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Ferguson: A Lightning Rod in the Social Storm of America

There now seems to be a distinct possibility that, nearly two weeks after unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was killed by six bullets fired by white police officer Darren Wilson, the tense multi-day standoff in Ferguson, Missouri between protesters and heavily-armed police is witnessing a distinct de-escalation. The civil unrest initially focused on the perceived lack of accountability for the killing, exacerbated by long-entrenched racial tensions. Wilson’s name was not released for many days following the incident, and he still has not been charged or even suspended from his position with the Ferguson PD pending investigation. The majority African-American community of Ferguson, served and protected by a 94% white police force, carried out (mostly) peaceful protests demanding at least some rudimentary steps towards what they felt to be justice for the slain Brown. The Ferguson PD responded with a paramilitaristic show of force, rolling in over a hundred cops in riot gear, armored personnel carriers, assault and sniper rifles, and dispersing crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets, and mass arrests.

With outside authorities as high up as the Governor of Missouri, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (who visited the victim’s family and local officials in Ferguson), and even President Barack Obama calling for calm and then taking concrete steps to ensure that (at least the illusion of) a compensatory investigative process is properly commenced, the situation is beginning to normalize. But at its height late last week and into the past weekend, the events in Ferguson took on the appearance of the potentially explosive revolt that seems ever to be simmering beneath the veneer of quotidian American capitalist democracy in contemporary times. It was a lightning rod in a persistent electrical storm of politics, economics, race, social structures, law enforcement and justice, gun violence, and creeping authoritarianism, and the eyes of much of the world were on this St. Louis suburb as flash after flash tore through the darkness.

As with most social crises that spiral out of the control of any of the parties involved in recent years in America, the unrest in Ferguson appeared in a different light depending on the vantage point from which it was viewed. The African-American community (such a monolithic and distorting term; as if every black American feels the same way about every issue) rallied behind Brown as yet another tragic loss at the hands of a law enforcement, justice, and penal system that seems distinctly tilted against them. He was a new Trayvon Martin, another victim of the order of Jim Crow transmogrified and disavowed but forever virulent in the American corpus. With the force of white progressives behind them (especially online, where Twitter’s #Ferguson hashtag has proved essential reading), the protesters’ Hands Up, Don’t Shoot gesture struck a chord with a national community of minorities feeling unduly affected by blithe powers-that-be determined to act upon their agency without regard for their well-being. Some media outlets covering the developments soon rallied to their side when their reporters experienced the heavy hand of the police response firsthand, and commentators warning about the increasing, alarming militarization of police departments across the country could point to a stark object lesson of their views on the matter by the images filtering out of Ferguson.

Many conservative observers were equally troubled by the oppressive response of the police to the demonstrations, and major libertarian figures such as Senator Rand Paul belatedly expressed trepidation about the apparent iron fist of state power crushing the expression and equitable treatment of fellow citizens (although libertarianism’s relationship to American race relations has rarely been sensitive to African-American concerns). But the Fox News Right reacted with a predictable mix of pitiless fascistic glee and thinly-veiled racial prejudice, amplifying reports of looting, disseminating the Ferguson PD’s self-serving impugning of Brown’s character (he had no criminal record, and though he may have been a suspect in a robbery the same night, Wilson knew nothing of this and was confronting him about jaywalking), and generally supporting the righteousness of armed officers killing unarmed black men for simply looking like a criminal (because what else does a criminal look like to a white conservative than a young black male?).

Even if I pretty plainly believe that one of these perspectives is right and the other is dangerously wrong, this does not change the lingering truth that both of them see in the Ferguson unrest a volatile but powerfully demonstrative opportunity to support their ideological predilections. This is a curious but revealing fact of modern American domestic crises that is amplified by the apparatus of instant absorption and response of the internet.

It may be that a crisis like the one now dwindling away into history in Ferguson could once have changed minds, shifted views on the underlying social discrepancies and discriminatory infrastructures that form the roots of the ignited problems at hand. But Ferguson seems to instead have hardened opinion and further entrenched both the opposition to and the support of that extensive root system of restriction that has always lain beneath the superficial freewheeling liberty of America. It’s worth remembering that even the mass slaughter of the Civil War could not fully persuade Americans of a century and a half ago to tear out the roots of racial prejudice and systematic inequality that snaked rhizomatically beneath their growing national project. One fears that the courage (or the necessity) required to commit to this uprooting will require another crisis of such cataclysmic proportions while fervently hoping that it does not.

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