The police in Ferguson, Missouri: illegitimate. The Department of Justice: illegitimate. Gov. Jay Nixon: illegitimate. Barack Obama: illegitimate. This whole system: illegitimate.
This is what people are being taught by what we’re seeing unfold on the streets of Ferguson. People who once accepted the norms of this society and viewed the police and its monopoly of armed might as acceptable are increasingly questioning this and other foundational values of American society.
In the wake of the police murder of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, we’re seeing protestors and residents of Ferguson act with tremendous courage, and their resistance has inspired people all over the world. They have stood up to tear gas, wooden bullets, rubber bullets, police snipers, tanks, machine guns, sonic weapons, military occupation, arrested journalists, curfews, lies, slander, and “reasonable leaders” telling people to not protest too much, to remain calm. The protesters are true freedom fighters, and they have stood up to the armed enforcers of this system. They have been heroic and unbowed, and that is the real story here.
Sadly, Michael Brown’s murder by the police is all too common in America. The fact that he was unarmed at the time is typical. The fact that the police initiated the encounter and no one was threatened until the police arrived is completely ordinary when the police kill unarmed Black and Latino men and boys. The fact that the police try to justify the murder of people they just killed is par for the course. Eric Garner, choked to death by the New York Police Department, July 17, 2014. Ezell Ford, shot to death by Los Angeles police, August 11, 2014. There were others in recent weeks, but this epidemic is not new. Oscar Grant, shot and killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police while handcuffed and lying face down, January 1, 2009. Sean Bell, shot 50 times by NYPD, November 26, 2006. Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Heyward, Jr., shot by New York Housing police, September 27, 1994. The Stolen Lives project has documented more than 2,000 cases of police killings between 1990 and 1999. Most were unarmed. Most were Black or Latino. And as the murder of Trayvon Martin showed, even wanna-be cops have a license to kill Black youths.
America was founded on genocide and slavery. We all know this, but do we all think through the implications of this history for the present? White supremacy was woven into the very fabric of this country, and its Constitution was written to enshrine this. It is a document written by slave owners and friends of slave owners to rule a society run by slave owners where the foundation of the economy was slavery. Four paragraphs into Article 1, and the US Constitution is giving disproportionate congressional representation to slave owners based upon their wealth (i.e. the people they enslaved). So for all this ballyhooed freedom and democracy and “We the people” bullshit, I’m not impressed.
The rationale that justified the savage treatment of enslaved Africans and their descendents regarded them as less than human, with no rights that a white man was bound to respect. This thinking was articulated at great length by Chief Justice Taney in the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857. Legally it pivoted on citizenship, but ideologically it hinged on whether those who governed America viewed Africans and African Americans as human beings deserving of any rights. I recently did a performance at BAM where, among other things, I read verbatim the text of this ruling. I strongly encourage all people to read this decision. It shines great light on the present—and not only because Dred Scott first brought his case to the St. Louis Circuit Court and is buried just a few miles from Ferguson.
“There are no rights that a black person has that a white man is bound to respect,” Taney wrote. I think this is an apt description of how many in law enforcement view Black youth. Evidence ranges from the murders cited above to the daily encounters created by an unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policy that has stopped more than 5,000,000 New Yorkers, the vast majority of whom were doing nothing wrong at the time, most of whom were Black or Latino. Nationwide, the war on drugs systematically targets this population and has resulted in what Michelle Alexander appropriately labels “The New Jim Crow.” And coupled with the laws, police focus, prosecutorial proceedings, sentencing, and parole control has placed 11 percent of young Black men in prison and one third under ongoing supervision of the criminal justice system. This system and its armed enforcers are telling us over and over and over again, we have no rights that they are bound to respect.
The lawyer for Michael Brown’s family, Benjamin L. Crump, poignantly said: “The sheer number of bullets and the way they were scattered all over his body showed this police officer had a brazen disregard for the very people he was supposed to protect in that community. We want to make sure people understand what this case is about: This case is about a police officer executing a young unarmed man in broad daylight.”
If a Black boy can’t walk down the streets of his town without fear of being executed by the police, what rights do we have?
The murder of Brown and the response to it concentrates much of what is going on in the United States today, and it’s why I started this essay discussing legitimacy.
Did Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Brown, see a human being, a person who, if in violation of some law, required him to make an arrest? Or did he see a large Black man whom he could murder and later claim that this was justified?
Did the Ferguson police department see Brown’s death as a tragedy and seek to support the family in their grieving and immediately give them answers about how their son was killed? Did they quickly indict their son’s murderer? Did FPD officials have the decency to release the killer’s name, or did they shield their fellow cop, allowing him to remain free and flee? Did they leave space for people to protest? If the best they can do is murder an unarmed Black youth and then turn guns on people righteously upset by this, then their rule is illegitimate. They treated the protesters of Ferguson as an enemy to be contained with surplus weapons from America’s most recent wars. They deserve no support from the people they rule over. And from the sense on the street, it looks like they have little. When the Ferguson Police released completely unrelated video of Brown possibly stealing some cigars, to smear his character and justify his murder, they deserve no support from the people they rule over.
Seeing that the open good ol’ boy racism that the Ferguson Police Department was employing toward the people they abused for years was further exacerbating the people’s anger and calling into question the legitimacy of this system, President Obama felt compelled to speak about the situation. His advice: “Now’s the time for healing. Now’s the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.” Bullshit! The only reason we are talking about the murder of Michael Brown today is because people stood up and stayed in the streets. In the face of increasing violence from various police forces, the only response is stepping up the struggle for justice. If you are the head of an empire and see that an unarmed youth is gunned down in cold blood by the police and your main advice is for people to be calm, your rule is illegitimate.
It was in response to people’s righteous anger, that the governor of Missouri, in an unusual admission of loss of legitimacy, stepped in and ordered the state highway patrol to handle the suppression of the protest instead of the Ferguson Police. Ron Johnson, the head of the highway patrol, is Black and gave lip service to supporting people’s right to protest. But the highway patrol viewed the protesters with the same contempt that the FPD did and was quickly firing rubber bullets and tear gas like its predecessors. Again, illegitimate. Next up, the National Guard.
In the face of organized state violence and suppression of basic rights, people’s resistance has been genuinely inspiring. There are pictures of people with hands up, defying orders to clear the streets. They chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” There are tweets telling of people helping each other:
@kodacohen: “Woman helped over a wall to escape tear gas in #Ferguson #MikeBrown”
And tweets to challenge media lies:
@jesseberney: “Call this ‘looting,’ I dare you. RT @ShaunKing: Protestors broke into McDonalds to get milk for tear gas victims.”
There have been demonstrations in support of justice for Mike Brown from Howard University to Times Square. The support is international, too, as this tweet from Jerusalem attests: “Don’t Keep much distance from the Police, if you’re close to them they can’t tear Gas. To #Ferguson from #Palestine.”
Among the myriad photographs that tell this story are images of a man in a American flag shirt throwing a tear gas canister back at police. And there are pictures of people holding signs that ask: “Am I next?” Most poignantly and courageously, one of the early images is of Michael Brown’s stepfather pictured with a homemade sign that reads: “Ferguson Police Just Executed My Unarmed Son!!!”
In the face of this uprising, in addition to misleading calls for calm, there have been efforts to divide this resistance. These efforts have come from many talking about outside protesters. There are no outsiders in a battle against oppression. In 1964, the Freedom Summer activists from the North helped break the back of Southern segregation and racism. Most today would uphold that. What is different about people fighting for justice for Mike Brown?
Then there’s the divisive talk of “looters”: whenever people have rebelled against oppression, this term has come up. In 1967 in Detroit in response to police raid on a Black drinking club, in 1992 in Los Angeles in response to the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and people being left to suffer and die, and in Ferguson, Missouri, people have struggled against oppression, and many media sources have sought to malign and undermine people’s resistance by focusing on looting. In all these cases, it is a fair question to ask: “How does this or that action contribute to the fight for justice?” But to be blunt, the question of the day is not looting but the police murder of Michael Brown and the military style assault on people protesting this injustice.
The demonstrators in Ferguson have tremendous moral character and dignity, and I hope that people around the country and world learn from this.
The battle continues to rage in Ferguson and people are demanding that they indict and jail the killer cop. There have also been calls to fire the police chief. Justice for Michael Brown would require nothing less.
As part of carrying forward this fight, I encourage all to participate in the October “Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration, Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, called for by Carl Dix and Cornel West and the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. What would it mean if as part of that, for one week in October, several museums showed work from their collection that speaks to this issue and designated it as part of the Month of Resistance? How could other artists find ways to join in this collective dissent? I will be part of this and I hope other artists and my colleagues in the arts find a way to not let the deaths and injustices described here be in vain.
From my perspective all of this is an important and necessary beginning. But as I’ve said repeatedly, this whole system that cut down Mike Brown is illegitimate and it is worthless. We need revolution to get rid of this system and replace it with a new power that works in the interest of the people. Let’s work toward a world where a Google search for “police kill unarmed youth” returns only results in the distant past.
Dread Scott “makes revolutionary art to propel history forward.” In 1989, the US Senate denounced his artwork for its use of the American flag, and President Bush declared the work “disgraceful.” His art has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, and at the Walker Art Center. His piece I Am Not a Man is currently on view as part of the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. The views reflected in the Artist Op-Ed series are those of the artists and do not necessarily represent those of the Walker Art Center.