The one year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown brought protests back to Ferguson, Missouri. They were peaceful and, like the protests following the killing, were met by a wall of police in black military garb, armed to the teeth, ready to “restore calm” at the end of guns.
Looting broke out, having nothing to do with the protests per se, but since the faces were black, the media wrapped it together with the protests, because all blacks are the same no matter whether they’re behaving peacefully, so as not to offend distant pale sensibilities, or violently, confirming the prejudice against them.
Shots were fired and a black teen hit the ground. The cops explained the shooting, based on a story only they can verify, that they returned fire. Whether the kid they hit shot at them is a matter of faith in cops. The cops say so, and there is no one to question it.
Others continued their protest, blocking the steps to the federal courthouse where all that’s been learned about how blacks in Ferguson were subjugated, used as a cash machine by a white minority which owned the jail cells, did nothing to help. It’s a federal offense to impede the stairway to justice, so they hauled in black activists and gave them summons to come back after everybody has gotten bored and take their smacks when no one gives a damn anymore. [Edit:] And the journalists covering Ferguson, like Wesley Lowery of the WaPo and Ryan Reilly of the HuffPo, too.
Sweet words were uttered by the Department of Justice, condemning flagrant racism in Ferguson, and then everyone walked away, proud of their fine work, leaving the black people of Ferguson to live the same shitty lives as they had before. Even those sympathetic to the cause of Ferguson prefer official solutions, trusting the peaceful and systemic trick of making the noise of change without actually doing anything. Usually, they give themselves an award afterward for being such good white people to the poor black people. The black people never get invited to the party.
So what have we learned? Not a fucking thing. The cops responded with the same excessive display of force, and use of force, as always, because force is so much easier than thought. And the adoration of calm, peaceful and law-abiding, without regard to the circumstances and motivations giving rise to the protest, plays well to the white public. We hate it when blacks get all angry and disagreeable. Jeez, just because cops keep killing unarmed black people? That’s no reason to upset our happy, peaceful lives. It’s not like they’re doing it to us.
Oh wait. That’s happening too. Except white people feel no compulsion to identify by race, so if they kill a white guy, it’s not as if it touches our white lives. And it happens to red lives too, kinda like blacks, but they’re not even on our radar, so cops can kill them at will and nobody except a handful of casino janitors with funny names will give a damn.
But forget what the cops learned, the politicians learned, the officials learned. They never seem to learn much of anything, because their focus is on enforcing their beloved order by sending out the MRAP with a 50 caliber machine gun atop to remind the groundlings who has the juice to make their command stick.
Even good people, when they put on the official hat, suddenly convert to mindless rule lovers, who believe with all their heart that black lives are worth the rules being obeyed. Society will collapse if we don’t enforce the rules. Never mind that society has collapsed for the black people they kill.
But we have learned one thing, though the lesson was staring us in the eyes long before Michael Brown was lying dead in the street in Ferguson. We learned that we don’t learn. The Watts Riots began 50 years ago today. And nothing has changed.
Many public officials and local residents were “shocked” by the showing of black anger. Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. flew home from vacation immediately, informing reporters that “nobody told me there was an explosive situation in Los Angeles.” The journalist Theodore White wrote that blacks in Los Angeles were “treated better by their white fellow citizens than in any other city in the nation.”
But what white Angelenos found surprising, blacks knew all too well. For decades, civil rights activists had challenged Los Angeles’s pervasive racial injustice, even as the news media failed to call city leaders to account for unequal schools, police brutality and housing and job discrimination. In the wake of Watts, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cast the surprise of public officials as dishonest.
That’s fifty years ago. And today. And we watch, some ranting (as I am) or “tsking” as so many others are at how those blacks are just a bunch of criminals, confirming the belief that whatever problems they have are their own damn fault (don’t want to get shot by the cop? Don’t commit crimes, you criminals), most remaining silent.
Such silences are comfortable. It is easier to cast people as “thugs” than to grapple with the ways we as a society haven’t listened and wouldn’t change. It is easier to frame the situation as regrettable but outside our control (the actions of certain bad cops) than to grapple with our responsibility in maintaining an unjust criminal justice system. In doing so, we cast these tragedies as discrete incidents — and escape our larger social responsibility.
Will protests change things? They haven’t yet. Will bullets change things? Only to create more violence. Will violence change things? It only serves to confirm the worst prejudice. Will pleas about our “larger social responsibility” change things? Only if you think police bullets are stopped by clueless whiny narcissists pretending hurtful words are worse than a boot connecting with a guy’s face.
I have no solution. No doubt some fool will inform us of his Menckian answer to a problem that has proven intractable to the best and worst minds among us in a half dozen words. But that the problem exists and hasn’t been solved leads to one inexorable conclusion: we have learned nothing, and maybe we never will.
I can’t blame any protester in Ferguson for doing whatever they feel they need to do to make change happen. If the alternative was to end up dead in the street, what do they have to lose? And how you or I feel about it is irrelevant. It won’t be us lying in a pool of blood, so we don’t get a vote. And even if it is us one day, we wouldn’t care enough to lift a finger until it’s too late.