Most of the mainstream commentary about Ferguson has been news reporting telling us what is actually occurring, often with bias, but sometimes reasonably accurately. In contrast, alternative commentary has focused far more on context including racism, poverty, and especially the militarization of police in the U.S.
Knowing what is happening is important. Explaining background and in this case revealing how providing local cops massive armaments causes them to see themselves as courageous threatened warriors and to see the constituencies where they work as targets of opportunity, is paramount.
One could reasonably add to those focuses trying to discern how significant sectors of the public could be anything but outraged at the trends so graphically revealed in Ferguson. Is it hypocrisy that causes many to dismiss the protestors or even revile them. Is it greed, fear, ignorance?
There is, however, another possible focus that merits attention. And I am not just referring to the incredible courage of average folks in Ferguson who demonstrate in the face of a military occupation. Nor am I referring just to Ferguson residents’ resilience, night after night, which is quite incredible.
Beyond those virtues Ferguson demonstrators are not occupying high vantage points and shooting at the army below. They are not chanting about today’s pigs being tomorrow’s bacon. Ferguson dissent, instead of adopting self defeating patterns from the past, has been strategic even in the face of outrageous provocation. Indeed, the reason that more demonstrators aren’t getting carted off to hospitals and morgues is not some lid on police violence but, instead, the restraint of the protestors.
There is rage in Ferguson. There is desire for revenge. There is opportunistic redistribution of wealth by adroit theft carried out amidst chaos. I think the rage is warranted. I understand desires for revenge, too. Even more so, I think adroit redistribution is quite reasonable. Indeed, I often wonder why hungry people, ill people, and cold people, don’t steal more often, and more collectively? It is an issue very much worth exploring, another time.
What strikes me as quite unusual In Ferguson, however, even seeing it only from a great distance, is that the rage is not all wild and counter productive. Even without leadership from the likes of highly trained and committed SNCC and the other elements who caused the early civil rights movement to operate non violently because violence would be counter productive, the protestors in Ferguson seem to have quite quickly intuited, imbibed, or otherwise arrived at that strategic conclusion for themselves.
Does it register as remarkable to other commentators that despite the violence that everyone sees all the time in American media, despite the generalized ignorance imposed by horrific American public schools, Despite th competitive anti social mentalities of market madness, and even despite the passions stirred to combustible levels by police provocations and hypocritical media coverage, the demonstrators seem to have largely settled on tactics capable of winning widespread support rather than tactics merely expressing rage? Will this politically sophisticated tone persist?
Here is perhaps the most grotesque thing about the repression that has been unleashed in Ferguson – and it is rather like the logic of Gaza, another occupied territory. If militarized policing has one overriding short term strategic purpose – after immediate intimidation, of course – it is to provoke a subset of the “targets of opportunity” to real violence. The idea is to inflame them enough to shoot a cop – just one cop. Then use that event to justify unleashing much more power. Hell, once the demonstrators do something that can be exploited as a justification, great, turn off the water and electricity in Ferguson. Roll tanks with live ammunition up and down the streets. Shoot little looters to kill (but of course not big ones, like, say, pharmaceutical companies and banks). And in those ways, bring the resistance to an exhausted and bloody close while “teaching” that resistance to injustice hurts a whole lot.
The broad lesson to take from Ferguson is that in the U.S., protestations to the contrary aside, those who have power aren’t the slightest interested in equity and justice, or even in democracy as a real determinant of social outcomes. Instead elites want to maintain and expand their power and wealth, and will do whatever that requires. If a vote will go their way, great. In that case, they say, let’s vote, and even celebrate the process. But if a vote won’t advance their agenda, no problem. They say, let’s switch gears. It is power time. They will of course manufacture public support for their choices via mainstream media. But, unless massive opposition threatens to grow without limit, elites will just impose their will regardless.
Ferguson displays state power versus local people. If state power can claim that the local people are crazy and viciously violent by using racism and lies against them, and therefore that the local people can only be restrained by massive violence, well, that is terrific for state power, because massive violence is what they are best at. In fact, massive violence – and lying – is pretty much all they are good at. Thus, as noted above, they like to provoke, and then to repress more.
What you won’t see in Ferguson, however, unless local people make it happen, is a call for neighborhood assemblies in the affected areas to judge the situation in light of full information about the daily life situation of the people of Ferguson, and to then call for and agitate for policies that would be forthcoming on the basis of the popular will of those primarily affected – for example, perhaps community control of police. Such a democratic impulse will not, however, come from the authorities and media pundits no matter how constantly they trumpet how much they love democracy.
Perhaps the ongoing struggle in Ferguson will in time augment street demonstrations with that kind of grassroots gathering, assessment, and then policy advocacy. If that happens, thereafter we would have on the one side raw military might, and on the other side not just courageous demonstrations, but the organized and sustainable power of the people.