Over the weekend, police in Ferguson, Missouri murdered Michael Brown, a black teenager. While details are still trickling in, it’s clear that during a confrontation with a squad car a block away from his grandmother’s house, an officer shot and killed the unarmed teen in the middle of the street. Witnesses say Brown was running away from the policeman and had his hands in the air just before the officer shot him.
Ferguson is a city with a large concentration of poor blacks under the control of overwhelmingly white institutions. The killing immediately struck a nerve. Rallies and protests erupted as people took to the streets — eventually culminating in a riot. Crowds went from holding candle light vigils at the site of Brown’s death to burning down a number of businesses and lighting molotov cocktails during confrontations with police. How did we get here?
Far from a mindless, violent mob, the people of Ferguson were engaged in concerted political consciousness-raising leading up to the insurrection. A video taken at the scene shows a number of political
agitators talking with the crowd, converting momentary outrage into political unity. One speaker in particular, a young black male, offers a cogent political analysis that frames the injustice of police brutality as a byproduct of the community’s economic dislocation.
We keep giving these crackers our money, staying in they complexes, and we can’t get no justice. No respect. They ready to put you out [if you] miss a bill . . . You got to be fed up.
Riots, like other forms of political action, can build solidarity. They can create strong feelings of common identity. The outrage in Ferguson quickly attracted marginalized people throughout the region. Rather than evidence of illegitimacy, the presence of these “outsiders” reflected the magnetic power of the political moment.
From the outset, the anti-police police rallies that preceded the riots had a clear “us versus them” dynamic. At one point during the rally, the woman holding the camera says, “Where the thugs at? Where the street tribes when we need y’all?” and the crowd then begins to call on various street gangs to abandon “black-on-black” violence and unite in struggle against oppression. The community was unified and ready to take action. The police were the problem, and they had to be stopped.
The crowd was not irrational and apolitical. They were attempting to use this opportunity to address their broader political needs. They knew that intraracial violence within the community was also an issue, and that in most cases the perpetrators of violence are the communities’ own children, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Though many claim that black people don’t care about violence within our communities, the crowd’s calls for gang unity demonstrate that anti-police uprisings provide unique opportunities to unite people in ways that seek to resolve long-term issues like gang violence.
Following the insurrection, participants continued to discuss the uprising in political terms. DeAndre Smith, who was present at the burned down QuikTrip, told the local news, “I believe that they’re too much worried about what’s going on to their stores and their commerce and everything. They’re not worried about the murder.” A second man added, “I just think what happened was necessary, to show the police that they don’t run everything.” Smith then concludes, “I don’t think they did enough.”
In a second interview, this time with Kim Bell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Smith expanded on his belief in the riot as a viable political strategy.
This is exactly what’s supposed to happen when an injustice is happening in your community . . . I was out here with the community, that’s all I can say . . . I don’t think it’s over, honestly. I think they just got a case of what fighting back means, in St. Louis, the last state to abolish slavery. Do they think they still have power over certain things? I believe so.
This is how they receive money: businesses and taxes, police stopping people and giving them tickets, taking them to court, locking them up — this is how they make money in St. Louis. Everything is all about money in St. Louis. So when you stop their flow of income they have things organized in a certain way … “we’re gonna eat, you’re gonna starve,” gentrification — put you in a certain neighborhood by yourself and see if you can starve … It’s not going to happen, not in St. Louis.
Smith identifies what so many self-styled anti-racists and leftists fail to understand — that racism is not an issue of moral character. He recognizes that the broader economic order facilitates and benefits from racial subjugation, and so he’s looking for ways to intervene and disrupt that process. Not only is this a more substantive analysis than what is often offered on the Left, but acting on this analysis is the only way to eradicate entrenched racial hierarchy.
Typically, when events like the Ferguson rebellion occur, well-meaning people rush to condemn the participants. At a minimum, they dismiss rioting as unproductive and opportunistic — a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. This is precisely the attitude that DeAndre Smith was criticizing in his first interview. Most detractors, some of whom are black themselves, seek to police these communities with “respectability politics” — a call for subjugated people to present themselves in ways that are acceptable to the dominant class in an effort to make political gains.
As the political scientist Frederick Harris wrote in an article this year:
What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to ‘uplift the race’ by correcting the ‘bad’ traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity.
But the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the black poor and working class.
Whereas riots are often galvanizing community events with the potential to unleash concerted political energy in dynamic and unpredictable directions, the stale politics of respectability only leads to further marginalization and dislocation. Now, it’s possible to disagree with the utility of insurrection. But these communities’ responses to subjugation must be discussed in political terms and not simply dismissed out of hand.
We live in a context of white supremacy and neoliberal capitalism, where race-neutral policies are being used to maintain class exploitation and racial hierarchy, and any overt attempts to address racism are being dismantled or disregarded. These policies only intensify the economic dislocation and poverty experienced by those at the margins.
What both the local news interviewees and the crowd at the scene of Brown’s death seemed to understand was that they needed to disrupt the interplay between racial subjugation and capitalism. They felt that a march or some other acceptable form of benign indignation would not address their political needs — and they weren’t wrong.
Many of us rush to condemn these types of disruptions because we’re actually content with neoliberalism’s post-racial illusion. At the burned down QuikTrip, someone left a sign addressed to their “corporate neighbor,” in the hopes that the business would return: “Dear Corporate Neighbor, I am sorry this act of robbery & violence has happened. Please return soon. I stop in 2-3 time[s] per week.”
On the surface, addressing the effects of rioting is an important political issue. By framing themselves as a customer in need of their “corporate neighbor,” it’s possible that this person is acting not out of concern for the working people that lost their jobs — their actual neighbors — but from the fear that their shopping routine will be disturbed. Like DeAndre Smith observed, we identify more strongly with broken windows than broken people.
From the Boston Tea Party to Shays’ Rebellion, riots made America, for better or worse. In the past, white rioters have had access to institutional power, which allowed some of their grievances to be legitimized and politically resolved, at least to extent possible in a capitalist society. The key for the Ferguson uprising, as with any unsustainable political moment, is to transition outrage and disruption into constructive political organization. Easier said than done — but it’s a better reaction than dismissing the riots and only making it more difficult for the people to accomplish this herculean task.
Malcolm X reminds us that media is a key instrument of subjugation because it determines which acts are respectable and which are extreme and thus illegitimate. Instead of following that familiar script, let’s push back against narratives about rioters being devoid of politics. Let’s find ways to honestly observe and discuss their political needs, rather than simply criticizing the nature of their response to social violence.