“Southern trees bear strange fruit / blood on the leaves and blood at the root”. (lyrics, Billy Holiday).
“The ghost of Dred Scott haunts the streets of Ferguson”. (Amy Goodman)
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain”. (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time)
“Like a fellow running from or toward a gun, ain’t got time to worry for what he is doing is courage or cowardice”. (William Faulkner, Light in August, 1923)
Among African-American groups, August has become a symbolic month to reflect upon their resistance to white supremacy. Significant events in a history of their cause that took place in August include; the Haitian Revolution, Nat Turner Rebellion, Fugitive Slave Labor Convention, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Watts Uprising and the March on Washington along with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, on August 28, 1963. (criticalresistance.org). To this list, we can now add the Ferguson, Missouri Uprising which erupted during the late summer heat of August 2014, the physical manifestation of a much larger reality. Within these events one can find a long and deep-rooted historical fractal, including the fact that Missouri entered the Union as a slave state in August of 1821.
The events in Ferguson, a small suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, may have finally shattered any remaining illusions of those two or three Americans that still believed that the election of our first black president would heal our deep-rooted racial divide and bring our nation together. A new fault line of dissent broke out on Saturday, August 9th after a white policeman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in broad daylight and left his sprawled and bleeding body face down, right there on the baking heat of the main street pavement. Michael Brown, who was to enter college a few days later, had been stopped for allegedly “jaywalking”, (walking down the middle of the street) also known as “walking while black”. Accounts differ about the struggle that ensued when the officer allegedly attempted to shove the young man into his patrol car. An autopsy report revealed that Brown had been shot at least 6 times. Such fatal interactions between white police and black citizens, especially black men, are depressingly familiar. As Melissa Harris Perry revealed during her MSNBC program, during the years 2006 -2012, for example, a white police officer killed an unarmed black person at least twice a week and countless others were routinely beaten and otherwise harassed and intimidated.
Given the fact that thise shooting death of Michael Brown, by yet another angry cop is not uncommon, journalist Michael Denzel Smith asks why this particular incident has provoked such a violent outpouring of community outrage, protests, and demonstrations against police. He theorizes that a long simmering resentment caught fire when this boy’s dead and bleeding body was left out on the steaming pavement; behind police tape, for hours, for all to see, as a gesture of contempt, intimidation and warning to blacks. Dictators leave bodies in the street. Small time local satraps leave bodies in the street. War lords leave bodies in the street….a universally understood, “object lesson”. (Charles Pierce Esq., “The Body in the Street, readersupportednews.com). The collective psychic shock and horror of this blatant “object lesson”, the scent of blood in the air, likely proved to be just one provocation too many.
Demonstrators from the Ferguson community, which is 65 % black, took to the streets to protest the overt racism and militarized brutality of a police force 97% white. Tensions escalated when authorities stonewalled requests for information about this incident and refused to release the identity of the officer who shot Brown; whose actions were seen by the community as yet another extra-judicial killing. Under increasing public pressure, the Police Department revealed that the white officer who shot Michael Brown dead, is Darren Wilson 28, who came to the force several years ago and has received a medal of commendation for exemplary service. It later came to light that Darren Wilson, and all of his fellow officers, of the Jennings, Missouri Police Department were summarily fired by the local city council. After a thorough investigation, the council concluded that tensions between Jennings police and black residents was so bad that they found it necessary to fire each and every one of their police personnel. (Andres Jauregui, “Officer Darren Wilson Began Career in Disgraced Police Department”, huffingtonpost.com, 08.24.2014).
Peaceful protesters, with legally justifiable grievances, were met with ludicrously aggressive local police in full riot gear, camouflage uniforms, and brandishing lethal military-grade automatic weapons; as well as Kevlar helmets, gas masks and other tactical gear. This Middle–American suburb soon resembled a war zone. And still, the grieving community that had experienced more than enough of this in-your-face arrogance of militarized racism, continued to march, day and night. Rage became viral and looting broke out. SWAT teams (police paramilitary units) arrived in black uniforms, face shields, ballistic helmets, baton clubs and snarling attack dogs.
Seriously bad-assed armored tanks rolled onto the scene, confident in their “intimidation factor”, together with their, oh so super cool, snipers dudes, roosting atop these war machines, staring down from on high at fellow American citizens through their government issued gun sights. “Just following orders”…wasn’t a defense at Nuremberg, and I would hope that accountability still counts for something in our waning, so-called, democracy.
In any event, we can be grateful that national and international media caught wind of this wholly unwarranted, racist juggernaut; and journalists and their camera crews were not far behind. Standing just a few feet from a military Humvee, Berkeley, California Pastor and community organizer, Michael McBride blamed the systemic police violence on “irrational fear of black men”…if you’re that scared of blacks, you should not police black communities”. (Goodman, truthdig.com, 08/21/2014)
Locally involved, uber-pumped up warrior-cops were quick to turn their show of force and intimidation theatrics onto “dissident” media with threats intended to suppress dissent in every way possible. High profile correspondents and camera crews, from major media outlets were threatened, harassed, arrested, detained, and sprayed with mace and tear gas. As a result, the Ferguson story went viral on national and international media. Sadly, there was nothing new about police consistently violating rights of “dissident and insurgent” protestors and press with respect to freedom of speech and assembly. However, one new element arrived with a delegation of investigators and observers from Amnesty International . While they were in New Orleans during the turbulent aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ferguson marks the first time that they have arrived during an ongoing crisis. Human rights concerns and social trauma issues are closely related. By way of disclosure, I was a member of a local chapter of Amnesty International when I lived in Colorado and an active participant and presenter at their conferences. At their request, together with Dr. Peter Levine, I offered a special presentation to their membership, also open to the public, on the subject of trauma and community.
Amnesty International, established in 1961, is now the largest human rights movement with more than three million members in over 150 countries. The 14 delegates deployed from Amnesty to Ferguson say that their presence was requested by the local community as well as by a local chapter there in the St. Louis region. These volunteers were easily recognizable in their bright yellow tee-shirts with their Amnesty International logo of a candle wrapped in barbed wire, outlined in black; inspired by the ancient Chinese proverb: “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. This logo reflects the organization’s hope that their work could shine light into the darkest places where human rights violations go unpunished. Not surprisingly, they were confronted in the protest site media area, which functions something like a “holding pen”. A fiercely contemptuous, supremely self-important, bully of a police officer, held them at gun point and ordered them all to kneel down in front of his weapon, which they did, with hands in the air. Still, “under the gun” he commanded them to leave the immediate area, although this deplorable incident was nevertheless captured on video for all the world to see. And yes, people do need to see this, as well as the multiple authoritarian violations now going on in Ferguson because, unchecked, this can and will spread elsewhere. Unless awake and aware concerned citizens are able to mount a significant enough protest, as these brave souls are struggling to do in this small Missouri suburb, nothing is likely to change.
Among Amnesty International’s many concerns in Ferguson is the police practice of liberally dispersing tear gas into crowds containing pregnant women, children, elderly and the immune-compromised. Banned by the Geneva Convention, as a chemical weapon, from use in international warfare, tear gas is approved for domestic use in crowd control. Technically, this chemical agent, chlorobenzalmalononitrite, is an aerosol, not a gas, designed to activate pain sensitive nerves. Amnesty and others have serious doubts as to whether this toxic chemical weapon is as harmless as law enforcement would have us believe. In the interest of public health and safety, more research on the immediate and long term effects of this toxin, especially on the unborn, is clearly indicated.
With national, international, alternative and social media on site, together with other observers, the issue of racial injustice in Ferguson soon expanded to include denial of a right to assembly, first amendment free speech and targeting of journalists, as well as militarization of community police forces. One of the reasons that many images resulting from this widespread coverage resemble a dystopian war zone, is our very own armored tanks and other military-grade weapons and tactical gear employed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been arriving along a direct pipeline from the Pentagon, on out to civilian police forces, without charge. To date, a Department of Defense program known as 1033 has allocated over 4.3 billion dollars of military equipment to state and local police. This was deemed necessary in service of that ineffective, notoriously corrupt, so-called, “War on Drugs”.
Militarization of law enforcement continued to escalate and expand as our post 9/11 hysteria gave rise to the military-industrial, “War on Terror”, TSA and Homeland Security complex, now ubiquitous in airports, subway, bus and train stations as well as sports events and other public gatherings. For a fee, they are also available, together with their useless and toxic, naked scanner devices for high school prom nights. This authoritarian, fear mongering hype is vigorously re-enforced in our now pervasive surveillance state, by complicit corporate-controlled mainstream media along with the repressive Patriot Act’s draconian dismantling of our civil liberties.
With the situation in Missouri spiraling out of control , Senator Rand Paul got it right in his August 14, 2014, op-ed for TIME Magazine: “ We Must De-Militarize the Police”:
There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement. When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury with no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture – we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.
As protest events continued to gather support, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon finally came to his senses with a belated realization that a belligerent, militarized, brutal, “good ole bully boy”, “down home” response to legitimate protests was only stoking community rage. Consequently, he ordered the Ferguson police to stand down, SWAT teams to clear out, and placed the State Highway Patrol in charge. This welcome change of tactic had a somewhat calming effect, but sporadic looting still broke out after dark. Without asking or informing the White House, which is a politically and pointedly, (racially motivated?) disrespectful gesture, yet technically within his legal right; Governor Nixon then requested our National Guard to step in, and they complied, although wisely keeping a carefully controlled low profile. Our usually gracious President, was not pleased, and promptly dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson. Introducing himself as “also a black man”, Holder was able to communicate both understanding and support to the local black community as he shared some of his own experiences being harassed by white police at traffic stops and also for “jogging while black”.
Soon thereafter, the White House announced that President Obama has ordered a review of the distribution of military hardware to state and local police, in response to a concern as to how such equipment has been used to combat racial unrest in Ferguson. While this announcement has been supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, a review is not yet a revision and I sincerely hope that human rights activists and other concerned citizenry will sustain their pressure for reform, because the arms industry lobbyists will be out in full force. While the militarization of police is a very serious issue, it is only one symptom within a deeply-rooted complex of underlying, ongoing, and interrelated community stresses in Ferguson, which have given rise to violence.
Ferguson, Missouri, is a blue collar outpost of the city of St. Louis; composed of single family homes, low rise apartment blocks and a population of 21,000, struggling along as America’s rust belt decays. Closure of the Chrysler, Ford and McDonnell Douglas plants, followed by the Hostess Twinkie bakery, cost thousands of unionized jobs and proved economically devastating to local businesses. More than a quarter of Ferguson households have an income well below the federal poverty line. This downward spiral within our de-industrialized Mid-Western Heartland was accelerated by economic inequality and racism as mutually re-enforcing factors. A closer look into Ferguson’s increasingly demoralized suburban community, reveals that their mayor is white, as is their school board, as well as five of their six city council members; and most law enforcement personnel are also melanin-deficient. This mono-chromatic infrastructure is an age old set-up for the exploitation and abuse of people of color. (Rory Carroll, “Ferguson”, ukguardian.com, 08/21/2014)
Interestingly enough, the Municipal Court of Ferguson, is their city’s second largest source of revenue. All of their judges are white, political appointees, and well aware that most blacks cannot afford a lawyer. According to a non-profit lawyers group, Arch City Defenders, during this court’s 36, three hour sessions in 2013 , it processed 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. Therefore, a typical three hour court session processed 1,500 cases. Overall, these 2013 numbers reveal an average of 1.5 cases and three warrants per Ferguson household. Court fees and fines for that year, in a small suburb of just 21,000, totaled $2,635,400. How is this possible? Consider the disturbing fact that a majority of these citations had to do with traffic stops and other dubious violations such as “jaywalking” and “failure to disperse”. Abuse of power is nothing new in this predatory system, within which Officer Darren Wilson so loyally served.
Anyone just “asking around” Ferguson is likely to find that just about everybody has a story or two about the police. Locals are quick to remind visitors that “Ferguson was an old slave town”. Among, all too many examples of racist abuse and exploitation, we have, for example, the now viral story of a man wrongly arrested in 2009. Initially bullied, then badly beaten by police, this innocent black citizen was subsequently charged with, “damage to government property”, because his blood had spattered onto police uniforms. He was then ordered to pay $3000 in fines. Furthermore, a local court reporter has disclosed that Ferguson Municipal Court routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then locks the doors outside their building at least as early as 5 minutes before official closing time. As a result of these practices, defendants can receive additional charges for failure to appear. (Michael Daly, “Ferguson Feeds Off the Poor”, dailybeast.com, August 22, 2014).
Again, it is important to understand, and acknowledge, that racial injustice in the court system is nothing new in St. Louis County. Here we might consider biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s notion that places have something like “fields of memory” which may play a role in traumatic repetitions. (St. Just: Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals, 2012). As broadcast journalist Amy Goodman recently pointed out, just four miles south of the protest zone, along the same street, in the Calvary Cemetery, one can find the grave of Dred Scott. Born a slave, Scott famously fought for his freedom in local, state, federal, and Supreme courts. Finally, in 1857, our U.S. Supreme Court ruled that African Americans whether slave or free, could never be citizens, ever. In this racist court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney, a supporter of slavery wrote: “A free Negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.” This ruling also declared the Missouri Compromise un-constitutional . This so called compromise made Missouri a slave state, yet dictated that northern territories in our rapidly expanding United States, would be free territories with slavery outlawed.
This Dred Scott decision, invalidating the Missouri Compromise, having opened up all new territories to slavery, was considered to be a victory for southern slave states and sent shock waves throughout our nation. Abraham Lincoln invoked this shameful 1857 decision in his famous “house divided” speech which declared: “ A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free”. And so, as the Dred Scott decision led the way toward the election of Lincoln, the nemesis of the Confederate south, as President; it also served to push this country closer to Civil War. While Dred Scott lost in court, his freedom was eventually purchased by another owner. Sadly, he died a year later, in 1858 of tuberculosis.
Around the time when our Civil War was about to break out, Missouri was a sharply divided border state that sent men, supplies and spies, to both Union and Confederate forces; and there were many bloody clashes between opposing sides within the borders of the state during that tragic conflict. Missouri voted against secession and remained within the Union, and when slaves were declared free as a result of the southern defeat, blacks were still not safe from the scourge of white supremacy. During the reconstruction era, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of our nation’s earlier terrorist organizations, was founded as a white supremacist insurgency of former confederate rebels; dedicated to their definition of necessarily strict segregation and making certain that blacks remained under white control and “knew their place”. Best known for vigilante violence, hooded, white sheeted, night-riding hangmen disguised as ghosts, they rode through dark forests, bull whips cracking, terrorizing blacks with fire and rope.
The Klan were, and still are, known to gather in local pastures for ceremonial burning of their hate-filled crosses of warning; which may be also placed in front of black residences or the houses of those deemed “too close” to the “inferior” non-white races. The Klan is still active in Missouri, their modern version has close ties to neo-Nazi organizations such as the Aryan Brotherhood and other para-military racist groups. Membership in these, and other hate groups, has grown exponentially since the election of bi-racial, President Barack Obama. In light of recent events and the racially conflicted history of the Ferguson region, it is not so surprising that KKK chapters have expressed support for blond, white, Officer Darren Wilson.
According to one of the Imperial Wizards of the KKK, their organization is split amongst various factions which often do not agree upon a unified policy. While one Missouri chapter of the KKK has set up a fundraiser for “the cop who did his job against the Negro criminal” (politicalblindspot.com, August 21, 2014), another chapter has not taken a public stand. Nevertheless, Klan members have been instructed to forgo their iconic hooded paraphernalia and are “patrolling neighborhoods, reporting to law enforcement and watching stores”. An apparently unrelated Facebook page, “Support Darren Wilson”, has received well over 30,000 “likes” and raised over two hundred thousand dollars. As one local resident expressed, “Wow, like he won the lottery. Shoot a black kid and he and his family got over 200,000 dollars”. The racist rhetoric on the Wilson page was so vile that the entire comments section had to be closed down.
It is almost September now and cooler temperatures are on the way, but much in Ferguson remains unresolved and this long replicating fractal of racism and repression is likely to continue on to further iterations. The Ferguson uprising can be seen as yet another flashpoint in an ongoing fractal that has its deepest roots in “man’s inhumanity to man”. The racial dynamics of white supremacy were well established on the North American continent long before we became a nation and for quite a while after, and in many places like Ferguson, persist to this day.
The existence of something like a “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome” has been vigorously debated. However, recent biological findings in the field of epigenetics confirm that traumatic life events can and do alter the human genome. Moreover, these trauma-induced alterations can be passed down through many generations. Most recently it has been discovered that trauma can be transmitted through sperm. What this means for the immediate situation in Ferguson is that the trauma of current events may be passed along to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Thom Hartmann, “The Ferguson Effect on Our Great-Grandchildren”, opednews.08/21/2014). Given the complexity of perpetrator/ victim dynamics, it is not only blacks who are involved in this ongoing social trauma. While the blacks generally see themselves and their loved ones as victims, they are often seen as perpetrators by the whites who fear them. Darren Wilson and his family’s lives will never be the same and many whites see Wilson as the victim. Since there have been strident calls for “justice” on both sides of this racial divide, this could easily translate into a need for revenge which could give rise to yet another cycle of violence. This is the year that we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964. Clearly, we still have a very long way to go.