“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”—Malcolm X
The system isn’t broken. It’s fixed. Darren Wilson, an armed policeman, looses his cool and murders an unarmed 18 year old, leaving his body on the street for 4 hours. In his testimony before the grand jury, Wilson says he was scared of the “Hulk Hogan” like Michael Brown (who he refers to as “It”), and with the help of a biased prosecutor, he gets off. Soon, ABC pays him $500, 000 to appear on TV, as if a reward for killing Brown. People applaud, see him as a victim and feel justice was done. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of the injustice. Some police, like the man who killed Tamir Rice, are much more cold blooded, as if killing’s a video game, or Predator Drone attack. Such killings by police, or white vigilantes like Zimmerman, have reached epidemic proportions. Every 28 hours another black man falls victim.
No wonder so many are using the G word (GENOCIDE) and pointing out the similarities with the “ethnic cleansing” that happened after Katrina. Enough is enough! Fuck the police! And fuck the state sanctioned “race leaders” like President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. We will not be appeased by body cameras, or more “racial sensitivity training.” We need radical overhaul of the system. People take to the street to get a message across that otherwise would be swept under the rug. People take to twitter and facebook. Meanwhile, teachers dig up writings from 50 years ago like Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail to encourage students to express their anger, and channel it into rational analysis and critical thinking, all in the cause of racial and economic justice.
At Laney College in Oakland, students engage in vigorous debate expressing a wide range of opinions and analysis of the national epidemic. Some, like Bryan Valadez, passionately defend what he calls the "violent protests" as the only way to thrust this issue into the media, yet it must be said that the vast majority of the mass protests, even after the non-indictments of Wilson and Pantaleo (the officer who choked Eric Garner), have been peaceful. Definitions become an issue as the media tends to call even the peaceful protestors violent, but is throwing a water bottle at a cop who has just attacked you with rubber bullets and teargas truly “violent?” Somehow the media has been able to persuade many it is, through lies, innuendo, selective inclusion (censorship) and muddled definitions.
By contrast, Carinna Johnson begins to analyze the situation by defining the terms more deeply than what one gets on Fox and other Corporate Media “The cops are blaming the protestors, protestors are blaming the cops. This makes the situation worse than ever because the cops are not making a distinction between the protestors and the looters.”
The conflation of protestors with looters by the cops, and the major media outlets, is not simply lazy journalism, but willful obfuscation of the human complexity of what is happening in Ferguson and elsewhere in this country. The looting may end, but the protests promise to be ongoing, and are clearly being used as a negotiating tool. Because of this, the peaceful, yet angry, protestors are more of a threat to the police and the (in)justice system, as well as the biased media, than the looters are. By hyping the violence and attempting to sweep the peaceful protestors under the rug, the corporate media coverage breeds a conceptual, and definitional, confusion, especially since this media monopolizes the mass culture market on truth for a majority of Americans (unless they can go out of the way for other perspectives). Just as the eyewitness testimony of most witnesses was not used by those who were supposed to be prosecuting Darren Wilson before the grand jury, so is the “grand jury” of public opinion not being given evidence that shows that the vast majority of protestors are not looters but true patriots, just as the Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panthers were not looters.
Perhaps the best way to more clearly define and categorize the difference between the police, protestors and looters in Ferguson is to focus on one of the many stories that have cropped up in the aftermath of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. Take, for example, the case of Natalie Dubose’s shop (Natalie’s Cakes N More), which fell victim to looting after the Grand Jury’s non-indictment. Clearly Ms. Dubose is a sympathetic victim, but she’s been used to support a biased pro-cop agenda in the media whose commentators exhibit the most superficial analysis of the situation as a sly, cynical ploy to turn people against the protestors.
Soraya Nadia McDonald wrote in The Washington Post that “What happened to DuBose’s shop, and the subsequent action to help her rebuild, sits at a crossroads when it comes to interpreting the actions of Ferguson rioters.” Although McDonald purports to be objective and give voice to various sides of these warring interpretations, the fact that she uses the word “Rioters” is itself a distortion brought forth from bias. Some are clearly police riots--riots started by the cops in "riot gear."Beyond that, it’s not just the protestors actions that are being interpreted in opposing ways, it’s the interpreters actions.
While it is understandable that some would see the looting of the cake shop as stupid and/or savage, the assumption that the looting was being committed primarily by the protestors (“rioters”) is not investigated or questioned. But, why would a protestor who knows #BlackLivesMatter choose to target a black owned cake shop? This is the last thing the protestors I’ve heard and read hoped would happen. They’re not taking back the streets for a one-night-stand of cake. Yet, the corporate media doesn’t give credence or airtime to this viewpoint, or any of the other possible culprits in the lootings and arsons. The looting may well have been caused by the KKK (which has been found to have overlapping membership with the police), or the same folks who burnt the church the Brown family had attended. It’s certainly within the realm of plausibility that these “looters” or “rioters” may have been paid employees set on by outsiders (or undercover infiltrators like the cops recently exposed by We Cop Watch in Oakland) precisely to discredit the organizers and mobilizers in Ferguson.
It’s also possible that they (more broadly, people like them in other municipalities) are acing out of a spontaneous outburst of powerful emotion like Bryan Valadez, and thus my have overlapping membership with the protestors. This is of course the dominant assumption the corporate media pushes as it establishes the terms of the discussion in an attempt to put the protestors on the defense (in the same spirit of “guilty until proven innocent” that took the life of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and too many others). For example, as in the tweets by “Senior Intelligence Analyst” and white supremacist David Swingle, who exploits this tragedy for racist ideological ends, as his Twitter page amply shows:
“Congrats Ferguson! You proved to the world you’re the RACIST ghetto trash we knew you were!” “HEY, FERGUSON! The entire country is sick of your s—. Sick of the lawlessness, sick of the riots, sick of the threats and demands. The only thing you’ve managed to accomplish in all of this is to live up to the ghetto stereotypes. Congratulations.”
Aside from his misunderstanding of what the word “RACIST” means, Swingle is representative of many voices who can only read what’s happening in terms of these racial stereotypes. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, has championed the cause of Dubose’s cake shop, encouraging his many listeners to donate money to her in the name of the Tea Party. This seemingly generous act is used primarily to score political points by thrusting the incident of looting into the public eye to imply that it was an action of black on black crime. And black on black crime, according to Rudy Giuliani, is an epidemic that can only be solved by increased policing by a largely white police force. Such policing, as Marsha Coleman-Adebayo points out, has never shaken off the legacy of the Antebellum Slave Patrols, and can be interpreted as an armed occupation of a colonized territory with more in common with Israel’s occupation of Gaza than at first appears.
In the process, Dubose, through no fault of her own, becomes a “token,” one of “the good ones,” just like they used to think of Aunt Jemima. Limbaugh’s interpretation also is used to "justify" a white supremacist paternalism (the white man’s burden) by implying that black folks don’t care about black lives, and that white people care about black lives more---or at least the Tea Party does, understanding the essence of Black Capitalism better than those Democrats (much less socialists) do with their entitlements and handouts.
Meanwhile, Fox News argues that the protestors should pay for the looting damages, implying it's certainly not the government’s responsibility. Any rebuilding should be privatized, but certainly there isn’t quite enough Christian Charity on the part of the generous Tea Party folks to repair all the damage to black businesses and churches done by the looting. All these stories encourage pejorative racial stereotypes to further their agenda of dividing the people’s movement for racial and economic justice.
But on closer analysis the groundswell happening in Ferguson and across the country is far more complex than a mere looting spree. Certainly, there are cooler heads that have been trying to prevail over the gangs that, as Ashley Yates points out, still fight for control of the streets in the greater St. Louis hood. These cooler heads overwhelmingly are to be found in the ranks of the protestors (whose 19 Rules Of Engagement are a very rational attempt at community policing) than in anything coming out of the police department and the feds.
In fact, quite a few protestors have been successful in approaching the gangs and vandals (whether white or black) and preventing them from burning and looting properties, just as they are trying to present the cops from continued violence. This, too, is under-represented in the mainstream media….in part because muckraking reporters have been attacked by the police, so that the police may control the feed of (mis)information—not that the corporate media needs much convincing by the police, since they were already predisposed to this bias, whether intentionally or not. It contributes to the definitional confusion about the protestors of which Carinna Johnson wrote. But let’s take a step back from all this propaganda for a second and consider the human dimension. In this light, the protestors are the true heroes here, in trying to cool down the violence (though not the anger) they did not start.
In the first place, they are doing the police’s job better than the police. It should be the police’s function to protect and to serve the life of citizens as well as the property of small business owners like Natalie Dubose. BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK PROPERTY MATTERS. BLACK VOICES MATTER (and don’t treat black folks like THEY’RE property). The police clearly failed in this function. More than a few have acknowledged that the Fire Department wasn’t even sent in to stop the burning of the many small businesses until it was too late. This reveals a pattern of gross neglect, as it is analogous to the fact that Michael Brown’s body laid in the street for 4 hours after he was shot.
Now one may call this an oversight on the part of the police, or negligence on the part of an over-taxed police force whose resources were spread thin, but the more one looks at it the more it seems like a refusal on the part of the police to protect and serve the majority black community of Ferguson (even if we grant that not every cop is conscious of who or what he is truly serving). They did choose to protect and serve the property and lives in the richer, whiter, side of town. Such an unequal allocation of resources during an especially racially polarized time clearly is intended to exacerbate the situation, and implies a systemic double standard.
Since the armed police are clearly well-funded (by the tax dollars of the very people they don’t represent), they could have certainly protected and served Dubose’s Cake shop. It is their legal responsibility to do so. Once we consider the police’s refusal of their sworn duty to protect the property, why would we place the burden of this duty on the peaceful protestors (especially if Limbaugh does not come through)? Why blame them for not being able to successfully prevent every incident of burning and looting? It is not their responsibility, and they (we) certainly don’t have the resources the police and fire department does. If anything, we should celebrate the success the protestors did have in furthering the peace. Between the police, on one hand, and the looters on the other, the protestors stand as the voice of reason.
Perhaps one of the most urgent rational demands to come out of the this movement is the demand for the police to pay for the damages done in looting since this damage is due to the police’s negligence. That being said, I am well aware that if I tweet, or attend in die in with a sign that reads, BLACK PROPERTY MATTERS, it could be interpreted by potential fellow travellers as 1) trivializing the issue, and not understanding that BLACK LIVES MATTER more than Property and/or 2) implicitly blaming the victim, assuming (as Swingle does) that the looters were black (or even “well-intentioned” anarchist whites, as in Oakland) rather than as I intend, which is to direct my anger toward the white power structure.
It could be seen trivializing the injustice or blaming the victim because of the misunderstandings that TWEET Soundbite culture encourages, but I hope to make it clear that saying BLACK PROPERTY MATTERS should be almost as much of a rallying cry against the police as BLACK LIVES MATTER (especially in a country where the only way not to be seen as another man’s property is to own property---this of course is the real meaning of “freedom” that was never really granted to African Americans as a people in this country). I am not trying to dilute the message as the white protestors with their ALL LIVES MATTER placards and hashtags (though feel free to argue with me, if it may help bring more clarity into the discussion). When I say BLACK PROPERTY MATTERS, I am speaking directly to the police state and, beyond, to globalized white supremacist capitalism that has systematically waged war on black people, in various guises, since chattel slavery ended.
I also believe that today’s looter (whether cop, white anarchist outside agitator, gangbanger, hot headed emotionalist, or folks who just want to take advantage of chaos to get free stuff) could become tomorrow’s organizer, or fellow-traveller. This is why some protestors are less likely to blame the looters than others are.
For instance, Jelani Cobb writes: “I think the riots happened because people feel they’ve exhausted all other mechanisms for being heard. For someone who has no reason to doubt that the legal system is capable of producing a just outcome for them, then the behavior does appear to be irrational. But the honest truth of the matter is that this country is rooted in riots. The American revolution was born out of what began as disparate riots responding to British policy. This is not as though these people are completely out of their minds, they have no sense. What they believe is that the system here does not represent them. … There is a context for this.”
Cobb’s point recalls how The Black Panther 10 Point Platform invoked The Declaration of Independence. Cobb makes a very valid point, yet this doesn’t mean there isn’t a distinction to be made between “looters” and “protestors” as Carinna Johnson points out, at least here in Oakland California. Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney also made a strong point during the protests after the non-indictment:
“This is peaceful, non-violent direct action. I appreciate the diversity of this group as well as the focus remaining on the lives of those lost. This is a stark contrast to those who are vandalizing Oakland, who appear to be more concerned about their own right to protest than the subject of their protestation. When the coverage is about the protest and not the injustice, the protest has lost its soul.”
Despite these differences, there is an implicit call for unity which is becoming more and more explicit, and this has always been threatening to the white power structure...much more threatening than a looting spree. These voices of unity, if allowed to be heard, stand against the police and the racist system of white supremacy. This is why the organizers stress political education, and study the history of past movements. As we’ve seen in Ferguson, the looters, or those Oba T’Shaka calls brothers from the block, will listen to the activists (from the Hands Up Coalition, Millennial Activists United, Lost Voices, We Cop Watch, and others) more than they will listen to the agitating cops who are not acting like peacekeepers. These activists, as humble servants to the cause of racial and economic justice, have a moral authority that commands respect. And if the looters are not arrested or become victims of the prison industrial complex, they may, under the tutelage of these peaceful protestors like Ashley Yates, Marsha Coleman Adebayo, Nyles Fort or many others, help forge a longer term movement to bring forth the justice that the legal system has refused (the system ain’t broke; it’s fixed), and rebuild the looted shops, or even create a new Black Wall Street.