A Teenager Slain
On Saturday, August 9, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was walking with a friend on the 2900 block of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri. He was on his way home on the hot, humid afternoon, walking down the middle of the street when the two were approached by Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. Reports of what happened next continue to change, but in the final analysis, Brown tried to flee, the officer raised his firearm, and a series of gun shots shattered the peace. Six bullets pierced the young mans flesh. The teenager fell face down on the hot asphalt as the officer towered over his slain body, radioing it in, preparing for paperwork.
Brown was unarmed. Witnesses say he had his hands raised in the air at the time he was shot.
Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!
The day following the shooting, police stated the officer had been pushed inside his car during a scuffle, noting Brown was shot multiple times after the incident and died on scene. A candlelight vigil was held for Brown later in the evening. After the vigil community members began protesting against police violence. In military garb, the police were ready to fight. As community members and police clashed, a riot ensued. When guns were aimed at the crowd, many protesters dropped to their knees and raised their hands toward the night sky, chanting, “hands up, don’t shoot!”
On August 11, protests against police spread throughout the town of Ferguson. In what are now dramatic images all over the Internet, a militarized police force launched tear gas at unarmed protesters. As violence erupted, it became clear that police were no longer “keepers of the peace” but rather “enforcers of the law.” As opposed to protecting property owners, police sought crowd control by aggressive tactics, aiming loaded automatic weapons at protesters. Violence escalated throughout the night.
By August 12, the eyes of the world were on Ferguson. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is now burned into all of our memories. Police in full combat gear, referred to as “warrior cops,” with automatic rifles, tear gas, and military vehicles turn their weapons toward an unarmed populace — “Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!” The image is too powerful for words.
Nationwide social media explodes. Solidarity movements pop up around the country. At Howard University, students gather together and tweet a now iconic photo with #handsupdontshoot — it quickly goes viral. Many in the United States begin to question why the police are so heavily armed — “Why does a working class neighborhood look like a war zone? Why are so many guns pointed at United States citizens? My God, that could happen here. He could have been our son.” The warrior cop is now on the minds of millions.
On August 13, there is even more outrage as journalists are arrested at a local McDonald’s. The press is not free to report and information is being withheld from the public. That night, police violence again escalates. Somewhere in the crowd a protester fills a glass bottle partway with gasoline, inserts a soaked rag or t-shirt and lights a molotov cocktail, hurling it at police. Police respond with more tear gas and smoke bombs.
On August 14, there is a sea change. A block party of sorts starts as a less combative highway patrol, led by Ferguson native Captain Ron Johnson, patrol the streets as opposed to police force. The peace was short-lived, however, as a video of the murder is released to the public. The police came back, aggressive tactics were again used on the crowd and, as of August 19, the National Guard has now made its way into Ferguson.
Police order is crumbling, however, as there is growing strength in protest and crowds. “Hands up, don’t shoot!” is the theme of the revolution. The tables have turned, the state is looking for a fight — the protesters are looking to challenge the existing order . As explained by Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker who is present in the Missouri town:
The conversation here has shifted from the immediate reaction to Michael Brown’s death and toward the underlying social dynamics … disparity in education funding for Ferguson and more affluent municipalities nearby … Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said. Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community.
We are all watching.
Hotter Than a Match Head
Dressed in camouflage pants and black body armor, wearing gas masks and military visors, it is clear the local police in Ferguson, Missouri are not out patrolling a beat to keep the peace, they are prepared for war.
This is no hyperbole, the very uniforms worn by police (and now the National Guard) can escalate the risk of violence in this already tense situation. As reported by Vox, former Seattle police chief Norman Stamper warns that when police dress in military uniforms, they contribute to an atmosphere of hostility. Stamper warns of the Warrior Cop mentality, noting the military garb can lead police to “view the community as the enemy. In the process they [police officers] become an occupational force where they are in charge — in the name of control, in the name of public safety, taking actions that actually undermine legitimate control.”
Accompanying the outfits is the military issue M-4 Carbine. The rifle is a favorite of United States military personnel. Weighing in, loaded, at roughly 7.5 pounds, the M-4 enables the police in Ferguson to engage the public in both close quarters and at extended range. It is an exquisite weapon, slowly replacing the M-16 as the military firearm of choice because it is shorter and lighter than the standard issue rifle. It is an automatic, and can also pump out three round bursts. The rifle is accurate and lethal. In the hands of police, it is being pointed at everyday people like you and I at will. Whether packed with live rounds, rubber or wooden bullets it is sure to instill fear.
Also making headlines is police use of tear gas. This past Sunday, August 17, an eight year old boy was left hysterical, sobbing and gasping for breath when a gas canister burst where he was standing. Tear gas is a chemical mist or gas that is utilized to irritate the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. When used, the gas is fired from shells that serve as dangerous projectiles in their own right. Once ignited, the chemical agent not only produces tears, but can cause coughing or choking if inhaled. The symptoms are usually temporary, but they are frightening and in severe cases tear gas can cause asthma attacks, eye/nerve damage and chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, Vox further informs:
The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, to which the US is a party, prohibits the use of tear gas in combat. However, that treaty contains an exception for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes,” which allows tear gas to be used by police officers in situations like the Ferguson protests.
That means that using the gas in Ferguson doesn’t necessarily break the law, but the U.S. army would be violating a treaty if it used the same tactics in Afghanistan.
In addition, police are driving around in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs). These are military vehicles built to withstand land mines or homemade bombs. These rigs were designed specifically for the Iraq invasion, making their debut in the desert nation in 2007. They now line the streets of a working class American neighborhood, transporting warrior cops from street to street, intimidating American citizens.
And the protesters? It is August in the south. It is hot, but more than just the heat, it is thick and humid. The combat gear, the M-4s, the tear gas and the MRAPs are being deployed against folks in flip-flops, shorts and tank-tops.
It is this image, the warrior cop against the working class civilian, that has sparked outrage across the nation. The cops are not the good guys this time. The politicians, such as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, are having their motives questioned. All eyes are on Ferguson, not because of civil unrest that threatens the fabric of a nation — but because of the nation. For the first time there is a clear line in the sand: It’s the state against you.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald recently wrote that the events unfolding in Ferguson are “the destructive by-product of several decades of deliberate militarization of American policing.” He is accurate in his statement. When Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the federal government started arming police with military grade weapons. A provision in the NDAA allowed the military to transfer gear from the Department of Defense to local police, largely to fight the drug war. After 9/11 and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, police militarization was used for counter terrorism measures.
Nearly half a billion dollars worth of military gear was distributed to thousands of police departments in 2013 alone. As we can see, these weapons are not used for drug regulation or counter terrorism — they are used on an engaged populace. The people of Ferguson are rightly protesting the murder of one of their own by the hands of a cop. They now have an army of cops escalating violence in their grief-stricken community.
But the eyes of the world are with them. Solidarity campaigns are popping up everywhere. The United States government has been fending off a major rebellion for some time now. The events in Ferguson show systemic racism and classism. The events have opened old wounds while bringing new ones into discussions at the dinner table. Around the country, people are becoming less docile and we are questioning each other: “How does something like this happen, and more importantly, what are we to do?”
A Power Greater Than the State
It seems all the combat gear has done nothing to deter direct protest. To date, more than 50 people have been arrested in protests following the death of Michael Brown. Protesters have even chose to directly engage the police station. “They brought this on themselves,” says Adam Burcher of Ferguson. He has been standing outside the Ferguson Police Department with a sign that reads “Stop Killing.” In fact, even outside of Missouri, solidarity protests have popped up around the country and there are those who sympathize with protesters around the globe. The state has ensured its own fate in this situation, it responded in typical top-down fashion — use violence to create quiescence within the community.
Instead of quiescence state action has sparked rebellion. Some protestors are meeting police force with violence, others with peace, all with resolve. Protesters have not been swayed by aggression, but in a twist that happens all too often, they have actually been empowered by it. When out gunned, the power of the crowd pulled them through. “Hands up, don’t shoot!” has painted the perfect picture for the eyes of the world.
What we are witnessing in Ferguson is the pure power of democracy. A movement has been born in the crowd. Contrary to what is being reported in the media, there is not true chaos in the streets. The elements of violence have been exacerbated by the police. What we do see, however, are cooperative individuals trying to achieve a mutual goal — the end of systemic racism, classism and liberation from police violence. The protesters have not lost their minds, they are united. There is solidarity in revolution and it proves social power is greater than state power.
In the days since the shooting the local QuikTrip gas station/convenience store, looted and burned on the second night of protest, is, now, a gathering place for organizers and activists within the community. As again explained by Jelani Cobb:
The front of the lot bears an improvised graffiti sign identifying the area as the “QT People’s Park.” With the exception of a few stretches, such as Thursday afternoon, when it was veiled in clouds of tear gas, protesters have been a constant presence in the lot. On Sunday afternoon the area was populated by members of local churches, black fraternity and sorority groups, Amnesty International, the Outcast Motorcycle Club, and twenty or so white supporters from the surrounding area. On the north side of the station, a group of volunteers with a mobile grill served free hot dogs and water, and a man stood on a crate, handing out bright yellow T-shirts with the logo of the National Action Network, the group led by Al Sharpton.
Folks are reclaiming their town. As much as systemic racism is part of the story in Ferguson, so is systemic poverty and abuse of power. As mass demonstrations rise (and they will continue to rise) we will witness a game change in our towns. We will seek the decentralization of power, rid ourselves of corrupt politicians, liberate markets, boycott exploitative business practices and seek equality. In order to do this, there will have to be a reclaiming of the commons — and that is exactly what is happening in Ferguson.
Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher famous for his observation that there are no neutral places in the city. Power moves throughout public spaces, rendering them not public at all, but rather places of state. Capital again secures one status in the city, causing a rather large problem in low-income communities. Lefebvre argued being a community member should not be dependent on property ownership or access to capital, but by democratic participation. In reclaiming the convenience store, by taking to the streets at night and standing up to police and state enforced curfew, the protesters are sending a clear message: This is our town.
A fundamental issue being addressed right now is power and property dynamics. Will the folks in Ferguson be able to maintain control of their town from the state? Can they prevail against state power and state capitalism? As tax money is thrown at more affluent areas, can an Ostromite interpretation of common ownership build a more perfect community, liberated from top-down decree? Will it hold? Can the powers that be allow it? This is of course radically complex, but we have seen sparks of hope before — 300 citizens took back Taksim Square in Turkey, after all, while the burn of tear gas still occupied the air.
The ramifications of what is occurring in Ferguson go far deeper than the politics normally addressed, if sustained, it will start a wave of revolution — it may join the ranks of the Occupy and Liberty movements in the United States. Another age of change may have a chance to rise.
For the Long Haul
There is a growing sentiment today within political circles that folks are tired of tried and failed conservative institutions, existing solely to uphold the existing social order. There is also a distrust of high liberalism, seeking to empower these institutions even further. The ranks of people who no longer endorse the existing halls of power grow with each passing day. We do not want to play witness to a simple change in institutional order, we want to take our place in history and change how we organize our lives.
There is no electoral way to move forward on this goal — only direct action. Only in rendering institutions useless, only by starting our own alternatives will we be successful. There is no single answer to the problems that have given rise to the situation in Ferguson, there is no way top-down decree will ever successfully manage the lives of individuals who simply long to be free of institutionalized repression. Addressing problems from the top down, via the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror, and so on and so on only exacerbates the problems of everyday people.
No more can we look to vertical power structures. We need a polycentric approach. How liberating it will be to embrace the idea that we can manage ourselves! Is this not the very essence of the “hands up, don’t shoot!” movement? Is it not the idea that social power is the answer to police violence, racism within the justice system and class warfare? I think it is, we are looking at systems of power, noting how they are all related and seeking our individual and collective liberation. As we walk into this period of revolution, once we really start talking to one another, we will scale these problems up to all institutions — damn right a change is going to come!
I think it is healthy that we are doubting the dogmatism. Conservatives don’t think so, we are leaving their institutions behind. Liberals fear the populace, for we seek to strip them of their beloved institutions as well. It is libertarianism that empowers us the challenge and question the existing order, and it is anarchism that will allow us to dismantle systems of illegitimate authority and oppression. In Ferguson we are not taking the bait, we don’t believe the police are just trying to maintain the peace — a look at one photograph makes that notion ridiculous. Power should lie with the protesters.
Social power is continuing its rise against state power. The revolutionary spirit is incredibly human. It is my hope that we continue to reclaim the commons. If solidarity movements can spread like wildfire in the face of combat police, I have no doubt that we will win in our march toward liberty. In doing so, property and community will no longer be utilized to keep us apart, by reclaiming them we will come together. There is no greater way to invade the state than to demand agency. For this reason, and so many others, I am in solidarity with folks on the streets of Ferguson, in the hollers of Appalachia, the canyons of Utah, in the streets of Gaza, the halls of Israel and where all seek the destruction of illegitimate authority.
At this time, may we pursue absolute liberty? May we achieve the goal of dismantling coercive power structures as opposed to altering them? The current potential for societal change is astounding.
I don’t know what has given rise to past revolutionary movements. I don’t know what sparked radical politics at Berkeley in the 60’s, protests against the Vietnam War, peace movements, opposition to racism in the deep south, slave rebellions, establishment of the underground rail road, women’s liberation, confronting combat troops in the streets of Ferguson and so on — but in the face of all these entrenched systems of power people did rise. Today the people rise again.
It is time to earn whatever lies beyond the next great social movement. We will be better because of it — Hands up, don’t shoot!