Thursday, August 14, 2014

Michael Brown's murder and the aftermath

"Racism is not an opinion. Racism is a fact." - Chauncey DeVega

"The authoritarian impulse is vividly on display among the right wingers today. They hate government --- until it brings the hammer down on people they don't like." - Heather "Digby" Parton

DeVega also has an informative post, It isn't Rocket Science Folks: On the Civil Unrest Following the Killing of Michael Brown by the Cowardly Thuggish Police in Ferguson, Missouri WARN 08/11/2014.

He lists five sets of "questions and observations" that offer a good approach to the question of civil-political violence:

  1. The cycle of police militarization is a predictable one. In many communities, the police act as though they are fighting insurgents in Iraq. The people respond in a predictable way. The police can then justify their militarization and thuggery.
  2. What about a national law requiring that police wear cameras at all times and that the data is continuously uploaded to a publicly accessible server which is monitored by an ombudsmen or citizens community police review board? This would cut down on frivolous lawsuits against the police. It would also provide some protection for citizens. I wonder why police unions do not support such a move ... that question is meant to be facetious.
  3. Have you seen any serious people, i.e. professionals, academics, etc. who study social psychology, "riots", or protest behavior, quoted or interviewed on a major news network or other outlet about the murder of Michael Brown and the events in Ferguson?
  4. The pictures of the locations in Ferguson where civil unrest has taken place are depressing. Does every black "inner city" have the same dilapidated strip malls with hair extension and beauty supply stores, convenience stores, car parts and rims joints, check cashing stores, and fast food restaurants? Is this a zoning issue? A market demographics issue?
  5. As a practical matter, when I see urban unrest I default to a worry about economic opportunity and infrastructure. Many areas in "urban America" are still demilitarized zones decades after the civil unrest of the 1960s. Ferguson will have fewer economic opportunities (and thus more anger, despair, and upsetness) following the cathartic release which is provided by public violence. This is a sad cycle of events. [my emphasis]
We've seen a crass re-emergence throughout the Republican Party of segregationist, Massive Resistance type expressions of white racism.

What we haven't seen much of in the Democratic Party is a revival of the serious thought and discussion of civic-political that was common at the time of the Kerner Commission Report that he cites. The Milton Eisenhower Foundation describes itself as "the international, nonprofit continuation of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Riot Commission, after the big city riots of the 1960s) and the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (the National Violence Commission, after the assassinations of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy)." It has some important resources at its website, including a 40-year update of the Kerner Report.

The segregationists, of course, never wanted to reflect seriously on civil violence. They just wanted more of it on Their Side, less of it on the part of Those People.

Urban riots in the 1960s, which many and perhaps most whites coded as "race riots," terrified white people. The George Wallace and Richard Nixon campaigns in 1968 promoted a law-and-order theme to capitalize on that fear. Part of the pitch was to stigmatize any mention of "social conditions" or the like in the context of civil violence as being soft-on-crime.

Basically since then, the general approach to crime in the US has remained heavily racialized. And talking about civil violence, i.e., riots or something approaching them, as anything but rampant evil, intolerable lawbreaking and "bad choices" has been effectively marginalized in the political discussion. Democrats and Republicans fall over each other to show how tough they are against crimes of all kinds.

Jonathan Simon has been closely following the extent to which crime-fighting has become increasingly prominent in governance in the US generally. He is the author of Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (2007) and has a blog called Governing through Crime. In one intriguing post from earlier this year, he talked about how the image of "zombie" in popular culture connects to racial stereotypes about scary blacks and scary Latinos (From the War on Crime to World War Z: What the Zombie Apocalypse can Tell Us About the Current State of our Culture of Fear 01/08/2014):

Zombies form an undeniable symbolic stand in for the twin racialized fears that have helped fuel our punitive culture of control producing both mass incarceration and mass deportation.

One is fear of violent crime and riots, which were reaching one peak in 1968, and were mostly linked in the popular imaginary to African Americans (Director and co-writer George Romero may have subverted this by casting a black male as the heroic protagonist of the movie [Night of the Living Dead]). While the riots mostly subsided, sustained high homicide rates in inner-city neighborhoods during the 1970s and 1980, shaped an image of violent youth who did not respond to normal human incentives, some criminologists called them "super-predators" because zombie would have been to self parodying. The crack epidemic further crystalized this association with its imagery of stick like figures shambling toward anyone who could feed their craving.
It's as touchy as ever to say so. But the incivility of looting and whatever level of rioting occurred in Ferguson MO have forced white Americans to confront for a moment some of the ugly realities of militarized police forces and the deeply white-racist criminal justice system in the United States. I posted last year about historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. scolding Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse in 1968 for declining to make a blanket condemnation of civil violence by oppressed people, but including in his finger-wagging the observation that a "limited amount of violence may stimulate the process of democratic change."

Let's hope that such is the result of the aftermath of white police-created violence and disorder in Ferguson.

Here are several articles that I've found shed some useful light on this situation.

Governor must let Ferguson be where better begins St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial 08/12/2014

Joe McNamara, 50 Shots Wall Street Journal 11/29/2006 (behind subscription) These appear to be full reprints here and here. Digby quotes part of the piece in The war at home Hullabaloo 11/16/2011.

Joan Walsh, Nightmare in Ferguson: Cops become a brutal occupying force Salon 08/13/2014

Adam Serwer, In Ferguson, the blurred line between law enforcement and combat MSNBC 08/13/2014

Greg Howard, America Is Not For Black People The Concourse 08/12/2014

Alec MacGillis, Those War-Ready Cops in Ferguson Are 9/11's Awful Legacy—and Your Taxes Are Paying for It New Republic 08/14/2014

Scenes from a War Zone in the Middle of America New Republic 08/14/2014

Josh Marshall at TPM 08/14/2014, 'Militarization' and More on "Hollywoodization".

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