they were 14 and were in DCYF foster care. Maybe some judges do, but the point is, they do not have to. Once a police officer has determined that someone may or may have not committed a crime, there begins the criminal justice process.
We know through interviews with police departments throughout the country that "biased policing," or racial profiling, is a tactic of local police departments. Where I worked in Rhode Island, we knew that White people were more likely to carry contraband on their person, but people of color were being arrested at much higher rates than White people for carrying contraband. We then saw people who committed petty crimes being given probation or court fees. When people missed a probation appointment because their bus line was cut, or people couldn’t find a way to pay outlandish court costs, I saw them go to prison. All the while, a judge had discretion to pardon court costs, a cop had discretion to not arrest a person and give them a ticket, a fine, or a more sustainable solution.
This is telling of the role of “discretion” in our criminal justice system. Ferguson is a prime example of this discretion. Police have the complete discretion to determine that they need military weapons to protect themselves against people mourning. It is completely legal and at their discretion to determine this. We can write articles about it. We can organize marches around the country about it. But police will still have their "discretionary rights."
“White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taughthim that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression.” --bell hooks
We must begin to question the "rights" of the police.
Police departments have detailed bills of rights. They have prosecution departments that protect and fight for the validity of their arrests. We need to understand that the criminal justice system is a mechanism of the status quo of police violence.
I remember seeing the police arresting a 20-year -old black man who was taking a nap on a bench outside a hotel. He had severe mental health issues and his mom, with whom he was very close with, was homeless and staying at a women's shelter. There were many things this officer had the discretion to do: He could have given the young man a ticket. He could have given this young person a ride to the nearest shelter. He could have arrested this young man on a criminal charge. He could have pulled a gun to the young man because he “fit the description of a dangerous suspect the officer was looking for in the area.” Or, he could have left this young person alone. All of these options are the discretion of a single police officer.
Every police officer in Ferguson and everywhere else in United States, pretty much, has this right to use their own discretion. This discretion is not the product of some super accountable critical race education. This discretion is the product of what power structures in our country are making in terms of language, media, patriarchy, and social norms. Police people are not judges, but they have the ability to make so many decisions about our freedom that they can basically act as judges, not only of the law, but of race, class, sexuality, and communities. We must take power away from the police.
"The social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white." --Public Religion Research Institute American Values Survey 2013
The law was not created by the people it oppresses. I do not want to compare the mechanisms of racism, because the criminal justice system is much different than slavery. It is not about Whiteness wanting people of color but rather wanting to exclude people of color. It is different from Jim Crow laws because it does not provide "separate but equal." It is different from racist policies that drive the Drug War such as COINTELPRO, which dumped cocaine into poor and non-White neighborhoods throughout the country, because it doesn't require the government to give anything but to take away.
The criminal justice system is the vessel for the law, so for us to change it, we have to fight alongside people who are directly affected by it. We have to fight with people who have criminal records, with their families, and with those most likely to be profiled by the police. We have to fight for people who were arrested and ask "why?" We need realize that in fact we are all probably breaking the law in some shape or form all the time. Legal discretion makes it so that we all have the potential to be guilty, but only some of us are policed. Innocent is a euphemism for privileged.
In the United States, you are more likely to find a job as a White man with a felony record than a Black man with no criminal record. Thus, to find a job as a Black man with a criminal record is very difficult. The mark of a criminal record is so intense in this country. There is a fight happening in order to the right to vote for those with criminal records; there is a fight against the general discrimination of people who have criminal records. Ferguson is another moment in history that will push us to fight the systems that created criminal records to begin with. We do this by changing the laws themselves, and also by changing what gives police and judicial discretion so much power – by changing culture, education, media, property rights, civil liberties. We do this by recognizing that passivity is simply active ignorance. We do this by calling out and changing the mundane cultural nuances that influence every decision we make.
In the 2010 census, 30 percent of Ferguson residents were White and 67% were Black. In the 1990 census, 74% of Ferguson residents were White and 25% were Black. This is drastic. What happened on Saturday, August 14, 2014 was not a single display of police violence, it is the reaction to a place's history with racism. Ferguson is making us think about what is evident. What is evident is not special at all. It is what makes up every reality in the United States of America. Yes, the status quo is so racist that People of Color are simply demanding to be relevant.