OPINION: Individualism, collective dissent, and Ferguson

This opinion piece was originally publish in the Nov. 17 issue of Fourth Estate. 

Over the past two months, more than 1,000 law enforcement officials have undergone 5,000 hours of “specialized training” in anticipation for the announcement of Darren Wilson’s verdict in the murder of Mike Brown. The law enforcement will include Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County Police, and St. Louis Metropolitan Police, as well as the National Guard as potential backup.

This is all in response to planned local demonstrations (in tandem with national demonstrations) being organized to protest the expected indictment of the man who shot an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager six times, refused a request from a nurse to perform CPR, and then left his body lying in the street for four hours, uncovered, in the late summer heat of Missouri.

“This is America,” said Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. “People have the right to express views and grievances, but they do not have the right to put fellow citizens and property at risk.”

The implication of these words and the mobilization of 1,000+ officers before any lawlessness has actually taken place is that the law enforcement is only meant to protect the white majority, irrespective of any toll taken on the rest. Those in Ferguson protesting the cold-blooded murder of their children on the streets cannot expect to find any state protection for their collective display of discontent, because any collective movement in this country against the institution of white supremacy is not (and has never been) tolerated by the state.

Police violence against black Americans is not an isolated outlier. It’s an entire institution, backed up with overly militarized local police and a lack of federal oversight. It has to be expected that when you arm aggressive white boys almost directly out of high school with military equipment and set them loose on the streets, the result will be violence against civilians, sometimes accidental and sometimes intended. In the same month as Mike Brown’s murder, there were at least four other unarmed black American men killed by the police.

John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio was shot in the chest while holding a BB gun inside a Walmart that sold BB guns. Ezell Ford was lying on the ground when he was shot in the back after being stopped by the police. Dante Parker of California was “mistaken” for a robbery suspect, detained, and tased repeatedly, after which he was taken to a hospital where he died. Eric Garner of Staten Island was suffocated to death after being held in a chokehold by an officer while he repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe!” The video of Garner’s murder is still floating around the internet, in case you somehow missed it.

Although these murders are almost commonplace, the highly militarized, brutal repression with which law enforcement in Ferguson reacted to largely peaceful protests and displays of civil disobedience following Mike Brown’s murder was shocking all the same. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and the arrests of Ferguson residents, journalists, and even religious clergy – these events rang some unfamiliar bell in the backs of our minds. They were events we remembered hearing of long ago, events that we were taught were part of history, only taking place in black and white. They didn’t belong in color. Something had to be different today.

But nothing is different today. The events in Ferguson, both Mike Brown’s murder and the subsequent crackdown of the police, indicate that the police still exist only to protect white America at the expense of everyone else. This was the case during the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama when black students protested for desegregated schools and were met with police dogs, and it’s the case today in Ferguson, Missouri, when black Americans protest for their children to be able to walk down the street without the risk of being shot and are met with tear gas. When Governor Nixon reprimands protestors to not put “their fellow citizens and property at risk,” he is valuing the comfort of white Missourians above the lives of black children.

Both then and now, one of the many roots of this issue is that white America is unable to tolerate any form of collective dissent that disrupts the status quo. This is due to an almost militantly individualistic lens through which it perceives the world. Through this lens, white America sees individuals operating independently of any economic, political, or institutional structures. It forces them to understand what happens to individuals as not attributable to societal systems, but only to other individuals operating independently. It prevents them from being able to contextualize how individuals choose to act, and attributes action to some inherent trait or quality in them.

Rigid individualism forces liberal, white America to see the killing of Mike Brown as an unfortunate, isolated event, rather than a reoccurring targeting of black youth by white police officers. Rigid individualism forces white America to see the brutal crackdown by law enforcement on Ferguson protestors as a necessary means to prevent looting, thereby valuing the comfort of the white American and his property rights over the life and civil rights of the black American. Rigid individualism prevents white America from seeing the structural economic inequalities between black Americans and white Americans that create the conditions for looting.

At their core, the events of August 9th were very straightforward based on the facts that we know. An unarmed teenager was shot six times by a police officer and his body was left in the street for hours. Any justifications of this murder that have been constructed around these facts are based entirely on hearsay or speculation, and have no credibility. Whether or not he had robbed a convenience store (he hadn’t), or if he was “lunging at the officer” (a claim rejected by many eyewitnesses), or if he tested positive for marijuana (how is this relevant?), nothing justifies shooting an unarmed teenager six times. Absolutely nothing. Those making justifications for Darren Wilson are not being diplomatic, but harbor a sinister prejudice allowing them to trivialize the extrajudicial execution of an 18-year-old black boy.

Featured image courtesy of Thomas Hawk. Some rights reserved. No changes were made. Creative Commons License.