In 1965, the Watts Riots convulsed Los Angeles. In 2014, Ferguson, MO is the latest erruption of protest and looting. We will still be here in another 50 years unless the nation’s fundamental inequalities are ameliorated.
The demonstrations in Ferguson are ostensibly about the impunity with which the police executed a teenager, Mike Brown. However, that single act of injustice never would have prompted much sustained attention were it not for the much broader racial inequalities present. Police kill civilians all the time – and indeed have been doing so at an increased rate in recent years – usually without touching national consciousness.
It is quite misleading to view the protests and rioting as a reaction only to the unpunished Mike Brown killing. Focus simply on that case creates the impression that Brown’s killing was unusual or uniquely unjust. However, increased political militancy often arises unpredictably from banal injustices (as in Watts, or the first Palestinian Intifada). The protests have certainly had a salutary impact – there may yet be some accountability imposed by the Justice Department. Certainly, a new generation has gained greater political awareness and refocused attention on the often invisible siege of poor communities.
Still – we will be here in another 50 years so long as the deeper iniquity remains. The country is in a very different place than it was in the mid-1960s. Supremacist views are no longer accepted in polite discourse. Black faces now dot some sectors of the ruling elite. Neoliberal racial justice means the rulers are more diverse. The opinions and feelings of important brown, female, or gay important people must now be accounted for. At the same time, the country has become far more economically unequal. Racial desegregation in many places remains untouched. There are still entire communities who are poor and deeply marginalized, where the police operate as an occupying army viewing the citizens they watch over with contempt. In these communities there is little opportunity within the formal economy for employment that pays living wages. Schools are often little more than warehouses to prepare students for prison or the dead-end service economy. The kids produced by such an environment can often be unlikable. Enmeshed in a degraded, corporate-managed youth culture, young men become ‘thugs’, to use the popular parlance. They are the impoverished version of the ‘bro’. The former is reviled by much of the general public, the latter by the small leftist milieu. Both archetypes are the product of an interplay of image and reality.
As soon as the police released the (unrelated) closed circuit video recording from the convenience store of Brown shoving a clerk while engaging in petty theft, it was clear that the Brown case would not be likely to attract significant sympathy from whites, or indeed perhaps, non-blacks generally. For such individual flash-point cases, a clear injustice is rarely enough to galvanize the public – the victim must also be a saint. Propagandists know this well.
Police impunity and use of excessive force in poor communities is standard. Police operate very differently in a wealthy Connecticut neighborhood. It is the expected dynamic. Police are servants in communities with wealth and influence – in reviled neighborhoods with no influence, the police are rulers. If the community is an ethnic minority within the broader society, they will be treated with still less care. Similar dynamic obtain all over the planet in our contemporary pre-democratic age. That the grand jury did not indict the police officer who executed Brown was in keeping with prevailing patterns. Grand juries almost always indict – except in cases were the police are the suspects; then they very rarely do so. The very consciously pursued policies of racial segregation that are still visible all across the country played an important role in retaining the racial divisions within the country needed to keep the working class weak. Blacks remain far poorer than whites, predictably possessing far less accumulated family wealth, and enduring continued job hiring discrimination. People are often far more sensitive to race than class. The same society that successfully hides massive inequalities vastly exceeding what is understood by the public is forced to take somewhat greater care in managing racial inequalities. The differences between Ferguson and neighboring wealthier white suburbs are obvious. Occasionally people protest. It is something the rulers pay attention to, as such political unrest has the potential to disturb the system. And still we see no change on the horizon.
The killing of Brown and the upheaval in Ferguson are a symptom of something far more fundamental than police violence or the massive incarceration system. Those are merely symptoms of deeper injustice. It is hard to see an end to the oppressive policing and periodic protests without a new labor union movement. Already the membership of the old establishment unions are disproportionately brown and female. A revitalized, democratic, and far stronger and more militant union movement could reverse some of the slide into a new Gilded Age by reasserting workers’ power. And this time, unlike in the egalitarian high-point of the 1950s, the movement could be led by and benefit not just white men but blacks and Latinos. There is precious little indication of this happening any time soon. But then, there rarely is. No one saw the Arab Spring coming either.