By Syreeta McFadden
“I’ve been dreaming of death. Seeing pictures of death. Seeing pictures of bloody sheets hanging on clotheslines.”
Just days before Michael Brown and his brown body encountered a white police officer and a gun in Ferguson, Missouri, the 18-year-old child said that to his stepmother. She told the world of this foreshadowing during Brown’s funeral two months ago, as anger turned to tears, and this small community ignited a wave of protests and activism that would continue for more than 100 days – and will begin anew, starting right now.
In the months since, all of the leaks and all of the tweets warning that there would be no indictment for Darren Wilson – that instead there would be black“violence” and a perpetual “state of emergency” – have served as constructed preparations to manage our disappointment, for the big reveal that our criminal justice system was still as broken as it ever was. And now that the grand jury’s decision has arrived in the form of a smirking white prosecutor, all of the agony of that wait has culminated in nothing more than the sum of our grim expectations, to ignite cynicism and an old rage.
Today, Mike Brown is still dead, and Darren Wilson has not been indicted for his murder. And who among us can say anything but: “I am not surprised”?
I remember sitting on a grand jury once. The state and county attorneys present their singular narrative, their small bits of evidence, to construct a case that says that the offender is guilty – or not. And when you sit on the grand jury, you’re not given much in terms of a complete accounting of events that could lead to any of the possible charges.
The 12 citizens on the Ferguson jury may have heard more “than any other grand jury has heard about any other case in living memory”, but the state owns the space, and the state does not own us. Wilson may have testified – he may have said he “feared for my life” – but the state has refused to listen to the testimony of a young black man with his hands in the air. The story cannot end here.
A non-indictment is no absolution of guilt, but are you not angry? Are you not sick of being unsurprised?
Ferguson is indeed a microcosm – of the all the narratives about race and America that we fear and suppress. Still: it is not enough to say that, yes, of course the promise of justice – the promise of America, of democracy – has failed its black citizens, again. It doesn’t make the disappointment any less disappointing, nor the rage any less real. But it doesn’t make the moment any less mighty either.
We can choose to say something else. We are choosing to protest.
There are guidelines – for them and for us, for cops and for protesters – but there is no textbook when history unfolds in real time, and there are no rules for coping with a moment as mighty as this. There will be changes, and there is still a federal civil-rights investigation. Right now, though, there are only tears of rage, frustration and anger – or all three at once.
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.
Fifty-three years ago, James Baldwin aptly observed that devastating truth. Fifty-three years later, the sustained rage restarts every 28 hours, because every 28 hours an African American is killed by law enforcement, or a security guard, or a “vigilante” claiming self-defence – or all three at once.
The students I teach at a community college in Manhattan – freshmen, like Mike Brown would have been right now, returning home to his family for Thanksgiving break – are relatively conscious of this regularity, of this apparent normality.
The young people know about John Crawford III, a 22-year-old black man who died after an Ohio police officer shot him for carrying an unloaded BB rifle in the pet-food aisle of Walmart, whose mother misses her son and doesn’t understand why an Ohio grand jury did not indict the cops responsible for this death.
The young people know about Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black father of six who died after a New York police officer put him in an illegal chokehold, whose family awaits in tears of rage as a grand jury still has not indicted any of the cops responsible for that death.
They know about Darrien Hunt and Vonderrit Myers Jr, another unarmed teenager shot dead by a white law-enforcement officer with a gun. After this weekend, they know about 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 28-year-old Akai Gurley. They know about Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell; I am teaching them about Edmund Perry and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But do they know about Ezell Ford in Los Angeles or Marlon Horton in Chicago and all the black and brown bodies gunned down by cops every day since that August afternoon when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown after those 90 seconds on Canfield Drive? Does a grand jury of our supposed peers – an extreme version of the kind I sat on – mean to say that if the cops are never wrong, they never shall experience any penalty or consequences for their errors, especially when they prove fatal? Or do we just expect this and that death, do we just embrace this failure of humanity?
The African American body is still the bellwether of the health, the promise and the problems of the American democratic experiment. The message that the Missouri grand jury has now sent to young African Americans – from Ferguson to my classroom and the rest of the world – is that black lives do not matter, that your rights and your personhood are secondary to an uneasy and negative peace, that the police have more power over your body than you do yourself.
Culpability doesn’t mean much behind a wall of blue, but today, we channel that rage to urge for transformative reforms in law and spirit. Why should we accept these terms that occlude black and brown citizens in the 21st century, in the year 2014? Why should we put faith in our justice system, as it stands, when the laws appear to be so unequally applied? What the fuck is policing that insists on using deadly force for the most minor of offenses? How the hell can such deadly force be excused by the system? What kind of world is this where the cops have more rights than you do?
I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change… We live here together, this is our home. We’re stronger united.
Mike Brown’s father said that, in a video released on Friday with a message “to heal and to create lasting change”. President Obama and attorney general Eric Holder and all the rest offered healing words, too, mostly so that we would protest in peace, which we will – no matter how many of the battle tanks roll back in, no matter how many rubber bullets get fired, no matter teargas canisters are launched into the streets.
Meanwhile, the (white) leaders attempt to offer a smattering of words to mimic something akin to reform. The “insulated, isolated” Missouri governor, Jay Nixon, announced in advance of the decision a commission to investigate why things fell apart so rapidly, that “they are on edge”. The preachy St Louis mayor, Francis Slay, announced plans to expand a jobs initiative, that “we will protectyour right to peacefully assemble”. There will be all sorts of commissions and initiatives, just as there were after Los Angeles in 1992 and Cincinnati in 2001, just as President Johnson announced in 1968 and President Clinton did in ’97.
But in 2014, can any new commission or initiative or reform really provide very obvious and knowable answers that any other commission or initiative or reform couldn’t?
To offer a committee and yet another jobs program to “save” black parents from burying another black child is not a preventive measure when another white police officer will shoot and kill another big brown body on another empty street on another sunny afternoon any minute now. It’s important to invest in the economic wellbeing of communities, and certainly communities of color. And perhaps we do need a national civilian review board that tracks, monitors and investigates police shootings and excessive force cases. We should be doing all that anyway. Public policy changes and institutional reforms must and will happen after Ferguson, and many of the ideas for them will begin in these here pages.
But when the hands are up and the cop still shoots, reform is merely a Band-aid on a malignancy. When there is still no recognition of black humanity – when law enforcement is still so constantly projecting white fears of black criminality – then the answer is not just a happy political narratives. Because Darren Wilson still would have fired 12 times if Mike Brown had been wearing a tie on Canfield Drive.
The governor and other officials may have sent the message that to protest is to be violent, to channel anger in non-violent protest is to be tantamount to criminal action. But they, too, are wrong. Protest is exactly what we nee
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect
That decision, 157 years ago by Chief Justice Robert B Taney, ruled that Dred Scott must return to slavery. It sparked rage and frustration and anger, but it was the fuel for an antislavery movement, for a civil war and three amendments to our Constitution and an overhaul of our systems to align our ideals to affirm that, yes, black lives do matter. And yet the hydra of white supremacy persistently sought measures to subvert citizenship.
The definitive moment for Missouri’s social contract with African American citizens manifested itself in bloody, violent race riots initiated by whites in 1917. Missouri’s defining moment now is what we make of unfit justice, even if it manifests itself in protests beyond what we saw this summer.
At some point, we can talk about answers to our questions. But right now, there is only and will be a righteous anger in the streets of Ferguson, and throughout St Louis county, and in so many places across the nation and the globe. Sustained rage is the fuel – it is the best tool we have to insist for equitably applied justice, to compel police departments to respect the social contract it has with its citizens.
The black youth activism since that August day has been nothing short of remarkable. Since October, organizers have staged protests and creative acts of civil disobedience to compel the communities of St Louis County to confront the future of police-community relationships. It has been enough to remind anybody who is even slightly aware of their surroundings – of the pattern of police abuses, excessive force and systemic racism – that there is not a single community in America where people of color are not at a powerful, pernicious tension with their police department. That we have let another white cop who shot a black kid get off the hook.
And so we protest. Because it is our only recourse. We do not explode in violence, but we do not accept these terms that anticipate and perpetuate failure. We channel a sustained, clear-eyed rage, and we insist that our policies and our enactment of those policies ensure equal protection for the most vulnerable among us and accountability for officers in uniform when they kill unarmed youth with impunity.
We protest so that some day, some years from now, justice is not a surprise, nor a dream, nor deferred. So that justice just is.