Oscar Grant murdered January 1, 2009 in Oakland, CA; Trayvon Martin murdered February 26, 2012 in Sanford, FL; Eric Garner murdered July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, NY; Michael Brown murdered August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO; Ezell Ford murdered August 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, CA.
These are only a few of the numerous police and vigilante executions of Blacks that are becoming more and more commonplace across the country. While this has been going on for many decades, it has reached a boiling point, triggering tremendous outrage as large numbers of people take to the streets to demand justice and hold accountable those responsible for their criminal actions.
The question, as always, is what can be done to counter the horrific killings, which are too often countenanced by those in authority. This is particularly true in areas where depression conditions, massive unemployment, segregation, racial profiling, rundown schools and discriminatory composition of police forces provide the background for the repeated killings.
The situation in Ferguson is a classic case. An unarmed 18-year-old African American man, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot him multiple times on August 9.
There is high tension in Ferguson today, primarily because of the failure of authorities to arrest Wilson and put him in jail where he belongs. Instead, he has been placed on administrative leave with full pay. The chief of police has praised him to the skies as being an excellent officer.
The other major contributing reason for the tension has been the way police used the press conference naming Wilson as the shooter. At the same time, they released still photos of a video allegedly showing Brown robbing cigars at a convenience store just minutes before the slaying. This had nothing to do with the execution of Brown and was an obvious move to deflect attention away from the officer’s action and place the onus on Brown. Lawyers for the Brown family called it “character assassination.”
Incidentally, the police chief initially stated categorically that there was no connection between the alleged robbery and the killing. Hours later his story changed and every time he appeared with a microphone in his hands he came out with a different version of what happened.
The facts could not be clearer: at the time that he was shot, Brown was yards away from Wilson and posed no threat to him whatever. According to three eyewitnesses, Brown, looking at the officer, had his arms raised, showing that he was unarmed and as a gesture of compliance. But his life was not spared. It was an unjustifiable murder having nothing to do with the alleged robbery at the store.
Even assuming for the moment that Brown did rob the store, the penalty for such a crime is not a death sentence.
Police Respond to Protests with Violence and Repression
In the aftermath of the murder, Ferguson residents, while engaging in peaceful mass protest, were subjected to tear gas attacks by police, flash bombs and stun grenades, snipers on top of armored trucks, rubber bullets, AR-15 assault rifles, police dogs, and cops and state police dressed in paramilitary uniforms.
Where did the Ferguson police get all of its weaponry? Most of it — leftovers from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — was donated by the feds as a gift of a half-million dollars. Other cities throughout the country received similar donations, meaning our taxpayers’ dollars are being used to help create the militarization of the police, as happened in Ferguson.
In short, Ferguson was under siege by a police/military force out of control. Free speech rights were trampled underfoot, and peaceful protesters in the streets felt the need to hold their hands up high in the face of rifles pointed at their heads.
A state senator was hit with teargas, as were large numbers of others whose eyes were burning and watering. An alderman was arrested as were journalists for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. One reporter, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, was told by a cop, “We will not allow you to write about what is happening here.” So much for what one officer’s idea is of freedom of the press!
There are only three Black peace officers in Ferguson out of a force of 53. There is only one African American city council member out of six (and he was arrested during these events and held overnight in a jail cell).
Years ago, Ferguson was almost exclusively a “white” city so, of course, all the governing positions were held by white people. But as time went by, more and more Blacks moved into Ferguson so that today Blacks constitute 67% of the city’s population. But the power structure remains as it was, with virtually no Black representation in the city’s governmental bodies.
Given this, and the plight of Ferguson as a depressed community, it is little wonder that the city erupted as a result of the Brown slaying. The city had become a tinderbox and the protests had grown in intensity, fueled by the police refusing to identify themselves by displaying badges and the cops’ long delay in divulging the name of the police officer who did the killing, which the community demanded be made known so that he can be held responsible and accountable.
Was there some rioting as a result of what had occurred? Inevitably, yes. It was born of deep frustration and exasperation flowing from the conditions capped by the murder. But as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Rioting is the language used by the unheard.” And since the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, the police rioting that took place can no way be justified.
So What Is To Be Done?
Confronted by the overwhelming public denunciation of its tactics and abuses, the police supposedly were withdrawn as the primary force dealing with the protesters. Instead this has been turned over to the state’s highway patrol. Assurances have been given that reforms will be instituted to ensure that free speech and the right to assemble and march peacefully will be safeguarded. And the name of the officer who murdered Michael Brown was finally released.
These are all concessions to the massive and militant demonstrations which rocked the establishment not only in Ferguson but also in St. Louis, the state of Missouri, and indeed the ruling circles in the country as a whole. It could not be otherwise, given the rallies of solidarity with the Ferguson residents which took place in New York, Washington D.C., St. Louis, Miami, Boston, Oakland, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Colorado Springs, Decatur, Burlington, Austin, Detroit, San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Manhattan, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, Eugene, Brooklyn, Portland, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Montgomery, Des Moines, and dozens of other cities in the U.S.
This is a time to keep the pressure on and to press forward relentlessly to ensure justice for Michael Brown, defense of civil liberties and civil rights, and the demilitarization of the police.
We cannot take for granted the indictment and conviction of the officer who killed Brown, as we learned in the case of Trayvon Martin. Nor can we assume that all the promised reforms will be implemented in the absence of continued demonstrations in the streets.
Let’s not forget that in the immediate aftermath of the murder, Jon Belmar, St. Louis County police chief, stated, “The genesis of this was a physical confrontation … during which Brown physically assaulted the police officer.” And so the campaign to vilify Brown was launched, as the police rally to Wilson‘s defense, using the age-old tactic of making the victim the criminal and the criminal the victim. Interviews with a number of Ferguson residents make clear that they see through and reject this insidious maneuver.
The fight of the Ferguson community for justice in this situation, starting with the arrest and imprisonment of Wilson, is one that the labor movement and its allies need to make our own. Therefore, we in the Labor Fightback Network urge a labor movement/civil rights movement initiated “March on Ferguson,” so that more of our sisters and brothers at least in the major cities in the region — St. Louis and Chicago — can join the struggle in support of demands that these movements can advance.
Solidarity now — not depending on investigations that can drag on for weeks or even months — is the key to winning justice for Michael Brown and for all who support the struggle for human rights in Ferguson and everywhere else in the U.S. where racism can only succeed if too many of us are passive in the fight for freedom and equal rights.