On August 9, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, was murdered in cold blood by a cop. The reason? He was walking in the street and questioned the cop’s order to get out of the street. This outrageous act attracted the attention of people across the U.S. and around the world, but not because it was unusual. What was different this time is people did more than just build sidewalk alters – they took to the streets in anger.
The callous disregard for Michael Brown’s life wasn’t limited to one trigger-happy cop. No emergency medical response team was called to save his life. Michael Brown was left to die in the street, his dead body laying in the street for four hours. Outraged, people gathered and then marched to the police station, demanding the arrest of the cop. Not only was there a refusal to charge the cop, but he was allowed to leave town and continue to draw his pay. His case is supposedly still under investigation. And nearly seven weeks later the Ferguson chief of police decided to issue an apology to the family, a hollow gesture at best.
After Brown’s murder, the rage that has been simmering in this community poured into the streets. The local cops were no match for the more than one thousand people who mobilized that first night, some burning and looting stores. Day after day, for weeks, people took to the streets. State and local police and the Missouri National Guard were mobilized against the population, turning Ferguson into a war zone. The forces, outfitted with high-tech battle gear, moved in with massive force. They terrorized those in the streets and in their homes with armored vehicles, flash grenades, tear gas, beanbag guns, sound cannons, rubber bullets and automatic weapons with live ammunition.
Some people were shocked to see this display of military force. But the military arming of local police has been underway for decades. After September 11, 2001, this was explained to be for supposedly fighting terrorism. But the militaristic responses in Ferguson and elsewhere (like Occupy in the recent past) clearly show these armaments are not intended for an imagined foreign threat, but are preparation for an uprising of poor and working people refusing to tolerate the conditions we confront.
The threat of armed violence hangs over people every day. The threat exists to maintain an order that imposes conditions of poverty, degradation and hopelessness on tens of millions of people in this country. This violence, whether the violence of a life of poverty, or armed force used to maintain it, weighs most heavily on black and brown people.
Race has been used for centuries to keep people divided, especially those who have every interest in joining forces. In Ferguson, the official rate of unemployment for people age 16 to 24 is close to fifty percent for black men. In addition to facing a life with few opportunities, young black men face a police force that is 94 percent white. The police of Ferguson, like the rest of the local power structure, is a holdover from the 1990s, when the town was 74 percent white. It has been used to shake down the black community, collecting more than half a million dollars per year in fines.
It is little wonder that people exploded. And that is why people across the country turned out in solidarity with the people of Ferguson. This police violence extends across the United States. A recent study shows that in 2012, the police, security guards, and vigilantes executed more than 313 African American people – one every 28 hours. Official statistics show that nearly two times a week, a white cop killed an African American during a seven-year period ending in 2012.
Those whose task it is to maintain this unequal order, including Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to convince people to go home and wait for justice. Perhaps some money will flow, so some appointed leaders can make promises they won’t ever deliver. And soon Ferguson will be out of the spotlight. The cops may be slower to shoot, but the same problems still exist that confront working people everywhere.
There is a war on our lives, an attack on our basic dignity as human beings. We are expected to exist on the margins of a society that brags about its wealth and opportunities. And when people refuse to accept this and maybe talk back to a cop, that system responds, sometimes with deadly force or by adding another individual to the 2.4 million locked up in prison.
Electing new politicians, instituting programs for young people, supposed community control over the police, or any other so-called solutions cannot solve this situation. It is in the nature of this system to be constantly at war, a class war, a war of those who claim the wealth of the society and the right to control our labor. It is the one percent versus the 99 percent and they will not give up the armed terror they need to maintain their control.