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“Is This Just The Beginning?”: Raging Protesters Set Ferguson on Fire

It’s nearly impossible to capture the pain, frustration, and sadness in Ferguson following the announcement that a white cop will not be charged for shooting an unarmed black teen three months ago. But if the faces partially hidden by gas masks and bandanas are any indication, last night’s events can be summed up by one simple word: rage.

“I guess it’s legal for police to kill unarmed black men now,” said one woman, defiant but in despair.

For many of those gathered, the grand jury’s verdict didn’t even really matter—it was the expected outcome of a system that works against them. “We already know what they’ve decided,” said one man outside the Ferguson Police headquarters before St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch had approached the microphone.

A few optimistic souls had not yet given up hope. “It’s never happened, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen,” said one. But when the announcement came, there was no surprise: Officer Darren Wilson will not stand trial for killing a teenager.

The reaction of the crowd wasn’t a surprise either. It started with chants. Then taunts. A few water bottles tossed at police. Tear gas. Smoke. Random gunfire. Arson and looting.

They flipped a cop car and torched it not far from the police station; flames reflected in the glass of storefronts that hadn’t been boarded up in the downtown shopping district, which is dotted with “Welcome to Historic Ferguson” signs. They fled from tear-gas canisters hissing through the air underneath the words “Seasons Greetings” that joined white lights and garlands on street lamps.

The crowd began to chant: “We gonna burn the shit down.”

A few protected stores from fellow residents and one man pleaded tearfully as water bottles flew over his head at police, but a mob mentality took over on South Florissant. That was nothing compared to the utter destruction going on across town. There, on the strip of West Florissant, which is now so familiar to protesters and TV news viewers, the night sky was lit by an inferno. Several, in fact. A storage building became a ghostly concrete frame lit bright orange. A small fire in an auto parts store created explosions that quickly got out of control. Black smoke rolled through the front door and the entire structure was gone to Hell in minutes. Business owners swept up glass in front of their barber shop. Next door, a strip mall popped and hissed as unknown accelerants aided in its fiery destruction.

“This was probably worse than the worst night we ever had in August,” said Jon Belmar, chief of the St. Louis County Police Department, who claimed to have heard 150 gunshots.

In truth, the genesis of these scenes that shocked the country came three months ago when residents of the apartments on Canfield Drive saw Mike Brown lying motionless and bleeding while Ferguson’s cops looked on.

Anger rose through the summer, as the names of more victims added fuel to the fire; starting as Twitter hashtags and making their way on to signs and T-shirts worn by the protesters in Ferguson—VonDeritt Myers and Kajieme Powell. Eric Garner and Ezell Ford. Then last week, a 12-year-old in Cleveland shot dead for holding a toy gun. A 28-year-old gunned down in a dark, New York City hallway by a rookie cop who apparently made a fatal mistake.

They were all Mike Brown, said the protesters. “We are,” the chant goes, “Mike Brown.”

The chanting—so much a part of protests here for the past 100-plus days—was sporadic through Monday night. As looters roamed, you could hear a few of the refrains that have defined this situation, most notably “No justice, no peace.” The phrase took on a greater sense of immediacy as chaotic midnight approached, with the streets belonging mostly to whomever wanted to take them. For a while it seemed like the cops didn’t. The destruction appeared random; it’s impossible to tell why some businesses were spared and others were torched. Although in at least one instance, there was discussion of saving black-owned shops. The Ferguson Burger Bar—a favorite among protesters—was spared despite having never boarded up. Across the street, Ferguson Market and Liquor, the convenience store that was home to Brown’s alleged robbery, was again wide open to pillagers. The tear gas smoke that consumed West Florissant in August—a sign of police oppression for some—was replaced by black plumes coming from the burning businesses.

Protesters simply trashed the place. But I didn’t see any smiles. It was an unfiltered anger that drove them to bust windows and set the flames that would consume a recognizable portion of their community. For the most part, the police simply backed off. And with the streets filled with protesters, gunfire ringing out in the air, the situation was too dangerous for firefighters to do their job.

So Ferguson watched itself burn.

For the young man’s defenders, this country’s sins—past and present—are the reason for his death and subsequent slandering in the media. The loss of his life, and all the others from this summer, back to Trayvon and well before that, are part of a pattern. But for one young woman, who recognized her chance to give a passing quote, Brown’s death is indicative not of an ending, but the start of something. What that is remains unclear.

In front of an engulfed auto parts store, surrounded by mayhem, she shouted five words before disappearing into the crowd: “This is just the beginning.”

 

By: Justin Glawe, The Daily Beast, November 25, 2014

November 26, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Protest 101, A Chance To Change The World Again”: Some Thoughts As We Wait To See Whether Ferguson Burns

Last week, I spent a day at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where some students and I talked about protest. Des Moines is six hours up the road from Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot to death by a police officer in August, prompting weeks of often violent clashes between protesters, rioters and heavily militarized police.

Some of the kids have ties in that area, so they were waiting — even more tensely than the rest of us — to see if a grand jury would indict the officer and whether the failure to do so would mean renewed violence. These were serious-minded young people concerned about the state of their nation and they were wondering what they could do to effect change.

I’ve had similar talks on college campuses going back before most of us ever heard of Ferguson. I’ve lost count of how many students have told me: “I want to change things, but I don’t know how. What can I do?”

It amazes me that half a century ago people their age fought for civil rights, women’s rights and an end to a useless war in Southeast Asia using no technology more sophisticated than mimeograph machines and rotary dial telephones, while kids with iPads and social media accounts feel helpless to make themselves heard. I’ve walked away from many encounters with students feeling that they were earnest, well intentioned — and utterly clueless about their power to better the world.

Nor am I alone in that. I often hear older people, those who marched, leafleted and shouted for justice in the ’60s, complain that Kids These Days are too complacent. They lament what they would do if they were just young enough. Rep. John Lewis, the hero of the voting rights campaign in Selma, often puts it like this: “Young people today are too quiet.”

But here’s an idea: Instead of just criticizing them, why don’t their elders teach them? Meaning not just icons of the struggle for human rights like Gloria Steinem, Diane Nash and Tom Hayden, but lesser-known footsoldiers whose names never made the history books. Why don’t they put together college campus lectures, church basement meetings, podcasts?

Call it Protest 101, a seminar in how to organize effectively for change. It would be a gift to the next generation, one the elder generation is uniquely positioned to give.

I vacillate on what John Lewis said. Sometimes it seems to me that young people are, indeed, entirely too quiet, too narcotized by gadgets, games and irrelevancies to notice the world is going to heck around them. Other times, it seems that they simply don’t know what to do about it, that they have been made to feel too helpless and small to make a difference.

But as the Occupy movement a few years ago demonstrated and Ferguson reiterates, there is a new ferment among young people — and people not so young — as they see civil rights gains whittled away, as they see elections rigged like a casino slot machine by monied interests, as they see unarmed black boys gunned down without consequence, as they see robber barons too big to fail game the economy and get away scot-free while the full weight of American jurisprudence and media indignation drops like a brick on poor people and immigrants.

What a waste if that energy goes only into the breaking of windows. What a loss if that moral authority is burned up in fire.

This nascent, inchoate movement knows how to get attention, but has no idea what to do after that. It is undisciplined and unformed and does not know how to articulate an agenda for change. I submit that that’s where their elders come in.

The ’60s generation once changed the world. Here’s a chance to change it again.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, November 17, 2014

November 20, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Part Of A Very Big Problem”: Jim Crow Persists; How Ferguson Case Leaks Revive A Shameful Tradition

On those rare occasions when it makes a real effort to grapple with the raw brutality of Jim Crow, the American mainstream media usually returns to a particular set of images that, by their very nature, are jarring and extraordinary: the burning cross, the hangman’s knot, the Klansman on horseback. This isn’t a bad thing; you can’t understand Jim Crow without understanding the significance of the Klan, for example. But it’s not an entirely good one, either.

The problem with focusing so much on these potent symbols is that it can lead us to a mistaken conclusion: namely, that the only evil of Jim Crow (and U.S. white supremacy in general) was manifested in these menacing, otherworldly forms, rather than in the system’s more humdrum and everyday modes of dehumanization. The problem with the former is easily solved. Today, the burning cross, the noose and the Klansman are all enemies of polite society. But those subtler manifestations of apartheid — the interlocking social networks and political institutions that together worked to disempower black citizens and deny them their rightful place as full members of the community — have proven more difficult to shake.

The proof is all around us, but if you want a more tangible example, the news out of Ferguson, Missouri, is happy to oblige.

After briefly turning the small, hard-luck suburb into the center of the world, the media has as of late been paying much less attention to the story of Michael Brown’s killing, mostly because people on both sides of the controversy have been stuck in an anxious holding pattern, waiting to see if a county grand jury will bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson. Many observers, and seemingly most pro-Brown Ferguson protestors, expect it will not; and many are already positioning themselves to win the war for public opinion that will ensue the moment the charges (or lack thereof) come down.

That’s the tense atmosphere into which the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently dropped two bombs, both of which cited unnamed government sources saying evidence suggests Wilson’s claim to have shot Brown only after the youth tried to nab his gun — and to have killed Brown only after the wounded and unarmed teenager decided to charge him head-on — is indeed the case, in spite of what multiple eyewitnesses have said. As more than a few people noticed, the leaks all seemed to go in a certain direction (Wilson’s). Rather unnecessarily, the Brown family’s lawyer assured the media that the leaks weren’t coming from them. More necessarily, a forensic pathologist quoted extensively in the Post-Dispatch story said her remarks were taken out of context.

At this point in the story, anyone familiar with the dynamics of American race politics would suspect that like countless racially stratified and unharmonious small-town authorities before it, the establishment in Ferguson was doing its damnedest to quash an embarrassing investigation and protect one of its own. Perhaps aware of the likely widespread nature of that view, former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch was swiftly thereafter quoted speculating that the leaks weren’t coming from Ferguson authorities, but rather were the result of the Department of Justice’s machinations. Because the feds recognize that it’s “probably very unlikely” that Wilson will be charged, Fitch said, the DOJ was selectively leaking evidence in order to “let people down slowly” before the announcement of no charges being filed came.

If that sounds a bit odd to you — Fitch’s contention that Attorney General Eric Holder had previously decided to “take over the Ferguson Police Department” is a warning sign — you’ve got some prestigious company. Barely more than a day after Fitch made news, the DOJ was quoted in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere expressing serious unhappiness over the leaks, saying they were “irresponsible and highly troubling” and describing them as “an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.” Needless to say, Ed Magee, the spokesperson for the county prosecutor’s office, has denied responsibility entirely. “There’s really nothing to investigate,” Magee told the Times. “All we can control is people in our office and the grand jury, and it’s not coming from us or the grand jury.”

As you can probably tell, I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Eric Holder’s DOJ has all along been playing a secret shell game, pretending to enter into the Ferguson maelstrom in order to sideline local authorities it deemed biased and/or incompetent while, behind the scenes, doing everything it could to protect Wilson and discredit Brown. But even if we end up discovering that the Department of Justice was playing both sides, it would make no difference to the bigger, lingering problem Ferguson revealed — the way the legal and political institutions in much of America still treat black American citizens as if they were separate from the rest of the community, a force to be contained, coerced, managed. (In fact, if Fitch is correct, and the DOJ is trying to “let people down slowly,” it would actually strengthen the point.)

More important than these specific leaks, however, is the way that the behavior of officials throughout the power structure of Ferguson have responded to the protestors as if they were a dangerous, alien presence rather than American citizens who have full and equal rights just like the rest. Instead of trying to reach an accord with Michael Brown’s supporters, the Ferguson establishment is trying to preemptively position itself as a victim, hoping it can win the war for public opinion if and when the chaos of this summer reignites. This isn’t because the overwhelmingly white men and women in positions of authority in Ferguson are especially villainous, but rather because Ferguson, like so much of contemporary America, remains very much the town that racist social engineering built, one in which the unspoken assumption is that black people can never be equal members of their own community.

So, to return to my earlier argument about the visuals of Jim Crow, let’s indeed celebrate that the most extravagant symbols of that terrible era — the burning cross, the noose, the Klansman’s hood — are now widely considered to be ugly and taboo. For a country in which, not so long ago, the lynching of black men was considered a source of public entertainment, that’s no small thing. But let’s also keep in mind that in so far as it was a social and political system that fundamentally denied black people membership in the larger community, Jim Crow still persists.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, October 25, 2014

October 26, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Ferguson Missouri, Jim Crow | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“U.S. Citizens Have A Right To Protest, Even In Ferguson”: Rights Not Respected In The Moment Are Not Rights At All

Last week, a federal judge told us what we already knew.

Namely, that police in Ferguson, Missouri, violated the rights of protesters demonstrating against the shooting death of Michael Brown. U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry struck down an ad hoc rule under which cops had said people could not stand still while peacefully protesting. Some were told they couldn’t stop walking for more than five seconds; others that they had to walk faster.

Again: These were not rioters. These were citizens seeking “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” as the First Amendment gives them the right to do. So Perry’s ruling is welcome, but not particularly surprising. The no-stop dictate was so flagrantly wrong as to make any other decision unthinkable.

Still, one’s sense of righteous vindication is tempered by the fact that police felt free to try this absurd stratagem in the first place — and by the fact that this was hardly the only recent example of police using the Constitution for Kleenex.

Ferguson, let us not forget, is also the town where reporters were tear gassed and jailed and photographers ordered to stop taking pictures, which seems a pretty straightforward abridgment of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press. Meanwhile, a new ACLU report makes Boston Police the latest — but hardly the only — department empirically shown to engage in racially biased policing, which would violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of “equal protection of the laws.” And a recent Washington Post series illustrated how civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to search your vehicle, seize any cash they find and keep it, without even charging you with a crime, until or unless you prove to their satisfaction that you came by the money legally. Goodbye, Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Farewell, Fourteenth Amendment stricture against seizure of property “without due process of law.”

It seems our constitutional rights are being nibbled out from under us, compromise by compromise, expediency by expediency, while we watch with dull complacence. In our unthinking mania for laws to “get tough on crime,” we actually made it tougher on ourselves, altering the balance of power between people and police to the point where a cop can now take your legally earned money off your sovereign person and there’s little you can do about it.

“I know my rights,” an aggrieved citizen would yell once upon a time. Turns out that doesn’t mean a whole lot anymore.

Indeed, at the height of the Ferguson protests, an L.A. cop named Sunil Dutta published in the Washington Post an op-ed advising that, “if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.” Don’t argue, he said, even if you “believe (or know)” your rights are being violated. Deal with it later.

Certainly, he’s correct that there’s nothing to be gained by making an a– of yourself or making an angry cop angrier. Nothing will be settled on a street corner.

Yet, there is something unsettling about the idea that you are only allowed to assert your rights at a later date in a different forum. The bullying behavior and contempt for the Constitution that characterized police in Ferguson ought to leave us less than sanguine with that notion, ought to encourage us to resist — at the ballot box, in the council meeting and, yes, by lawful protest — this drift toward unlimited police authority.

It’s all well and good that now, several weeks after the fact, a court affirms the rights Ferguson police denied. But that’s a poor consolation prize. An argument can be made that rights which aren’t respected in the moment they are asserted are not really rights at all.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist, The Miami Herald; The National Memo, October 12, 2014

 

October 14, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Constitution, Ferguson Missouri | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fair Housing Act”: The Next Assault On Civil Rights

Last Thursday the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project. The case concerns the “disparate impact” rule, a legal guideline embedded in the 1968 Fair Housing Act that says discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional to be discrimination. This rule has been at the bedrock of fair-housing enforcement for more than four decades.

Another way to understand disparate impact is this: It’s a way to confront the realities of racial inequality without trying to prove the motivations of an institution, organization, or landlord. In housing especially, it’s rare to get someone as explicit about his discrimination as Donald Sterling. More often, you must look for patterns of unequal results or unfair treatment that stem from “objective” or “neutral” criteria.

In United States v. Wells Fargo, for example, the Department of Justice sued the mortgage lender over its role in the subprime market. According to the suit, Wells Fargo brokers raised interest rates and fees for more than 30,000 minority customers, and encouraged black and Hispanic homeowners to take subprime loans even if they qualified for traditional financing. We don’t know if malice drove this policy, but under disparate impact guidelines, it doesn’t matter: The government can show concrete harm and act accordingly.

This is an expansive power, but given our history, also a necessary one. We built our housing markets on a structure of discrimination, from bias in lending and state-sanctioned segregation to exclusionary zoning and active attacks on minority homeownership. To fix this, you can’t just ban discrimination, you need a countervailing force; otherwise, inequality would reproduce itself.

Beyond this, there’s the simple fact that racial bias is still alive in vast areas of American life, and it’s a fool’s errand to root out racists—most people who discriminate are too smart to broadcast their prejudice. Disparate impact—backed by both courts and the present administration—is a vital tool in fighting these battles.

But it’s also controversial, with opponents who see it as subversive to equal protection. “Instead of promoting equal protection under the law,” wrote Ammon Simon for National Review in 2012, disparate impact “grasps at ‘ensuring equal results,’ treating people like depersonalized ‘components of a racial, religious, sexual or national class.’ ” Likewise, in his concurrence in Ricci v. DeStefano—an affirmative action case—Justice Antonin Scalia swings at the doctrine, calling disparate impact provisions in employment practices a “racial thumb on the scales” that forces discriminatory “racial decisionmaking.”

Scalia and the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court are hostile to almost all race-conscious policies—from affirmative action (which Justice Clarence Thomas once compared to segregation) to important parts of the Voting Rights Act—and want to end disparate impact as a federal tool. Last year they almost had a chance; a group of New Jersey residents challenged disparate impact in Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., a fight over a neighborhood revitalization plan that plaintiffs claimed would dislocate and disproportionately harm minority residents. But the case was settled before it could reach the high court.

With the latest case, a settlement is unlikely. The court will hear disparate impact, and most likely—following Chief Justice John Roberts’ infamous declaration that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”—end it.

It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of such a decision. In the last decade, with Roberts at the forefront, the Supreme Court has chipped away at the major provisions and policies of the civil rights era. With Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 in 2007, the Roberts court struck down voluntary integration efforts in Seattle; with Shelby County v. Holder, it struck down the preclearance formula for the Voting Rights Act, gutting the law and opening the door to voter suppression; and with Schuette v. BAMN, it gave Michigan voters free rein to block affirmative action through constitutional amendment. At the moment, it’s poised to uphold strict voter identification laws and—if the opportunity presents itself—strike at the core provisions of the VRA.

There’s a reason Justice Sonia Sotomayor swiped at Roberts in her now-famous Schuette dissent—the chief justice has launched an astounding assault on civil rights law that promises huge consequences for efforts against racial inequality. And indeed, Roberts is joined by a whole host of right-wing legislators and conservative intellectuals—perched at think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity—all united in a “colorblind” vision of American life that doesn’t see a public role for fighting racial inequality, and often holds it as overstated or attributable to “culture,” not the accumulated effects of past discrimination.

What’s interesting is the degree to which this isn’t new. In fact, it sits parallel to our past, where large gains for minorities—and blacks in particular—sit flush with setbacks and challenges.

We don’t think of it this way in the popular imagination, but the United States had two periods of “Reconstruction.” The first came after emancipation, when freed slaves worked in alliance with sympathetic whites to rebuild the South and forge a new path after the Civil War. But weakened by President Andrew Johnson, it never came to fruition. Instead, it was destroyed by ex-Confederates who terrorized the South with violence and drove blacks out of political life. With the Democratic Party as their vehicle, these “Redeemers” would set the stage for Jim Crow, convict leasing, and the march of horrors that marked black life for the next century.

The Second Reconstruction was the civil rights movement, and—as historian Eric Foner writes in his magisterial book on the first Reconstruction, it marks a time when “the nation again attempted to come to terms with the implications of emancipation and the political and social agenda of Reconstruction.”

Where the first Reconstruction had politicians, the second had preachers (and later, again, politicians). And where the first gave us a new Constitution—through the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments—the second gave force to their provisions, through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It’s these laws—and the court cases that followed—that dismantled Jim Crow and integrated blacks into American political life.

Outside the far, far fringes of American life, there’s no challenge to that inclusion. But as we see with large parts of the Republican Party—including today’s conservatives on the Supreme Court—there is a challenge to the race-conscious policies and measures we use to protect and secure the political participation of blacks and other minorities.

This attack has far more to do with partisan advantage than any racial animus—as Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott explained in his defense of the state’s voter ID law, the goal is to limit Democrats, not minorities. Still, the effect is the same: applying new state limits on participation that have their largest impact on minorities, with shrinking protection from the federal government.

In his 1883 ruling against the 1875 Civil Rights Act—which prohibited black exclusion from jury service and guaranteed equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation—Justice Joseph P. Bradley took a stand that should sound familiar to contemporary opponents of so-called racial entitlements:

When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of beneficent legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen, and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen, or a man, are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected.

Replace “slavery” with “Jim Crow” and you have the popular conservative view of race and Constitution. And small setbacks aside, that view is on the march, with its crosshairs aimed at disparate impact and the Fair Housing Act.

Put another way, if the civil rights movement was Second Reconstruction, then—if we need a name for today’s push against its key measures—you could do worse than the Second Redemption.

 

By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, October 10, 2014

October 12, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Fair Housing Act, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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