Friday, November 28, 2014

The Only Question Left for Ferguson

In September, Henry Kissinger responded to ISIL's beheading of an American by saying "a measured response is inappropriate." This is an insult, Kissinger told NPR, "which requires that we demonstrate that this is not an act that is free.”  He argued further that, "when an American is murdered ... there should be a response that you cannot, you would not analyze in terms of a normal response to provocation.” And the people of Ferguson, MO., would certainly agree. 

The sense of frustration and outrage that Americans feel over the beheading of one of their own by ISIL is the same frustration and outrage that the people of Ferguson feel over the shooting of Michael Brown, only in Ferguson, the brutal treatment of American citizens has been going on for far longer. Yet when Kissinger suggests we should respond with violence to the former he is applauded as a statesman, while the citizens of Ferguson, who are simply applying Kissinger's advice to the latter, are condemned as savages. The real difference between the two, however, is that the violence of one results in broken bodies that the news would never show us on television, and the other results in broken buildings that the news shows us on television all the time.

 More paradoxical is the fact that, although no one really knows what happened exactly between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, everyone knows that the American justice system is overwhelmingly racist. And as a consequence, Black Americans are harassed, brutalized, imprisoned, and even murdered by the police far more often than any other race in America today. Brown and Wilson are not therefore the cause of the problems in Ferguson, they are simply the unfortunate effect. And because they are, the riots in Ferguson are not all that different from Nat Turner's slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.  

Even if Officer Wilson is completely innocent of any wrongdoing in the shooting of Michael Brown (which, given all of the conflicting testimony presented to the grand jury, is something that should have been determined by a jury of his peers) is it really that difficult to understand why people who are forced to endure all the indignities that institutionalized discrimination can impose, would riot? 
Suggesting there must be something wrong with people who respond to such discrimination is like saying there must be something wrong with slaves who riot against their masters. In fact, that is exactly what American physician Samuel A. Cartwright said in 1851. In his book, Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, Cartwright explained that the black slave should be kept “in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission.” Trying to make the “negro” into anything other than "the submissive knee-bender (which the Almighty declared he should be)” resulted in the slave developing an overwhelming urge to flee the benevolent hospitality of his captors.Cartwright called this mental illness “drapetomania."

Although the riots in Ferguson can in no way be condoned or justified, of course, they can be understood. For Ferguson is simply a reminder that we do not live in a post-racial America simply because Obama was elected president. Putting "a black man in the White House" does make up for a system of "racism for profit" - otherwise known as the War on Drugs - that incarcerates untold numbers of black men in the Big House every year. Nor does it compensate for the racially disproportionate manner in which such a "war" has been continuously waged. 

In fact, to suggest there is something wrong with those who riot in reaction to such a system - a system which is obviously more interested in protecting itself from guilt than in protecting those it should presume to be innocent - is not only a failure to understand the underlying cause of the riots, it is to tacitly support the very system of racism that has always produced such riots in the first place. Indeed, there would only be something "wrong" with the people of Ferguson if they choose not to react at all.  

So the only question left to ask for Ferguson, is this: if you were politically powerless to change a system that was designed to exploit you the most, what would you do? 

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