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Paul Street: Ferguson Reflections: Race, Class, and the Crisis of Democracy

Z Communications Daily Commentary

This essay was written on Wednesday, August 20, 2014.  Numerous developments in the fast-moving Ferguson situation will certainly have occurred in intervening days and nights prior to this essay’ s publication.


No Mystery

Last Monday evening on the Public” Broadcasting System’s nightly Newshour, Brian Fletcher, the white former mayor of Ferguson, Fletcher, said that “I don’t think anyone quite knows the answer why calm is not coming” to his home town.  He left the impression that the main cause behind the continuing unrest was – you guessed it – “outside agitators.”

It was a remarkable statement.  There is nothing remotely mysterious about what  has caused the continuation of popular protest and battles with local, county, state, and now (with the calling in of the National Guard, supported by Fletcher) national authorities in Ferguson.  The “forces of order” have been the consistent provocative and driving influence.

Beyond the initial execution-style murder of Michael Brown, there was the Ferguson police’s decision to leave Brown’s body lying in the street in a pool of blood for hours. Then came the official police story that Brown had been shot after fighting with a white officer and “reaching for his gun” – a narrative that did not match what many eyewitnesses saw.

Then there was the Israeli-style response to the initial protests. Ferguson and above all St. Louis County cops went into full paramilitary mode. They donned helmets, shields, flak vests, gas masks, and shields, using armored vehicles as they dispersed crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets. SWAT team members brandished high-powered assault rifles, aiming their military-issue weapons at unarmed civilians.

There was the long delay in releasing the name and the race of Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson.  Then there the Ferguson police department’s inflammatory decision to show a video of Brown stealing a snack from a local convenience store (in what the police called a “strong arm robbery”) on the day he was killed.  That release was obviously intended to “change the narrative” in favor of the police, as if petty theft somehow merits summary execution.

And there was the autopsy commissioned by Brown’s parents, showing that Wilson shot Michael six times, including shots to the head as he bent over in surrender.


Links in a Long and Deadly Racist Chain

It would be a mistake to view the events in Ferguson as some kind of freakish anomaly in the supposedly color-blind US. The Malcom X Grassroots Movement calculates that on average a Black US civilian is killed by a(n almost always white) police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante once every 28 hours. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are tragic links in a vast chain of Black corpses still created by local, county, and state police in the Ages of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama 44. Recent victims include Denzel Curnell (killed by South Carolina police in Charleston last June), Terrence Shurn (whose death at county police hands sparked off two days of rioting and a massive local and state police response in Benton Harbor, Michigan in June of 2003), Sean Bell (killed in a 500-bullet NYPD barrage just hours before he was supposed to be married in November of 2006), Ezell Ford (shot to death by an LAPD officer earlier this month and Eric Garner (choked to the death by the NYPD last July), Dante Parker (Tased to death by counter police Victorville, CA earlier this month) and Kajieme Powell (killed by 10 police bullets after stealing pastries and waving a knife around in St. Louis last Tuesday), and …the list goes on and on.

The killings take place a context of persistent harsh racial segregation and related savage racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households. They take place against the backdrop of a four-decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking. More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

The militarization of local police that has been highlighted in the US “mainstream” media during the Ferguson drama has been a strongly racialized phenomenon for decades. To no small extent, the process was sparked off by white racist reaction to the Black Civil Rights movement and the urban Black uprisings of the 1960s. Warrior-style policing has been fueled ever since by the racially disparate so-called War on Drugs – the leading force behind United States’ ugly emergence as the world’s mass imprisonment leader (a curious attainment for the self-described “land of freedom”).


Beyond Big Cities

The misery inflicted on the nation’s many millions of poor and working class Blacks by persistent interrelated race and class apartheid and oppression – the institution and societal racism that lives on beneath the emergence of Black Faces in High Places (including even the White House, where the nation’s “first black president” has predictably shown himself even less willing to seriously confront the nation’s steep racial disparities and their real causes than the more fully white presidents who preceded him) – is commonly identified with classic vast ghetto swaths in big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Detroit.  In reality, however, concentrated Black poverty, joblessness, and related racial apartheid is pervasive in numerous smaller US jurisdictions. If you want to talk to heavily segregated and deeply poor, criminally marked, and police-abused Black Americans, you don’t have to go major metropolises. You can visit smaller cities and towns like East St. Louis, Illinois, Benton Harbor, Michigan (containing astounding hyper-segregated Black misery in close proximity to lush Lake Michigan resorts and the sprawling modern headquarters of the Whirlpool Corporation), Flint, Michigan, Michigan City, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Inkster, Michigan, Rock Island, Illinois, and Camden, New Jersey.  You can also travel to predominantly Black suburbs adjacent to big cities like Maywood and Bellwood, Illinois (extensions of Chicago’s vast West Side ghetto), numerous suburbs south of Chicago, and Ferguson (north of St. Louis, whose main black ghetto is on its North Side).


The Real Looters

Another mistake is to see the militarization of US local policing as an almost unconscious and creeping development devoid of intentionality on the part of the US power elite. One doesn’t have to be a “conspiracy theorist” to know better than that. The ever more openly oligarchic United States is a ferociously unequal society marked by severe racial and class disparity. It is an imperial state-capitalist and white-supremacist plutocracy where the top hundredth owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.  Six Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42% of US citizens (or ex-citizens) while16 million US children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.  One in seven US citizens currently rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally).  These terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought us to a New Gilded Age of abject oligarchy and (along the way) to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

The real Looters of America are in the suites, not the streets. The corporate and financial elite and their many allies and agents in politics, media, and government have long understood that their “neoliberal” project – Austerity and ruin for the Many combined with endless opulence and increased power (to defend that opulence) for the Few – requires an augmented capacity for “homeland” repression. The tools for that repression are richly enhanced by the technologies, practices, culture, and institutions of global Empire abroad, itself a leading vehicle for the upward distribution of wealth and power.


Aristotle’s Great Democracy Dilemma

It is hardly surprising that the weapons of domestic repression are used most lethally against Black Americans. As black radical commentator Glen Ford noted on Black Agenda Report last week, “The people who rule America no longer need Black labor. What they do need is a class that is forcibly anchored at the bottom of U.S. society, who can be scapegoated for whatever is wrong with America, and whose very presence serves as an excuse for massive urban dislocation and the steady erosion of civil liberties. Michael Brown and countless others have died in order to keep America deeply stratified. That’s the only use the United States has for young Black men.”

It’s been that way for quite some time.  But non-elite, working- and “middle”-class Caucasians (that most white Americans) can hardly rest easy.  There’s plenty of white Caucasians whose labor and buying power no longer matter to “the 1%.”  The elite is ready, willing, and able to place tens of millions of white “surplus Americans” on the wrong side of the burgeoning domestic police and surveillance state.

This too is less than novel. The US ruling class declared a “crisis of democracy” – by which they meant there was too much democracy and too many popular expectations for improved lives and a more decent world – in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It looked askance not just at the rising militancy of communities of color during those years but also at the restiveness and egalitarian sentiments of younger white middle class and working class Americans.

As US capitalism’s ability to deliver the goods to ordinary citizens of all colors faded with the rise of new European and Japanese economic competition in the late 1960s and 1970s, the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (never removed over roughly three decades of significant downward wealth and income distribution) gave a chilling response to what might be called Aristotle’s Great Democracy Dilemma. The ancient Greek philosopher understood that a democracy should be widely participatory and that it should aim to serve the common good.  To reach those goals, he felt, is had to enforce relative equality and “lasting prosperity” for all. A society scarred by extremes of rich and poor, Aristotle knew, could never be a serious or functioning democracy. “Aristotle also made the point,” Noam Chomsky has further explained, “that if you have, in a perfect democracy, a small number of rich people and a large number of very poor people, the poor will use their democratic rights to take property away from the rich, Aristotle regarded that as unjust, and proposed two possible solutions: either reducing poverty (which is what he recommended) or reducing democracy.”

Faced with the threat of democratic upheaval, a declining ability to provide “lasting prosperity,” and the threat (real and/or perceived) of expropriation from below, the US power elite resoundingly rejected Aristotle’s counsel. It took the path suggested by James Madison and other wealthy US Founders: containing and rolling back democracy rather than reducing poverty and inequality. The “left [popular, egalitarian and participatory] hand of the state” was trumped by the reactionary, regressive, and repressive “right hand of the state” (to use the terminology of the late French sociologist Pierre Boudieu).  We’ve been living with the terrible authoritarian and Orwellian consequences ever since – consequences that are, as always, imposed with special viciousness against Black Americans, as in Ferguson today but from which millions of whites can hardly count on exemption.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Street can be reached at

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