Shanice McBean discusses how the protests in Ferguson have been driven by the racism and injustice that permeates everyday life for black people in the USA.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.
“Because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions. If you’re a black person that’s lived in the black community all your life and walk out on the street everyday seeing white policemen surrounding you… you live under a situation like that constantly… then you ask me whether I approve of violence? That just doesn’t make any sense all…” – Angela Davis
It wasn’t a surprise that the headlines of the mainstream media outlets rushed to condemn rioting and looting that took place in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown and the failure to indict his murderer Darren Wilson. What those who toed this tired line continually fail to grasp is that violence is an imminent and daily aspect of the life you live in America while being black and working class. Living at the margins of a society within which black lives don’t matter, violent explosions of anger and rage are not only inevitable, but are justified.
Ferguson is a place where, despite around 67% of residents being black and 29% white, in 2013 black people accounted for around 93% of arrestees. It’s a place where a white person is more likely to have illegal contraband on them than a black person, but black people make up 86% of traffic stops. Throughout America, 1 in 3 black men will at some point in their lives spend time in prison. And to put the icing on the cake, while black people only make up 13% of the population, they make up 40% of inmates.
If you’re not locked up, your prison bars are, instead, moulded by the harsh realities of black poverty in the US today. In recent years Ferguson has seen rapid increases in unemployment and poverty. Welfare barely covers subsistence needs.. All of these strains on the ability to survive have disproportionately affected black families.
This is the violence and brutality black people in Ferguson have to face every day: debilitating poverty, police harassment and murder, disproportionate incarceration. This, in the context of a society in which black skin means your life is disposable relative to the whims of the ruling class.
Caring more for a looted store or broken window than the life of a dead black man is an ideological manifestation of the logic of capitalism. Profit and its pursuit matter infinitely more than working class lives under capitalism. We saw this in the morbid conditions of working class life in industrial Victorian England and we see it today in the sweatshops and factories of the global south. It’s this logic that plays out when people condone the violence of the state but condemn the violence of the people.
This is also the logic of America’s justice system. Murdering black people with impunity and thus continuing America’s long legacy of racist brutality is precisely what justice means within the confines of a system that privileges capital and capital’s interests above black lives.
Those fighting for real justice in Ferguson do so from a similar analysis of the system. Chants of “the whole damn system is guilty as hell”, “we shut shit down” and “burn it down” have emerged as dominant messages from protests. What is being indicted in these chants is not one cop but an entire rotten system. And rightly so. Capitalism benefits from black and working class oppression in as many ways as it helps reproduce black and working class oppression.
In 2014 Phoenix, Arizona, protestors in solidarity with Ferguson shut down a Walmart store to the chant of “no justice, no profit”. In Oakland, California, protestor’s shutdown a railway station for 45 minutes. In St. Louis major malls and stores have been shut down. Similar actions have taken place already in 2015.
Targeting these institutions in this way, with the express purpose of disrupting the everyday running of the system and the production of profit, connects the anti-racism of the protestors to a broader vision of justice: one that demands full freedom from exploitation and oppression. We can see these links being made concretely with struggles for the living wage beginning to cross-fertilise with #BlackLivesMatter protests across America; connecting a confrontation with racist state violence to a confrontation with capitalist exploitation. The struggle for justice in Ferguson is also crossing borders.
In August 2014 when Michael Brown was murdered and the protests first started the police used violent tactics like tear gassing crowds to subdue the anger. Palestinians used social media to send advice to Ferguson protestors for dealing with tear gas. As the protests during ‘Ferguson October’ grew, we saw Palestinian flags appeared on the demonstrations and increasing collaboration between young Arab and black organisations. Even in London where a solidarity protest took place on 26 November following the failure to indict Darren Wilson, chants of “London, Gaza, Ferguson: no justice, no peace” filled the streets.
In San Francisco LGBTQ+ people held a #BlackLivesMatter march where the leading banner which read ‘Black Lives Matter’ was adorned by pink triangles, a symbol used by LGBTQ+ activists. It’s no surprise LGBTQ+ people see an affinity between their struggles and those of black Americans: in 2008 the National coalition of Anti Violence Programs found that of cases of violence reported to them, police were the third most frequent abusers of LGBT people. In 2000 it found that in San Francisco police were responsible for 50% of bias-related violence reported by trans* people. LGBTQ+ people have their own history of police brutality and murder.
The solidarity and internationalism that underpins connecting struggles in these ways is another important part of the Ferguson protests that revolutionaries should, yes, celebrate but also learn from and deepen.
Where the anger and rage leads protesters around the world in 2015 has yet to be seen. But one thing is certain: there is a young generation of leaders and activists who are rising up and taking with them some of the best elements and traditions of black and working class militancy. Some say we need to relate to these people. I say we need to be these people.