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From Ferguson to #BlackLivesMatter
Before the streets erupt, they seethe.
On an unseasonably warm late December day in 2014, I woke up to the news that just a few miles from my apartment, the police had killed again. On Christmas Day, Terrence Gilbert sat on his porch contemplating suicide. Someone called the police for help, and instead of helping, they shot the twenty-five-year-old twice in the abdomen, killing him.
Police murder is all around you when you live in Chicago. One day in 2012, on my way home from work, I watched South Side residents face off with police after cops attacked and shot a man merely suspected of being involved in a robbery. The cops claimed he pulled a black object from his pocket and pointed it at them. They always say that. The suspicious object almost always turns out to be a wallet, a pill bottle, a belt buckle, a mobile phone.
Earlier in 2014, I rode the train home from work. The train pulled into the station at the edge of Bronzeville, the heart of Chicago’s Black middle class, and a young man – likely no older than me, twenty-seven or twenty-eight – shuffled onto the train and sat in the seat across from me, crying. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked him. But he couldn’t look at me.
‘They killed him’, he muttered. ‘They’re always killing us. They’re always killing us.’ He repeated it over to himself again and again. His voice became so soft it was almost lost under the shrieking the train made against the cold steel tracks. Later I was able to piece together what had happened: right as he was getting on the train, the police had chased a car off the expressway which runs next to the train. The car crashed at the top of the ramp, and police opened fire on the three people inside. The young man beside me had run downstairs to catch the approaching train. In the end, the people in the car weren’t dead, but they came close and only survived after being sent to the highest level trauma centre in the city.
‘Black Lives Matter’ can seem like a vague assertion. But when the entire structure of American capitalism is built on the murder and enslavement of Black* people and the theft of Black wealth, it is nothing short of a revolutionary demand. To say so is not to suggest it will necessarily trigger a revolutionary situation: the American left and working class is too fragmented. But because of the centrality of anti-Black racism to American capitalism, ‘Black Lives Matter’ has set the activists organising the rebellion onto a revolutionary collision course with the state and the ruling class.
And the level of violence from the state has escalated: more Black people are killed by the police each year than were lynched at the height of the South’s extralegal racial terror. It required independent research to find this out, though: because the government isn’t even keeping track. As even The Washington Post noted, the federal government keeps track of how many people are bitten by sharks, how many pigs are raised on farms, and, critically, how many police officers are shot in the line of duty and a host of other numbers important enough for the state to know: but no record of the numbers of deaths during, or shortly after, contact with police. Independent estimates suggest the number of these deaths is regularly upwards of 1,000 each year.
One of those people was Eric Garner. Officer Daniel Pantaleo was caught on videotape placing Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who had just broken up a fight, in a chokehold for no apparent reason. Eleven times, Garner cried out, ‘I can’t breathe’, but Pantaleo and his fellow officers continued to pin him on the ground and refused to offer medical assistance once he had stopped breathing. In the wake of the Garner decision, we learned that Pantaleo had received multiple complaints of racially motivated brutality and sexual assault while on duty, including two that escalated into lawsuits.
The protests that had followed Garner’s murder in July turned into mass mobilizations – thousands and tens of thousands of people flooding the streets of New York’s five boroughs, halting traffic, shutting down bridges and tunnels, and occupying train stations.
Then there was the murder of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. Police in Cleveland murdered Rice, who was playing in a park with a toy gun – in a state where it is legal to openly carry a real gun. It took the officers just seconds to gun the boy down after they arrived at the park, and after they had killed him, they handcuffed and threatened his fourteen-year-old sister.
On November 20, twenty-eight-year-old Akai Gurley was murdered by a police officer in the stairwell of Gurley’s housing complex. As Gurley lay dying in the stairwell, the police officer didn’t call for an ambulance – he ignored calls from superior officers and texted his union representative. In April 2015, a new wave of outrage crested as video emerged of a police officer shooting Walter Scott, a fifty year-old Black man, eight times in the back as Scott ran for his life following a traffic stop in South Carolina. For once, the fear of the movement’s reaction was palpable as officials quickly fired the officer and charged him with murder. Later, more video emerged that captured the officer laughing at the ‘adrenaline rush’ he received from shooting Scott in cold blood.
Some names, like Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, will likely be etched into history alongside Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. But many others will remain mostly submerged in the sea of Black and Brown and Native blood upon which the US sails, especially the women and queer people whose names are too often deliberately ignored, even as Black women lead the movement against police terrorism.
Remember their names. Tanisha Anderson, a Black woman living with schizophrenia in Cleveland: the police were called to help her, but instead, they bashed her head against the pavement until she died. Even though Anderson’s death was ruled a homicide early this year, the police officers responsible for her death remain employed by the police department on restricted duty. Rekia Boyd, just twenty-two, who was shot in the head and killed by an off-duty Chicago police officer while walking with a group of friends away from a park gathering. The officer claimed a man in the group pointed a gun at him, except there was no gun, only the man’s mobile phone. Aiyana Stanley-Jones was only seven when the police raided her home and shot her as she slept on the couch beside her grandmother. Aiyana was killed, and her grandmother kept in prison overnight. Earlier this fall, we found out that her killer, like the cops who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, would not face trial. Yvette Smith, a forty-seven-year-old Black woman, was murdered when she opened to door to allow police entry to her home following a domestic disturbance call. Joy Ann Sherman, a fifty-two-year-old Lakota (Indigenous) woman, was shot and killed by police on her front porch this year. Her murder was ruled justified. Sherman was one of six Native Americans killed by police in the last two months of 2014.
The murder of Black people in the United States by the police, mass incarceration and drug arrests – what Michelle Alexander has described as ‘The New Jim Crow’ – are so widespread, they’ve become mainstream. Sesame Street teaches kids how to deal with parents being in prison. For many people, particularly people of colour, it’s standard practice to record any encounter with the police. TV shows like Broad City depict characters being forced to hide marijuana by stuffing it in their vagina to avoid detection in the hyper-policed New York subways. Racist threats on campuses take the form of nooses being hung from gates or around statues, and at the University of California last December, lynched effigies inscribed with ‘I can’t breathe’ – the last words of Eric Garner – hanging from the campus gates.
Police murders always arouse anger, but rarely as sustained and widespread as that in the mobilizations since August. Something changed. It changed in Ferguson, Missouri. The murder of Michael Brown, an African American teenager, by Darren Wilson – a white police officer – in early August set off a rebellion in this small town of 21,000 people. Every night, the people of Ferguson marched in the streets and were greeted with incredible levels of state repression: armored cars, sound cannon, tear gas, and rubber bullets. As images of the massive police response spread over the internet, protests soon erupted across the United States, then around the world. That the police had left Brown’s body exposed in the street in front of his home for more than four hours only seemed to underscore what Black residents of the town already knew: that the police treated them like animals instead of human beings; that the murder of Mike Brown wasn’t just a murder, it was a lynching.
For more than five months, daily protests continued in Ferguson and around St. Louis. The sporadic demonstrations in cities around the country became daily mobilizations following the decision of the Ferguson grand jury not to indict Wilson for murdering eighteen-year-old Brown, who was due to start college the day following his murder.
At a moment when social movements are either nascent or in retreat, how did a new movement emerge, declaring that Black Lives Matter in hundreds of cities and towns, prompting medical students to die-in a protest dubbed ‘White Coats for Black Lives’, filling thousands of people with the determination to defy police orders to disperse, even in the face of rubber bullets, tear gas, and other excessive force?
First, it must be made abundantly clear: as long as racism has existed, so has Black resistance to it. From the beginning of the United States, when slave revolts – or even the threat of them –that terrified white plantation owners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, African Americans have fought a long, protracted struggle to demand rights, equality, and the fruits of their labour. Yet this struggle has been far from linear: it peaked in the struggle for the abolition of slavery, the fights against lynching and Jim Crow segregation, and the Black Power movement. Racist attacks on welfare in the 1990s failed to generate mass resistance. Anger at police terror and brutality simmers, but hadn’t generated nationwide rebellion for more than a generation.
It became clear how much had changed when, on my second trip to Ferguson, I listened to Toni Taylor tell the story of her son, Cary Ball, Jr., who was shot by St. Louis police in April 2013. An honor-roll student with a 3.86 grade-point-average, Ball should have received an emerging scholar’s award on the day that ended up being his funeral. Toni Taylor described her attempts to organise to hold the St. Louis police accountable for her son’s murder. A few dozen people turned out to picket the police department, but Taylor felt she was fighting an uphill battle, that people wouldn’t mobilise. All the while police continued to harass her, driving up alongside her, calling ‘Hi, mom’, from their cruiser windows.
As the rebellion in Ferguson unfolded, it became clear that something had changed since the murder of Taylor’s son just the year before. Hardly the first rebellion over police crimes, it still wasn’t clear in the early days if a new social movement, akin to the Civil Rights or Black Power movements, might emerge in its wake. It’s still not clear, six months later, what lies in the future. It is worth remembering that the Civil Rights movement, by the shortest estimates, lasted nearly thirteen years – from December 1955 to April 1968. Whatever may come, Ferguson remains a point of historical rupture, a lens through which everything that follows is subsequently viewed.
The Ferguson rebellion reminds us of the global context. Four years ago, a mass uprising across the Middle East toppled governments, and squares and parks across the globe were occupied. Since then, the largest general strike in global history has taken place in India, left-wing miners in South Africa broke from the African National Congress. Hundreds of thousands have marched demanding climate justice, and across Canada, the First Nations are asserting their right to defend their land. Late last summer, a simmering rebellion across Mexico over neoliberal policies and education reform erupted after six students from Ayotzinapa were murdered and forty-three more disappeared, mostly likely by cartels in alliance with the government. Now in Greece, the anti-austerity party SYRIZA has taken power.
Disparate and precarious these rebellions may be, but they matter. They matter on the level of political consciousness: more than four years of turmoil have deeply polarised societies around the globe, and the United States is no exception. Many people without previous political experience, particularly young people of colour, have moved to the left, fed up not only with racism but with the economic inequality it enforces, not only with budget cuts to schools but standardised testing meant to mould students into neoliberal model workers, not only with low pay, but with jobs meant to dehumanise and degrade. Yet it is also true that the far right has also grown around the world. On 6 January, a NAACP office on Colorado was bombed. In February, three Muslim students were murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The NYPD went to war with Mayor Bill DeBlasio, turning their backs on him at press conferences and funerals, organizing a slow down – which resulted in a more than sixty percent deduction of arrests – that had only one demand: protect the right to kill Black people with immunity.
Polarisation has pulled a new layer of people into political activity. In Ferguson, this meant fast food workers who had been radicalised by the Fight for 15**, took the lessons they had learned about collective action at work and applied them to the struggle in their city. Workers from chain restaurants appropriated food and shut down the restaurants to deliver them to the protests. Workers from a Ferguson Chipotle location arrived with more than $1,000 worth of burritos and chips for protesters. After passing out food to the hungry demonstrators, they joined the march as a contingent and stayed for the evening, still wearing their work uniforms. ‘This is important, and I don’t want there to be any questions about it’, explained one worker who wished to remain anonymous to protect her from retaliation. ‘We support the protests.’ Her co-worker explained that they weren’t the only fast food workers to bring food down the QuikTrip, which was then then the hub of protest. Others, including Pizza Hut workers, had coordinated out-of-town donations, as well as making contributions of their own. It makes sense that they would respond to the outrage in Ferguson – since the same Black and Brown communities disproportionately pushed into low-wage work are also more likely to be victims of police violence.20
Yet the spread of struggle around the world cannot be explained only by the ways in which workers draw lessons and inspiration from other struggles and apply them in their own context. The turbulent situation in international politics also matters for deeper, structural reasons. The coincidence of upheaval around the globe events is not an accident, but rather a product of an ongoing political process unleashed by the 2007 crisis and the inability of government austerity agendas to ameliorate the contradictions which ravaged the world economy. The political process, a process not created but unleashed by the crisis, drives each rebellion, attack, movement. Capitalism was shaken by the 2007 crisis, and even though profitability has been restored, ideological cohesion has only fractured further as social, political, and ecological crises continue.
Racial divisions in American society are old and deep, but that doesn’t mean they are monolithic: they are dynamic and subject to rapid shifts and turbulence. How could they not be when the system upon which they are anchored is itself a system based on chaos and crisis?
How rapidly things had changed became clear to me when I arrived in Ferguson in August as they declared a midnight curfew. I marched alongside local people up West Florissant and met a young man with a vinegar soaked kerchief drawn over his face. I asked him if he’d be following the curfew tonight. He replied:
It’s always peaceful until the cops show up. You saw it back there – we’re grilling, people having a good time, talking, building community. It’s the police. They’re the ones causing the violence. I heard about the curfew, but I’m not leaving. They can’t tell me to go inside and then shoot tear gas at us while we’re on our front lawns. So I’m staying out. If they want war, they can have it.
‘When history is written as it ought to be written’, wrote CLR James in The Black Jacobins, ‘it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.’ In the United States, with police terror set as standard operating procedure, rebellions like the one in Ferguson seems less surprising. As Merlin Chowkwanyun noted, ‘it is hard to deny how predictable they are when they finally happen.’
More than this: Ferguson is everywhere. It could have been any neighborhood, any city. It has been claimed that every twenty-eight hours in the United States, a Black person is murdered by a police officer, security guard, or self-proclaimed vigilante, and these murders take place everywhere across the country, from major cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, to small towns and suburbs, which, like Ferguson, almost no one has heard of unless they’ve lived there.
It’s not that people weren’t angry before Ferguson, but rather that they felt they had nowhere to direct that anger. Uprisings and rebellions nearly always take place in the context of larger political forces. In that sense, they are never just local events. The urban rebellions of the 1960s took place in the context of anti-colonial revolutions. The uprising in Cincinnati in the early 2000s took place in the wake of the global justice movement. At certain moments of great historical contingency, years of latent anger can be transformed into remarkable displays of the power working class people hold in society.
The trauma that made the young man I saw in Chicago rock back and forth as he rode the red line north permeates the entire country. I saw it again, just six months later, when I visited Ferguson for the first time. Around 6:45pm, the police rolled up to the hundreds of us marching on West Florissant Street. They came in buses, packed full, and as they filed off, some beat their batons against their legs. Several young children in the crowd ran from the police in terror; they bolted down to Canfield Street, about a hundred metres away, and retreated back into the residential area behind the main street, where most of the confrontations had taken place. A young boy next to me, who could have been no older than eight or nine, turned to his mother next to them. ‘They’re going to kill me’, he cried, burying his face into her hip. ‘They’re going to shoot me.’ She tried to comfort him, but I could see the anguish in her face. She rubbed his back, told him she was staying there with him, but she couldn’t bring herself to counter his fears. As the cops filed down the sidewalks, she looked up at the cops and began chanting,
‘Is my son next?’
‘Is my son next?’
* In the American context, ‘Black’ refers exclusively to people of African descent, and more specifically, sub-Saharan African descent. This is the context in which the term will be used throughout this article.
** The Fight for 15 is a movement of low-wage workers, mostly concentrated in the fast food industry, demanding a $15 per hour minimum wage – more than double the current mandated minimum wage of $7.25 – and union recognition. For most workers organised by the campaign, it was their first experience of union activity. The organising consisted of minority walkouts, occupations, and in some places, wildcat strikes, struggling against racism and anti-immigrant discrimination in the workplace. For more, see Trish Kahle, here.