On August 9, 2014, a white police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. No one called an ambulance. They left Brown’s body lying in the middle of the street, in broad daylight, for over four hours
until Ferguson police finally loaded him into a sport utility vehicle and hauled him away to the morgue. Officials allowed Wilson to leave the scene in the police car he was driving when he confronted Brown, damaging the chain of evidence. Wilson was then put on administrative leave, and he left town. Nearly a week passed before officials revealed his name. That revelation was accompanied by closed circuit security video showing two young men apparently shoplifting cigars from a nearby convenience store. The implication, obviously, was that Brown had it coming. No incident report was filed until ten days after the homicide, and it said very little.
Numerous articles, videos, interviews, and editorials have been published about this event and what happened next: the protests, the extreme police response, and the elected officials and other leaders urging calm and condemning violence (by the protestors, provocateurs, vandals, opportunists and others). All the usual tropes are in evidence. Young black men like Brown are described as criminals and thugs. He was “no angel.” The residents of Ferguson are “f**king animals,” according to a white Ferguson police officer. At first Brown is described as a “gentle giant” who was about to start post-secondary education, implying that if he hadn’t been such a good Negro it might have been justifiable. Then, of course, the “good Negro” trope is countered with stories about Brown’s (typical teenage) behavior, and stories, some of them patently false, and none of them substantiated by eyewitnesses, saying Brown fractured Wilson’s eye socket and was “charging” towards Wilson when he gunned him down. As always happens, someone brings up “black on black violence,” even though it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand. And anyone who dares say anything about race or racism is denounced for “playing the race card” or, even more mysteriously, is accused of causing racial tension.
If you ask the white people in Ferguson how race relations are, they claim there’s never been a race problem there. If you ask the black people you get an entirely different story, complete with detailed personal accounts: of black school boys on bikes being stopped and handcuffed by police, who then search their book bags; of five-year-old black children who already know they should be afraid of the police; and of people being slapped, kicked, restrained, cursed at, and demeaned by police officers for no reason other than inhabiting a black body.
Ferguson at night, with the armored vehicles and police in riot gear, with the tear gas canisters, high-powered rifles, dogs, sound cannons, shouting, arrests, and rubber bullets, was frequently described as a “war zone,” but wars are fought between two more or less equal powers. This was state terrorism. This was a police riot.
Mike Brown’s right to life was summarily revoked at the whim of one white man. After this happened the people who gathered to demand answers and accountability were met with a well-equipped army of “jack-booted thugs” indistinguishable from an invasion force except for the small patches on their shoulders that said “Police.” The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the right to assemble and speak. It guarantees freedom of the press. It says we, the people have the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Yet these rights were revoked or severely restricted in the aftermath of the homicide.
As one commenter observed, the police in Missouri are somehow able to supervise and control large, drunken mobs of white people after sports matches without tanks or tear gas, yet in Ferguson they kept an entire community on lock down, imposing curfews, harassing protesters and media, and arresting hundreds of people for—resisting arrest. At first, unlawful, opportunistic criminal behavior may have been widespread enough in the St. Louis area to justify a fairly vigorous response, but law-abiding citizens of Ferguson themselves quickly put a stop to that. According to some witnesses, there was a night in Ferguson when civilians were guarding stores to prevent looting while police stood by doing nothing. The whole affair was political theater, the kind oppressors have always used to control the oppressed.
State terrorism with a theatrical intent is by no means a new phenomenon. In seminary I took a history class about first century Palestine called “From Jesus to Christ.” The teacher, Dr. Jennifer Knust, called crucifixion a “Roman Public Service Announcement.” Those who opposed or tried to overthrow the imperial occupying force were beaten, tortured, mocked, humiliated, and nailed naked to crosses and left to die slowly and painfully and then be eaten by animals. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that after one failed insurrection in 4 B.C.E., 2,000 rebels were crucified. The message to anyone traveling down that road lined with crosses could not have been more clear.
Leaving Mike Brown’s body lying in the street in the hot sun for over four hours is exactly the same kind of message: It is a White Society Public Service Announcement directed at black people. It is as if the police are saying, “We will do whatever it takes to keep you cowed, disempowered, and docile. Your life means nothing to us. Your family’s feelings, their anguish, their questions, are of no concern to us. Your dead deserve no respect. This young man, having been robbed of his life, likewise deserves no solemnity or dignity after the tragic, untimely extinguishment of that life.” The body in the street is a sign, a warning, a symbol of what those in charge will and can do to enforce the White Society Rules, one of which is, “We decide who counts as persons; and none of you make the cut.”
As Charles Pierce of Esquire wrote:
I keep coming back to one simple moment, one ghastly fact. One image, from which all the other images have flowed.
They left the body in the street.
Dictators leave bodies in the street.
Petty local satraps leave bodies in the street.
Warlords leave bodies in the street.
A police officer shot Michael Brown to death. And they left his body in the street. For four hours. Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours.
That’s exactly right, Mr. Pierce. White society in the U.S. has a great deal in common with dictators, petty local satraps and warlords. And it’s even worse than you might have thought when you wrote those words. The night her son was killed, Mike Brown’s mother and some other women constructed a makeshift memorial on the spot where he died.
They scattered rose petals over the blood stains on the pavement, and set out tea lights. People went there to pray, grieve, mourn, and add other sacred objects. Hurting human beings took ground that had been desecrated by unspeakable violence and inhumanity and reclaimed it, making it holy. That is, it was holy until one white officer allowed his police dog to urinate on it, and someone else drove over it with a police car, crushing it. If, in the face of such contempt, the community chose to burn the whole thing down, I would be sympathetic. But they know that if they show their rage they will only make matters worse. They love their children, they love each other, and many of them still believe in a God that can make a way out of no way, so they persist, they carry on. They go to church and pray for peace and they forgive the unforgivable. I don’t think I could do it.
As Jelani Cobb said, most white people in the U.S. think the first major terrorist attack on U.S. soil occurred on 9/11/01. But black people live with the threat of erasure all their lives, as did their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents—for almost half a millennium. The much-vaunted Second Amendment was enacted to assure slaveholding states that they would be able to keep forming militias to hunt down escapees. The Fugitive Slave Act made it lawful for any white person to detain and imprison black people at will, and hand them over to slave hunters. Being in a “free” state, or having documentation, did not protect against this. Slaves were property, and having black skin created a presumption that you did not own your own body or have any rights.
For one hundred years after the end of the Civil War lynching was common, and it was a spectator sport. People would print and mail post cards using photographs of these events—white people of all ages partying while the dead bodies of the people they had just crucified hung there. Another White Society Public Service Announcement.
We’re still lynching black people, but with “Stand Your Ground” laws, police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty and structural violence. We’re still marginalizing, discounting, victim-blaming, justifying and denying the empirically-verifiable price that black people have to pay for living in a society designed to serve the interests of rich white men to the detriment of people of color.
It’s time for white people to make the effort to understand white privilege and structural racism. It’s time everyone started talking about the role of racism in U.S. history, culture, and society. Racism and colonialism are inextricably bound up in the founding of this country. Chattel slavery—the permanent ownership of people, treating them like livestock, giving their “owners” unlimited rights over them and denying them all rights—was present from the beginning, and has yet to be eradicated. It is our original sin, and most of us haven’t even confessed to it, much less atoned for it. To far too many people in this country, “real” Americans (real people, even) are white. That idea permeates every system and institution that we have. It will not die out naturally. It has to be rooted out intentionally.
*The phrase “terrorism’s theatrical intent” is used by Jelani Cobb in his essay, “Between the World and Ferguson” in The New Yorker August 26, 2014.
For further reading on this subject, the BPC Director suggests: this outstanding essay from the Guardian, on the parallels between police brutality and lynching; this collection of essays in the Nation; this engagement of the issue from a womanist perspective by Dr. Keri Day; this essay from journalist Matt Zollerseitz on white privilege in his own experience; this piece by Nicholas Kristof on “When Whites Just Don’t Get it”; and this, on “12 Things White People can do because Ferguson.”
Amy Durfee West is pursuing a PhD in ethics from Boston University School of Theology, where she earned an M.Div. in 2012. She has a law degree and practiced law in her home town of Denver, Colorado for 28 years. She blogs at www.durfeewest.com and can be found on Twitter as @HeartOverDBars.twitter.com.