Ferguson: The Fire This Time

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This post first appeared at Demos.

Holding a camera and wearing a 'Don'™t Shoot'€ sign, Antoine Wallace raises his hands while leaning against a New York City police car during a protest march in New York, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael R. Sisak)

Holding a camera and wearing a ‘Don’™t Shoot’€ sign, Antoine Wallace raises his hands while leaning against a New York City police car during a protest march in New York, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael R. Sisak)

I remember the stunned reaction of so many Americans back in the summer of 2005 when legions of poor black people in desperate circumstances seemed to have suddenly and inexplicably materialized in New Orleans during the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Expressions of disbelief poured in from around the nation: “How can this be happening?” “I had no idea conditions were that bad.” “My God, is this America?”

People found themselves staring at the kind of poverty they thought had been largely wiped out decades earlier. President George W. Bush seemed as astonished as anyone. He made an eerie, oddly-lit, outdoor appearance in the city’s French Quarter on the evening of September 15 to announce that his administration would wage an all-out fight against the economic distress that continued to plague so many African-Americans.

If you had listened to his announcement on the radio, you might have thought you were hearing the ghost of Lyndon Johnson. Poverty in America, said Bush, “has roots in a history of racial discrimination which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.” He added, “We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”

Anyone who took Bush’s pledge seriously would have ended up disappointed because nothing of the sort happened. The poor black people of New Orleans faded back into the invisibility from which they had come.

It was ever thus: Some tragic development occurs; the media spotlight homes in on black people who had previously been invisible; instant experts weigh in with their pompous, uninformed analyses; and commitments as empty as deflated balloons are made. This time it’s Ferguson, Missouri, in the spotlight. And you can bet the mortgage that this time will be no different.

The precipitating events that cause these periodic national spasms can vary widely — the flooding of New Orleans, the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the beating of Rodney King. But these tragedies all emerge from the same fetid source — the racism embedded in the very foundation of America.

And it’s that racism — stark, in-your-face, never-ending, frequently murderous — that has so many African-Americans so angry and frustrated, so furious, so enraged. Black people all across America, not just in Ferguson, are angry about the killing of Michael Brown. And they remain angry over the killing of Trayvon Martin. And many are seething over the fatal chokehold clamped on the throat of Eric Garner by a cop on Staten Island in New York — a cop who refused to relent even as Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

Now, because of the persistence of racism and a relaxation of the fight against it, we are moving backwards. Ferguson is just the latest illustration.
They are angry about all those things, but they are also angry and frustrated about so much more. Here are just a few of the complaints. Black people are angry about voter suppression — the relentless, organized, years-long effort to prevent African-Americans from freely exercising their fundamental right to cast a ballot for the candidates of their choice. That effort was bolstered immeasurably and given a veneer of legitimacy last year by the Supreme Court’s vile and destructive evisceration of the Voting Rights Act.

Blacks are angry and bitterly frustrated over the way so many were targeted and victimized by predators in the housing and finance industries, and the disproportionate suffering that African-Americans endured in the subsequent housing meltdown and the recession. And they are angry about being left so far behind in the so-called economic recovery.

Blacks hold a variety of views about the job that Barack Obama has done as president. Most are very supportive; some have been disappointed. But nearly all are furious at the high levels of racism and personal venom that have characterized so much of the opposition not just to the president’s policies but to him personally. Most blacks I know have taken that as an affront to themselves, as well as an appalling affront to the president, and the resentment they feel is off the charts.

And, yes, there is profound anger and resentment at the myriad hateful ways that blacks are treated throughout the criminal justice system. I will never forget traveling to Avon Park, Florida, a few years ago to cover the case of an African-American girl in kindergarten who was arrested by the police, handcuffed and taken to the police station in the back seat of a patrol car because she had thrown a tantrum in the classroom. When I interviewed the police chief, I expressed amazement that this had happened to a six-year-old. His reply came in an instant: “Do you think this is the first six-year-old we’ve arrested?”

Handcuffing the child had proved difficult. “You can’t handcuff them on their wrists because their wrists are too small,” the chief explained, “so you have to handcuff them up by their biceps.”

These are just a very few of the many deep concerns harbored by black Americans. (Others include the chronic under-funding and wholesale closing of public schools in black neighborhoods; the continued widespread discrimination in employment and housing; and the humiliating, debilitating racist encounters, large and small, that nearly all black people face at one time or another, and that many blacks face on a daily basis.)

What is needed right now is a national gathering of some of the brightest and most committed African-American men and women to begin devising strategies to fight back in a coherent and sustained way against the racial injustice that still permeates this society.
Despite all the rhetoric, the deepest concerns of blacks are seldom acted upon in any sustained, effective way. Most of the time, they are not even taken seriously. So the anger and the resentment intensifies, month after month, year after year, like gases in pressurized containers, until at some point they blow. That’s what has happened in Ferguson. And the trouble in Ferguson is likely to continue, off and on, indefinitely. Because the likelihood of a successful prosecution of the cop who killed Michael Brown is very slim.

The idea that America had reached some level of post-racism with the election of Barack Obama was always delusionary. But it was true that great strides had been made in the half-century or so that followed the civil rights movement. Now, because of the persistence of racism and a relaxation of the fight against it, we are moving backwards. Ferguson is just the latest illustration.

There is no reason to believe that government officials at the federal, state or local level will take the critical steps necessary to begin turning these tragic and explosive matters around. Government officials have a horror of honestly engaging anything that has to do with race. I can’t imagine the required leadership coming from any place other than the black community itself.

What is needed right now is a national gathering of some of the brightest and most committed African-American men and women to begin devising strategies to fight back in a coherent and sustained way against the racial injustice that still permeates this society. Let that be the first step toward the development of a new cadre of black leadership to carry this fight forward.

In the absence of such leadership, it will be extremely difficult to avoid new outbreaks of the kind of violence and incoherence that we’ve seen in Ferguson. And there is always a danger of such outbreaks spiraling into something much worse, something completely out of control. I remember Newark and Detroit in 1967, and the devastation that followed the death of Dr. King, and Los Angeles in 1992, and on and on.

Those tragedies did not occur in a vacuum and it’s important to understand that. History tells us that it won’t be long before another Michael Brown, or Eric Garner, or Trayvon Martin is thrust upon us. The emergence of effective black leadership to guide us over the long haul is America’s only defense against such outrages, and against what James Baldwin so accurately characterized as the fire next time.

Bob Herbert is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and former New York Times columnist.
Bob Herbert is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and former New York Times columnist. You can follow him on Twitter at @BobHerbert.
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  • Andrea Mérida

    Except that these “brightest and most committed” ought to be those who actually live these realities. Often what happens in communities of color is that tokenism reigns and “solutions” are meted out by those select few who have been anointed by the dominant culture as “success stories,” but who don’t actually live working-class lives or have forgotten them.

  • ZenderTranscender

    Why does racism persist?
    I am not 12 years old, though my question may seem simple on the surface. Note, I am not asking why racism exists but asking why it appears to show itself stronger than ever. How does media attention affect it, negatively and positively?
    Well, after we overthrow racism, let’s move on to one bigger, more pervasive and universal: sexism. This has been waiting in the wings, behind racism.

  • ZenderTranscender

    Yes, but Ferguson was once a majority-white city. I have wondered why the make-up of the city management, including the police force, did not change to match the demographics of the town,

  • aka Xochi

    Poverty in such a pompous, ego inflated country, such as America, makes the affluent avert their eyes. Just like I deliberately avoid looking at road kill. The affluent fantasize that somehow the poor have done something to deserve their circumstances. It’s the hand they were dealt, deal with it. Disconnect from human reality joined with disconnect with how this planet works, (sans electricity), has overtaken western consciousness. As soon as the media finds another crisis to boost their ratings, the plight of Missouri blacks will be forgotten. The plight of minorities in America is disgusting. America’s education system has whitewashed reality too far. This fatal flaw has ended our founding father’s dream.

  • aka Xochi

    Because racism is a tribal inheritance perpetuated by the European colonial mindset. In order to justify takeing someone’s property or life, their value had to be minimized and expendable.

  • ZenderTranscender

    That’s unfortunate, but if you notice, that’s how history repeats itself.
    Yes, it can change, but I don’t even see a transition to change at this point in time.

    Media coverage that inflames the emotions and excites the senses gives a false sense of security that something big will happen right away. It seldom does. We have a divided U.S., and we have no leadership like a George Washington, FDR, Reagan or Ike to bring elected representatives to a consensus for a greater cause. Everyone has his or her own causes, and this trumps the overall welfare of the country.

  • Alyx Jolivet

    We have twitter. We have social media. No one trusts mainstream media anymore. We trust each other.

    Insofar as leadership, we shall have to see. The movement is still early and growing.

    What I do know is if we let business go on as usual, more young black men will likely self-immolate by police fire as a way to bring attention to this movement.

    The Black Community is more heated than ever, right now. I have watched them begin to channel that anger and frustration over the last few days.

    Keep in mind Michael Brown was only killed less than 14 days ago.

    The rebellion is over. The movement is still under way and the black community is focused like a hot pin.

    Its the white community that can’t break out of this weird idea that its their fault, their cause, their revolution. But the reality, racism starts in OUR community and we need to take responsibility for that.

    So while the media cools down, I am going to be very vigilante about racism in the coming days. Because we have to stop. We just have to. Its inhumane to perpetuate racism. Its detrimental to human progress entirely.

  • aka Xochi

    The concept of a country as described in the Bill of Rights and original US Constitution has been mutilated and mangled into nothing but a tool for profit. Mind you, I love profit. But, I refuse to compromise my ethics and put humans or the biosphere at risk for my profit. Media is bought and paid for by those who put profit ahead of ethics. Social media should have been our last hope for honest debate and conversation … but, alas, it has been hijacked by polarizing profiteers, pundits and terrorists who try to drown out honest communication. The black community is the most obvious victim of inequity, they have more voices on their side. But there are many others in similar circumstances that have no voice at all because corporate media cannot get market share with their stories.

  • ZenderTranscender

    I don’t have the answers and apparently no one else does either. Blacks lack strong leadership. Sharpton is clownish, and Jesse Jackson is of another time. His own son sits in prison and not because he was profiled. I keep returning to education. Blacks in Ferguson and elsewhere can run the city – they don’t have to take orders from whites – but they must educate and prepare themselves for leadership roles. In a majority-black city, black people should be able to win council seats and, if qualified, apply for law enforcement jobs,

  • John Stewart

    Racism is part of being human. And if you are a member of a smaller racial group that has been oppressed for centuries, you are going to have a really hard time doing much about it.
    I do feel there is hope in the poem from World War II;
    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.
    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • Leave A Mark

    Because we have not escaped that illusion of choice or its enslavement.

    What Cornel West refers to as “The Niggerization of America” and Chris Hedges proclaims as “Sacrifice Zones” and urban reservations, and Glenn Greenwald examines in ” With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful”.

  • TK

    How does black poverty in America compare with that in sub-Saharan Africa? What about longevity?

    Why is it that after all the brutality meted out to Chinese railroad workers in the American West, Asian Americans now make more income on average than whites?

    Sorry—I know that those are Questions That Must Not Be Asked. The implications undermine your entire pious narrative. You’ll bark all the livelong day about income inequality but are terrified to even mention that reams of evidence suggest cognitive inequality is the driving force behind it.

  • TK

    Tribalism is universal. To blame it on the “European colonial mindset” is laughably shortsighted.

  • TK

    Last I read, black voter turnout in Ferguson was about 5%.

  • ZenderTranscender

    The black community needs at least one strong leader and others who are willing to help plan, strategize and prepare themselves to assume leadership of the city. This does not happen overnight, but if the blacks in the city genuinely want to move forward, they will find a way to do this. They have been heard now, and no matter the outcome of the officer’s trial, they should be motivated to move forward. Media will soon leave, so what is next after the black people of Ferguson are no longer in front of cameras? To note, who they do not need or want as a leader is the self-serving, clownish Al Sharpton. They need someone who cares about what happens to them when cameras aren’t present.

  • Anonymous

    Widespread looting and destruction of property will win over many supporters to their side.