United States: Ferguson fuels fight for justice

The killing of Michael Brown, and the sustained protests it has sparked, has torn away the veil that usually obscures the racism

Protests are continuing in the Missouri town of Ferguson and across the country for justice for the family of Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teenager shot dead by a police officer on August 9, and against police violence and racism.

Below is an abridged September 3 US Socialist Worker editorial on the struggle.

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The graffiti in Ferguson, Missouri tells a story.

Go to the fire-scarred QuikTrip on West Florissant ― symbol of the bitter anger at the murder of Mike Brown ― and you'll understand why Ferguson will never again be an anonymous collar suburb of St Louis.

You'll see Mike Brown's name linked together with other victims of police murder and racist violence, like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. And you'll see “Ferguson 2014” on a list of cities that have risen up in rebellion over the past half a century.

The murder of an unarmed Black teenager for the “crime” of walking in the street was certain to shake Ferguson to its core. But the statistics tell us that a similar police shooting was more likely than not to take place somewhere in the US at some point during the day after Brown died.

But the killing of Brown is shaking the entire country because of a sustained mobilisation. This has torn away the veil that usually obscures the racism and violence endured by African Americans and other people of colour, especially in poverty-stricken urban neighbourhoods.

The worldwide shock over Ferguson is driven by the barbarism of the killing and the sickening justifications for it, coming from police and politicians. These have included smearing the victim with the vile stereotypes used generally to stigmatise and criminalise Black youth.

It has also revealed the alarming extent of the militarisation of police departments around the country. The response of authorities to the angry demonstrations was to roll out the full arsenal of high-tech weaponry and equipment that law enforcement has been accumulating.

Many other issues stand out in a new light today because of Ferguson: the intersection of race, class and poverty; the many forms of political disenfranchisement that keep a white elite in power; economic disinvestment in a former industrial city; and segregation in housing and education.

'Katrina moment

This is not unlike the so-called “Katrina moment” in 2005, when even the mainstream media ― at least parts of it ― had to acknowledge the US government's contempt for the African American poor of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

In Ferguson, some mainstream media personalities reacted to the chaos and violence ― caused by the state and inflicted on people exercising their right to protest ― with stunned disbelief and even outrage.

Not all media personalities, of course. CNN's anchor Rosemary Church asked why police didn't “perhaps use water cannons” to disperse demonstrators.

The response to Ferguson is polarised ― and polarising. On a broader level, opinion polls found different conclusions about the source of the unrest in Ferguson among whites and Blacks.

A Pew Research Center survey found, for example, that more whites than not ― just under 50% ― thought the issue of race was “getting more attention than it deserves” in explaining what has taken place.

For anyone in solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson, this is a startling and depressing result that reflects the enduring hold of racism in the US.

But it may not be so surprising given the relentless rhetoric of the media and political leaders about how we are living in a “post-racial” society, where institutional discrimination is a thing of the past ― especially now that an African American is president.

This proves that merely exposing racism and its consequences to the light of day isn't enough. We have to organise ― on every front, whether ideological, activist or otherwise ― to confront prejudice and bigotry.

Still, it should be remembered that polarisation works in two directions. Throughout the US, there are millions of people, including significant numbers of white people, who will never think about police violence and racism the same way after Ferguson ― just as they will never forget the name Trayvon Martin.

And at least some of them will conclude that something must be done.

Among African Americans, the upsurge of bitter anger in Ferguson has been a clarion call ― and an important one given the response of Black political leaders that has ranged from calls for “peace” in the face of a police-state crackdown to Barack Obama's insulting lectures that it's time to “listen and not just shout”.

Palestinian support

In this regard, one of the most heartening responses to Ferguson has been the number of groups that explicitly identified with the anti-racist struggle and drawn connection to their own fights.

Of course, all it took was one look at the nightly images of the streets of Ferguson ― choked with tear gas and filled with police dressed in riot gear that would make the imperial storm troopers of Star Wars envious ―for Palestinians to recognise the parallels between the Israeli occupation and the police occupation in Ferguson.

Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and beyond signed on to a powerful statement of support for the demonstrators in Ferguson.

In St Louis, Holocaust survivor and veteran activist in support of Palestinian rights Hedy Epstein was among those arrested in an act of civil disobedience at the office of Missouri Govenor Jay Nixon.

“It's the same kind of violence that I've observed when I was in the Israeli-occupied Palestine,” Epstein said.

Another example is 350.org, the climate justice group, which released a statement standing “in solidarity with those in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting the shooting of unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown ― and we call on the climate movement to stand with us. We believe unequivocally that working for racial justice is a crucial part of fighting climate change.”

Taking this stance was unprecedented for 350.org, which was formed by progressives who felt the urgent need for grassroots activism around the issue of climate change. It's a very important development in a movement where establishment liberal groups have a history of downplaying the issue of environmental racism, if not actively ignoring it.

In a blog post, Dierdre Smith, the group's strategic partnership coordinator explained that she made the connection between the police murder in Ferguson and her work as a climate justice activist because she first became involved in the environmental movement after the 2005 Katrina disaster in New Orleans.

“When crisis hits,” Smith wrote, “the underlying racism in our society comes to the surface in very clear ways. Climate change is bringing nothing if not clarity to the persistent and overlapping crises of our time.”

Solidarity

This principle of solidarity is at the heart of every great social struggle ― expressed by Martin Luther King Jr in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The demonstrations in Ferguson and the wider sentiment in solidarity with them can take our struggle forward ― not only on specific issues, but as part of a wider challenge to a system that produces police violence, racist disenfranchisement and poverty; and, on the other side of the world, imperialist war and sectarian conflict; and, around the globe, environmental devastation.

In the face of such a world, the vision of a completely different society, based on solidarity and struggle, is as relevant as it has ever been.

The many struggles we will be involved in ― against racism and police brutality; in solidarity with Palestine; to save the planet from climate change ― are vitally important.

But those committed to being a part of them also need something more: to educate themselves about the history of past struggles; to discuss the many intersecting political questions facing us today; to build up their common experiences and the potential to bring together larger numbers of people in struggle.

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