For anyone with a consciousness of American history, the events of the last week and a half in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominately African-American suburb outside of St. Louis, should seem all too familiar. A police officer murders an unarmed black man. As days go by and more information on the shooting is released, residents take to the streets to protest. Their protests are met with force utterly disproportionate to a free society. In response, the protests turn sporadically violent themselves, producing and even more violent response on the part of authorities.
Harlem, 1943; Philadelphia and Rochester, 1964; Watts (Los Angeles), 1965; Newark, 1967; Camden, 1971; Tampa, 1987 and 1989; Washington, D.C., 1991; Los Angeles, 1992; Cincinnati, 2001; Benton Harbor (Southwest Michigan), 2003; Brooklyn, 2013 – all these incidents, and many others, contain the basic contours of the situation in Ferguson.
By now many in the United States and across the world have weighed in on the underlying causes of the escalating violence in Ferguson. Analysts have rightly pointed out the massive build-up in American police militarisation, the depths of poverty that are endemic to many American neighbourhoods, a broad culture that equates young African-American men with criminality, a failed war on drugs that has led to the incarceration of generations of the American poor and the corresponding transformation of much of urban America into a police state.
Those who probe deeper look to the end of basic rights to housing, the lack of economic opportunity resulting from deindustrialisation, the corollary unwillingness of American society to envision contemporary employment opportunities as viable avenues into the middle class, education policy that stubbornly refuses to give poor communities the resources to produce better schools, and predatory lending that preys on poor Americans. The conflicts in Ferguson are symptoms of a larger problem of American racial and economic inequality. Militarised police committing a horrible injustice become the easy and immediate symbol of the multiple oppressions that characterise neighbourhoods and communities across the country.
Such accounts are absolutely correct. They are not though, the entirety of the story. The sheer length of the list above points to a deeper problem in American life – the utter decimation of a politics capable of changing the immediate and underlying facts that led to the tragic murder of Michael Brown.
The basic outlines of this political atrophy are already apparent. President Obama has urged Americans to “comfort each other and talk with each other in a way that heals”. He has suggested that Americans are “going to move forward together – by trying to unite each other and understand each other”. In the coming days there will be similar calls from people across the political spectrum,ranging from civil rights leaders to tea partiers. President Obama will direct the Justice Department to investigate the shooting and its aftermath. Perhaps he or Missouri Governor Jay Nixon will even form a blue-ribbon commission to study the underlying causes of the shooting, as was done in the aftermath of many 1960s-era uprisings.
Among those that are outraged by Michael Brown’s murder, the protests in Ferguson and satellite solidarity marches across the country will continue for a week or two. Many people across the world will express anger at American racism and inequality by liking a post on Facebook or making #HandsUpDontShoot trend on Twitter. Both responses, the “it’s time to heal” rhetoric of political leaders and the more vocally militant but equally as ineffectual witness-bearing associated with individualised protest and social media moralising get us no closer to real justice for the millions caught in the underlying conditions of poverty that events like those in Ferguson occasionally bring to light.
For more than a generation there has not existed in the United States a political force – be it based in a civil rights organisation, a political party, a labour movement, or some other institution – capable of demanding the kinds of changes that would curtail the daily oppressions faced by people like the residents of Ferguson and tens of millions of Americans like them. Opposition to these injustices takes the form of sign carrying, hashtags, morality plays, and the occasional thrown rock. In moments like these, building effective institutions that can some day imagine challenging these injustices seems boring. In more mundane moments it is forgotten entirely. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike continue to push policies that decimate the meagre remains of the US welfare state, continue the quotidian criminalisation of the American poor, turn cities into particularly profitable loci of global land speculation, and increase economic inequality by the day.
And so, some time next month, or the month after that another unarmed kid will be murdered by the police in an American city. People might protest, or they might not. Good jobs will still be mostly inexistent, healthcare will still be largely out of reach, rents will still be rising too fast for poorer Americans, schools will still be underfunded, the militarised war on drugs and the incarceration of generations of poor young people will continue. A few months after, the police will murder another unarmed kid. People might protest again, or they might not. President Obama may even direct us to heal and have a conversation, or he might not. As a proud urban American, I hope I am wrong. As an urban historian who has seen these same events happen over and over again for more than a half-century, I fear that I am not.
Thomas Adams is lecturer in history and American studies at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.