The explosion of anger and protest on the streets of a Missouri city one year ago has transformed the United States political landscape in ways that are hard to understate, the US Socialist Worker said in this August 5 editorial.
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On August 9 last year, unarmed 18-year-old Black youth Mike Brown was shot by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson. His lifeless body was left uncovered for four-and-a-half hours — to broil on a summer street and be seen by little kids and everyone else in the predominantly Black neighbourhood. The murder sparked days and nights of furious protest.
In the year since, so much has changed — and not nearly enough has changed.
The rebellion in Ferguson did not stop the list of names of people murdered by police — it seemed to roll on ever more relentlessly. Eric Garner, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland are just some of the names.
But Ferguson did vastly increase public awareness of those names. And it put the country on notice that Black people suffering from the US's age-old racist violence were no longer going to be appeased by having a few Black faces in high places — even the White House.
One year ago, opinion polls indicated that most white people thought racism was not a problem in the US. One year ago, the media-anointed leaders of Black America — from President Barack Obama and Al Sharpton to, yes, Bill Cosby — were mostly older men whose leadership largely consisted of berating young Black people for not taking advantage of all the supposed opportunities the previous generations had won for them.
When young people in Ferguson refused to go back in their homes during the days and nights after Brown's murder, the authorities were so threatened — not by Black violence, but by Black resistance — that they launched a military occupation of a small city. The illusion that the US was a “post-racial” society that had evolved far past the bad old days of urban rebellion was shattered.
The myth-busting continued three months later when prosecutors in St Louis and New York City — who throw poor Black people in prison without evidence every day — could not even get a grand jury indictment of Wilson or the New York cop who strangled Eric Garner to death on video seen by millions around the world.
In those weeks of late November and early December, the spirit of Ferguson spread across the country. Furious protests shut down streets, highways and bridges in cities large and small.
For a moment, the political establishment was stunned by the surging new movement, watching silently as even Black staffers in Congress walked off the job, chanting: “Hands up, don't shoot!”
The shooting of two New York City cops in December by a lone Black man — who was, despite what was implied in the media, unconnected to any political movement — gave the establishment a chance to regain its footing and try to drown the protest movement in a tide of “support the police” jingoism.
But all the blue ribbons in the world could not hide the fact that the police kept killing people — at a horrifying rate of one every eight hours by mid-February. This made it only a matter of time before another city exploded.
It happened in April, after Baltimore cops killed Freddie Gray in the back of a police van — and then reacted to peaceful protests by provoking a riot among high school kids trying to get home from school. The movement took another step forward.
As Socialist Worker wrote at the time: “[Baltimore] is unlike Ferguson in that it is a major urban center in the heart of the Northeast Corridor and an hour's drive from the nation's capital.
“It is run by a Black political establishment and is … 'fully integrated into the post-civil rights landscape — a landscape that includes massive levels of segregation, intense concentrations of poverty and astounding brutality alongside a new Black middle class and political class …'
“These conditions that form the backdrop to Freddie Gray's murder will force many activists in the Black Lives Matter movement to confront — as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both did in another era — the intersections of racism and capitalism.”
In recent months, the highest-profile cases of racist violence have occurred in the heartlands of Southern reaction: in Texas, where a cop assaulted Black girls at an interracial pool party, and where Sandra Bland was found dead in a jail cell three days after asserting her rights as a state trooper brutalised her; and in South Carolina, where a white supremacist massacred nine people at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The horror in Charleston led to the historic — if long overdue — victory of the Confederate flag being taken down from the state Capitol grounds. This is a victory that will always be associated with the courage of a young Black woman climbing the flag pole to take down the racist symbol herself.
But after Baltimore — and New York City and Cleveland — nobody thinks that racism is just a Southern problem anymore. Black Lives Matter has, as the saying goes, changed the conversation.
That is a far cry from ending racist violence and discrimination. But it is an important start.
The brave resistance demonstrated in Ferguson was not unprecedented. There was, in fact, a remarkably similar series of events that followed the police murder of Manuel Diazin in Anaheim, California, two years earlier.
But Ferguson was the catalyst that brought together a number of political forces and developments:
• Local protest networks led by family members of victims of police violence like Jeralynn Blueford in Oakland and Constance Malcolm in New York City.
• A growing rejection of “personal responsibility” politics and an understanding of structural racism inspired by Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and other sources.
• The development, in the wake of protests against Trayvon Martin's murder by racist vigilante George Zimmerman in 2012, of new organisations such as Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and Million Hoodies, as well as the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
BYP100 captured the political shift that would take place over the coming year in a statement released after Brown's death: “Beyond our current frustration and anger, our memory hums as our ancestors call out to us.
“We will redeem their suffering through collective work for liberation. Stoicism, respectability politics and piecemeal measures of progress are not working.”
The statement was, in part, a response to the politics of figures like Al Sharpton, who had the gall to use his eulogy at Brown's funeral to wave his finger at Black people for not trying to succeed, and instead having “ghetto pity parties”.
This kind of scapegoating has been popular for years in the mainstream media and among some better-off African Americans. But it got nowhere in Ferguson, where protesters booed Sharpton and Jesse Jackson at various points during the uprising.
At the end of the year, Ferguson protesters travelled to a rally called by Sharpton in Washington, DC, and tried to take the microphone. But they were barred from speaking because they did not have the required “VIP” pass.
The confrontation on that stage in December crystallised a changing of the guard - between an older, mostly male Black leadership, whose strategy of winning a seat at the table in the Democratic Party has failed to achieve much for most African Americans, and a rising movement of young Black leaders, many of them women and LGBTI, who rely on tactics of direct confrontation with police and political authorities.
The strategic questions about where to go from here are difficult ones. This is particularly the case for a new movement challenging capitalism and racism at a time when the Black working class — even more than the working class as a whole — has gone through decades of deindustrialisation, union-busting and mass incarceration.
These defeats have their impact on the left as well. The left is organisationally dominated by NGOs that rely on unaccountable funding sources and are greatly influenced politically by an identity politics that does not point a way forward to a confident, multiracial movement led by Black youth.
These are real weaknesses that people committed to challenging racism must grapple with. But they should not be allowed to overshadow the importance of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and its profound impact on the political landscape in the US in the year since Brown's murder.
In the coming year, the movement will face the threat of being sucked into the vortex of the Democratic Party during the 2016 presidential campaign. This is the very process that turned some in the previous generations of Black freedom fighters into the political hacks that today's generation rejects.
The best way to confront all these questions is to look to the spirit at the core of the Ferguson uprising: The determination of opponents of racism and injustice to defy repression, speak out — and be heard by a generation of people thirsting for change.