Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has just declared a State of Emergency. It includes the creation of a Unified Command of police forces and the activation of the National Guard to “ensure public safety” in the face of new social unrest.
This can only mean that an announcement is imminent that the grand jury will not indict Ofc. Darren Wilson, killer of Michael Brown. The press and police have been doing their best for weeks to sow fear into residents of suburbs nationwide with lurid suggestions of violence and chaos.
The country, then, is now prepped for the repression of anything that dares challenge the police, to be described as “rioting” or “mindless” violence.
The city and county of St. Louis have spent $325,000 on “riot gear” and sent hundreds officers for special training. Millions more have been spent by city, county, state and federal police since Mike Brown’s murder. Capt. Ron Johnson has presided over the operational merging of the local and regional police forces as school districts develop special plans to protect children.
The last preparation speaks to an entirely non-existent reality of mass attacks on children. (If anything, many children in Ferguson are more likely to join the protests and “disruptions.”)
What the media and government officials refuse to acknowledge is the enormous rage felt by the Black community of Ferguson and surrounding towns of St. Louis County, which has reverberated in Black communities across the United States.
The authorities had hoped that delaying their predictable conclusion of justified action by Wilson would cause the people to grow tired or lose interest. Their police preparations show that they know otherwise.
The declared State of Emergency—the governor’s decision to unleash the state’s legal monopoly on the use of force against the movement—comes after three months of entirely peaceful protest. It shows that the government never had any real interest in acting otherwise, and that the attempt by some movement groups to form a partnership with the police only helped the state prepare for a crackdown.
A ‘choreographed’ protest response?
As reported in the mass media, these political forces, having maneuvered into positions of leadership within the people’s movement, have been coordinating with authorities to shape—“choreograph” as the Washington Post writes—the response to the indictment announcement on the streets of Ferguson.
The terms of such a deal are essentially this: The state recognizes one section of organizers as the leadership of the movement in exchange for these organizers working to minimize those expressions of anger that are outside of their pre-approved actions.
Movement leaders in return have requested “adequate space” for protest action, a “demilitarized response” and—paradoxically—“sanctuary safe spaces” for protesters to retreat to. In reality, these would be places to corral protesters when the police unleash their military equipment and training on those they deem violent.
The police, recognizing the potential for mass resistance outside of these channels, have responded in their typical manner, and rejected the idea of limiting their militarized presence or tools of repression. They do, however, like the idea of the moderate forces trying to put a lid on the militancy of the demonstration.
The proposal of those partnering with the police may seem innocuous at first, simply a concern for protesters’ safety in the face of superior force. In reality, it is a dangerous ploy to divide the struggle, designating some as peaceful (read “legitimate”) and others as violent. The presentation of “good protester versus bad protester” simply helps the police crush more militant protest.
When St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Dotson said that most of the protest groups were “respectful,” he was merely preparing the groundwork for such action against the “disrespectful.”
It is sometimes necessary for social movement leaders to meet with the police and other state forces to secure permits and so on. But it is a complete deception to propagate the idea that the state can be a genuine partner for peace that will protect and respect protesters. The state uses all such meetings to gather intelligence on the movement, to hem in its range of activity, to foster divisions and set the groundwork for repression.
The state in effect was given an extended opportunity to talk peace while preparing for war.
Lessons of Aug. 17
One significant protest on Aug. 17, just one week after Mike Brown was murdered, shattered the myth that the police respect any protest in Ferguson. Almost 3,000 people marched peacefully down W. Florissant Avenue, starting four hours before the midnight curfew. As they neared the end of the street 45 minutes later, militarized police vehicles suddenly appeared blocking the street. Without warning, cops outfitted as if in a war zone fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the crowd, hitting many and causing serious injuries. Others, trapped and unable to retreat from the fire, were arrested. It was pure police terror unleashed on a community seeking justice.
Mike Brown was not a “violent” protester. In fact, he was not protesting at all. He was walking home down his neighborhood street on a summer day. He was headed for college. He had a future. To be gunned down, shot multiple times with his hands up, and then left more than four hours uncovered on the hot asphalt was a cold-blooded act of police murder.
Every young Black man in Ferguson knows that could have been him. That is why the youth rose up and protested day after day, night after night. That is why they defied the curfew to simply stand with hands up despite the tear gas and rubber bullets. After several days of protest, the state was forced to lift the curfew. Then the police banned people from standing longer than five seconds (!) on W. Florissant. They criminalized standing, not throwing rocks. Just standing.
Potential for rebellion
What the police and authorities want, of course, is no protest, and least of all, a protest of the youth of Ferguson and their families, who are also fed up with the daily repression that has existed for years.
If nothing else, this reveals the gap between the authorities and the enraged Black community. The community’s rage has been clearly expressed week after week but has been completely ignored by the system. If Ofc. Wilson is not indicted, this will be just another confirmation of these feelings and of the reality that the system is in every way working against them.
What the authorities and apparently some of the protest leaders fear is that this anger will boil over and unrest will ensue, including property destruction.
The entire point of protest is not to “have your emotions heard” but to attempt to leverage the power of the people to disrupt and change the status quo. This sometimes means mass protests with permits, civil disobedience and other non-violent actions. These actions have their importance and place, but the forms of resistance against systematic injustice often run ahead of well-laid plans.
Resistance is justified and ‘productive’
It is entirely false that “unauthorized” forms of resistance are futile or counter-productive. To the contrary, the last era of uprisings—what the government called “riots”—in the 1960s was integral to social change, and helped propel a new revolutionary movement into existence.
These uprisings also forced concessions from the ruling class. In the wake of the 1967 Detroit uprising, the Big Three auto makers made major attempts to employ Black Detroiters, including “ghetto” youth. Following the Harlem uprising of 1964, a large-scale program of government programs for inner cities was launched. Perhaps most notably, the final stimulus for the passage of the Fair Housing Act came from the uprisings that took place in the wake of the murder of the Dr. Martin Luther King. The Chicago Freedom Movement, guided by Dr. King and the philosophy of non-violence, laid bare the wounds of segregation in the North. But it was the uprisings of 1968 in the wake of King’s death that impressed on the powers-that-be that the wound had to be stitched up or its infection would endanger U.S. capitalism as a whole.
At an SCLC staff retreat in 1966, Dr. King told his lieutenants to reject arguments that Black Power was responsible for the “white backlash” against civil rights happening that year. Instead, he said they should recognize that Black Power was the expression of those who felt the inadequacy of the pace of change.
The timelines of those facing the despair and rage of expression and exploitation often runs far ahead of organized political forces or processes.
Ferguson and a new leadership
Ferguson became a rallying cry across the country exactly because it represented that feeling of “enough!” and set a new standard for defying the state in the face of yet another police murder. It pushed the bounds of the permissible and showed that a new movement was emerging.
It is natural that in such moments there will be many competing ideas about how to chart a course forward.
But the historical pattern is that the ruling class, once it recognizes that a movement is too strong to go away, always then constructs and legitimizes a “moderate” leadership, which receives favorable media coverage and access to considerable infrastructure in exchange for keeping the movement in acceptable bounds, isolating radicals, and sharing information.
Those who have drawn the movement into a partnership with the police to coordinate “peaceful“ responses and set the red-lines for permissible action, are helping the system retain complete control.
Leadership with a revolutionary outlook must state first and foremost that the people of Ferguson, and similar communities nationwide have every right to rebel against police terror and the economic terror of poverty and marginalization.
They have chosen to rise up and assert their right to live on this Earth as human beings. They reject deference to a system that murderously fails them. They have no time for those who are telling them not to fight back and want to hear only from those who can help them defend themselves and fight more effectively.
Gloria La Riva is a long-time organizer in the people’s movements who participated in the August marches in Ferguson that were violently repressed by police.
Eugene Puryear recently received 10,000 votes as a candidate for D.C. Council and is a leader of the city’s #DCFerguson movement that has repeatedly shut down city streets to demand justice for Mike Brown.