In early August 2014, a young African American man, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a St Louis police officer in the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. The latter is an outlying suburb of St Louis. The 18-year old man was unarmed, and an autopsy revealed that he had been shot six times, twice in the head. His corpse was left on the ground for four hours, cordoned off by the St Louis police. This shooting sparked sustained, peaceful, and militant protests by the largely African American community in Ferguson against police brutality, racism and the lack of economic opportunities for the mainly poor residents of that community.
These protests, generalised into an uprising against the institutional racism and inequality that pervades capitalist America, elicited a heavy-handed and violent response by the militarised police. Specialised police units were deployed to confront the protesters. American police forces have been quietly and steadily acquiring military hardware for many years, as well as absorbing the lessons of suppression of civil dissent. Indeed, even mainstream corporate media outlets, such as the Business Insider, have noted the terrifying consequences of the militarisation of police forces:
It is getting increasingly difficult to distinguish police officers from soldiers.
In fact, the residents of Ferguson were confronted not only by heavily armed robocop-style police, but also by a weapon normally deployed in war zones – mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAP). Such vehicles have been developed to withstand improvised explosive devices, possess heavy blast-resistant surfaces and reinforced glass, and are used in various types of terrain, whether urban, rural or mountainous. MRAP vehicles, such as the one below, are part of the US military arsenal in Afghanistan, Iraq and were supplied to the Israeli army for use in their latest attack on Gaza:
Note the sniper at the top of the vehicle, ready to shoot down any person. Such a militarised deployment against a peaceful African American community stands in stark contrast to the softly-softly approach taken by federal authorities in their standoff with the scrounging and racist rancher Cliven Bundy, who has been flouting the American government and laws for so long. Bundy is only the tip of an iceberg – a terrorism problem the United States refuses to acknowledge. White supremacist groups, patriot militia, sovereign citizens groups and other states’ rights outfits have an obsession with guns, openly defy what they believe to be a tyrannical federal government, and spread their hateful views through social and electronic media. One wonders why such a deep malaise is allowed to continue, but the peaceful response of a marginalised African American community to a racist police shooting is met with heavy-handed police repression.
Interestingly, the National Rifle Association, (NRA) whose members are known for their strident denunciations of federal government tyranny and have warned about jack-booted thugs taking over the streets, have remained silent about the display of jack-booted thuggery against the African American population of Ferguson Missouri. The NRA, advocates of citizen sovereignty against an overwhelming government power, have remained conspicuously silent on the unfolding dystopian catastrophe witnessed by the black American community in Ferguson. But somehow, a bigoted rancher parasitically abusing the federal land system is worthy of armed support against attempts to bring him to justice.
While police violence against ethnic minorities in America is sadly nothing new, a number of commentators drew attention to the recent development of a heavily militarised police force. The latter has deployed military-grade equipment and used similar tactics to military forces around the world that have a history of repressive actions against civil dissent. In Counterpunch magazine, Cosme Caal, a community activist and scholar, spoke about the Latin Americanisation of the US police force. In Latin America, the United States actively assisted in the creation of militarised police forces in those countries ruled by tyrannical pro-American military dictatorships. The police became not so much a force for protecting and serving the community, but for policing and suppressing political dissent. Caal notes that this model of policing, fed by impunity from accountability for their actions, now serve as a bulwark of civil suppression. Allowed to imprison, torture and kill without any regard for civilian oversight, the police became a law unto themselves. Equipped with military-style hardware, they became the defenders of the elite and privileged, serving to violently repress any outbreak of unrest among the dispossessed and marginalised.
That model of policing, now being adopted in the United States, is intimately bound up with the deepening economic crisis gripping the capitalist countries. As more people are impoverished, lacking educational and social opportunities, the ruling class is becoming increasingly fearful of social and political unrest. The methods of the US ‘war on terror’, previously applied overseas, are now being practiced domestically. As Sean Ledwith, lecturer in politics and philosophy, wrote in his article for Counterfire:
On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the urban uprising in Watts, American streets once again resounded to the sounds of chanting protesters, tear gas canisters and police banging their shields. The shooting dead of Brown, an 18-year old, on August 9th in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson was the catalyst for almost two weeks of mass protest across the US over the intractable levels of racism that still afflict the country in what is supposedly its post-racial era.
The outrage over police brutality and racial profiling are horribly familiar but what was new about this recent scenario was the militarisation of the state response. Many Americans have made disturbing comparisons between the scenes they witnessed on their own streets with what citizens in Baghdad, Fallujah, Kandahar and other far-flung locales have endured as the US leviathan has pursued its global projection of power.
The democratic facade of the US capitalist system is being stripped away to reveal the savage financial oligarchy that deploys power to protect its own wealth and privileges.
The comparison to the repression of civilians in Baghdad, Fallujah and Kandahar is apt. However, there is another comparison that needs to be made, in the light of recent events. The toolbox of racist repression in Ferguson can be compared to the tactics and methods used by the state of Israel in Gaza. Israel carried out a direct military assault on the Palestinians of Gaza, that is true, and that was of an intensity and savage magnitude outstripping the police actions in Ferguson. That much is true. However, the similarity in militarised responses, the deployment of barbaric levels of force against civilian populations and the use of mass incarceration indicate that the tools being used underscore the class power and racial hierarchies evident in the Israeli society and the United States. That is the finding of the Common Dreams activists and scholars Corinna Mullin and Azadeh Shahshahani in their article From Gaza to Ferguson: Exposing the Toolbox of Racist Repression.
The authors of the above article note that the United States is a national security state, a state of untrammeled power for the oligarchy, where democratic rights are being tramped, the intelligence apparatus increasingly surveils the wider population, the police act with impunity and constitutional provisions against the abuse of power are ignored, and entire communities, such as the African American community are being criminalised. At the time of writing, it has been over a month since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, and while the identity of the police officer who perpetrated the crime is known, the authorities in St Louis have so far done nothing to bring the perpetrator and his accomplices to justice. St Louis county officials are delaying justice for the Brown family, and this basically means that justice is denied. It is no coincidence that more commentators are drawing the comparison between Gaza and Ferguson, after all, the United States basically underwrites the Israeli repression of the Palestinians, and violent policing of the occupied Palestinian territories bears remarkable similarities to the policing of the African American community. While America has exported violence overseas, that violence is now coming home.
It is increasingly the case that in the United States, terrorism is perpetrated not by the usual suspects (insert your favourite scapegoat here; Muslims, Arabs, radicals, anarchists, Communists…..) but by the police themselves. When the law enforcers behave in a systematically lawless manner, then this indicates a deeper malaise in the American capitalist system. As the activist Linn Washington wrote in his article for Counterpunch;
Today, politicians, press pundits and preachers across America, portray terrorism as having a foreign face. Yet, for far too many Americans, the terrorists that they encounter daily are the police.
The issues of class and race intersected starkly at Ferguson. President Obama, the first African American president, has now confronted the simmering issues of racial hierarchy reinforced by an underlying class structure in the second term of what was touted as a ‘post-racial America’. In Ferguson Missouri, we may see the weight of history: Missouri is after all shaped by its history as a slave state, the home of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, when pro- and anti-slavery factions battled it out over the issue of slavery. Missouri, one of the states that formed part of the slave-owners’ secessionist Civil War in the 1860s, resisted attempts at integration, and indeed has a long history of implementing Jim Crow laws, that is, legalised segregation. In more recent times, the black community has faced a more covert, underhanded type of segregation, whether it is access to education, restrictions on housing, and disproportionate levels of unemployment as compared to the larger white community. St Louis possesses one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, and this economic inequality is fueling the anger and resentment of the black community. The spark that lit the fuse was the racially motivated killing of the unarmed African American teenager by a St Louis police force that is still overwhelmingly white.
There is growing recognition that American capitalism is a class-structured society. Until the economic meltdown of 2008, it was near-impossible to discuss the issue of class. The impoverishment of larger and larger section of the population, and the preservation of privileges by the ultra-wealthy, laid bare the essentials of the class war, the war on the poor, that we are witnessing today. However, any discussion of class inequality cannot be separated from a recognition that the United States is a racially stratified society. Back in 1903, W. E. B. Dubois the great African American scholar, activist and first black American to graduate from Harvard with a doctorate, stated that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” In the 21st century, that problem is still with us, and Ferguson demonstrates that the racial divide intersects with and reinforces the class divide. Not only is there systemic economic inequality, but that inequality is perpetuated along colour lines.
The interplay of race and class, and how that feeds the social discontent that erupted at Ferguson require a deeper discussion. That will be the focus of the next article. Stay tuned.