Letter from the US: Ferguson returns to centre of anti-racist struggle

March 30, 2015
A protester against police racismand violence in Ferguson last November.

The small, majority-Black town of Ferguson, Missouri has once again become the flash point of a new movement against the oppression of African Americans and the racist response.

US Attorney-General Eric Holder recently released a Department of Justice (DOJ) report detailing the systematic oppression of the Black community in Ferguson by city authorities, the police department and the courts.

The same day, Holder also released DOJ findings that there was insufficient evidence to indict police officer Darren Wilson, who murdered unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown last August, on charges that Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights.

The murder of Brown set off protests that swept the country and prompted the DOJ investigation.

The finding is a blatant contradiction to the DOJ's own report. It shows the Barack Obama administration’s two-faced stance towards Black oppression. On one hand, it condemns it when forced to do so politically, but on the other signals it will do nothing to bring perpetrators of racist crimes to justice.

Systemic racism

The DOJ report was based on Ferguson city records from 2012 to last year, which found that African Americans, who are 67% of the population, accounted for 93% of arrests.

In instances when police used force, 88% were Black victims. In every instance where police used attack dogs, only Blacks were bitten.

Many of the arrests of Blacks were for misdemeanors. African Americans accounted for 95% of “jaywalking” charges, 94% of “failure to comply” with police commands and 92% of “disturbing the peace” charges.

African Americans motorists were twice as likely to be searched when stopped as whites, even though they were less likely than whites to be carrying drugs or other contraband.

The report revealed that these arrests were actually encouraged as a way to raise city revenue. The report found that such a large amount of fines for low-level or false “crimes” actually amounted to a special tax on Black people.

Fines were levied for mostly concocted charges. Blacks too poor to pay the fines were then arrested for that “crime”, jailed and then given new fines. Many ended up owing many times more than the original fines, and were then subjected to arrest again.

Not only was this a new version of “debtors’ prison”, supposedly outlawed in the US, but many found themselves caught up in this spiral of arrests, fines, arrests and more fines from which they could not escape.

This is reflected in the fact that 96% of people arrested in traffic stops were jailed for an outstanding warrant.

It was for the “crime” of jaywalking that Wilson originally accosted Brown, in order to give him a ticket and fine. The DOJ report found such actions to be a violation of Black people’s civil rights.

But the same DOJ found that there was no evidence that Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights, not only by stopping him for jaywalking, but even by shooting him dead.

The report also found three racist emails from police or court officials in the city records. One had a cartoon depicting African Americans as monkeys. Another suggested that more abortions by Black women would lower the crime rate.

The final one was dated from Obama’s 2008 election, stating that he would not last long as president because “what Black man holds a steady job for four years?”

Ironically, it was recently exposed that cops in “tolerant” San Francisco also had a site where racist emails were posted. This emphasises that the institutionalised racism revealed in the Ferguson report is also found in supposedly “liberal” cities.

Investigative journalists are finding similar instances around the country of cooked-up “crimes” for minor infractions so as to gain revenues. It seems likely that another round of anti-racism protests are on the way.

Authorities response

In the wake of the report, the Ferguson city manager resigned, as did the police chief and a municipal judge. All were cited in the report. The three authors of the racist emails were fired.

But Ferguson Mayor James Knowles refused to say that town authorities would abide by the DOJ’s recommendations, only that they would be “studied”.

Lieutenant Governor of Missouri Peter Kinder has blasted the DOJ report, and blamed Holder and Obama for fomenting the protests that have erupted in Ferguson and that have swept the nation since last August.

“There is more racism in the Justice Department than there is in anywhere I see in the St Louis area,” Kinder said in a March 16 interview with NewsMaxTV. “It is the Eric Holder and Obama left — and their minions who are obsessed with race, while the rest of us are moving on beyond it.

“It’s bad enough the protesters were behaving that way, but we have a right to expect much more from the Attorney General, the head of the Justice Department of the United States, and the President of the United States.

“And instead, what we got too often from them was incitement of the mob, and, uh, encouraging disorder in Ferguson and disrupting the peaceable going-about our daily lives in the greater St. Louis region.

“Many of them [in the DOJ] spent most of their careers defending [African American revolutionary group] Black Panthers and other violent radicals.”

Nowadays, hard line racists respond to those who protest against racial oppression by labelling them “reverse racists”. Their hatred of Blacks extends to even to Black officials such as Holder and Obama.

Kinder’s remarks were picked up, rebroadcast and amplified by Fox News and other right-wing media.

Ferguson's Black community have continued to protest, calling for a complete overhaul of the police department. The community views the police chief's resignation as positive, but not sufficient.

At one demonstration in front of police headquarters, shots rang out as the protest was winding down. Two bullets hit officers, who were treated for their wounds at a local hospital.

The protesters said the shots came from far behind them. But the new acting police chief immediately blamed protesters. The next day, an “expert” on CNN “proved” that the shots came from the protesters at close range, not from up a hill some 120 meters away, as the protesters had claimed.

But this scenario soon collapsed as even the police investigation found the shell casings where the protesters said the shots came from.

The police arrested Jeffrey Williams. They said he confessed to firing the shots but was not aiming at the police, but shot wildly at someone he was arguing with.

Police say the weapon was a pistol, not a rifle, which adds weight to the view that, over such a distance, the firing was wild, not aimed.

Wilson later recanted his confession, leaving what actually occurred unclear. However, the demonstrators, who have cooperated with the police investigation, are quite clear that Williams was not one of them.

Protests bring hope

Speaking to Democracy Now!, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, said: “It is clear to me that first and foremost, change comes when people stand up, speak unpopular truths and are willing to take risks in the name of justice.

“There is no way that the Justice Department would have investigated what was going on in Ferguson if the young people there hadn’t stood up and taken to the streets.”

When asked if the Justice Department report gave her hope that change was happening, Alexander replied: “No, the report doesn’t give me hope. A single report, even a single indictment, isn’t going to make a difference unless people become organised and commit themselves to hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colours. And I see that beginning, and that’s what gives me hope.”

Alexander said the nationwide police oppression of the Black communities was part and parcel of the mass jailing of people of colour in the country’s prisons. This is the “New Jim Crow”, a reference to the “Jim Crow” laws of racial segregation in the US South until the 1960s, that her book documents.

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