Strange Stains in Ferguson

by Maurice Mcleod

Everyone knew it was coming.

Politicians called for calm, police officers polished their armour, some black people held vigils and some white people bought guns.

Yesterday a grand jury in Ferguson decided that Officer Darren Wilson had no case to answer after shooting dead unarmed black teenager Michael Brown on a Missouri street in August.

Michael Brown

Michael Brown

Even the reaction to the verdict was predictable.

On the first night after Wilson walked free, 82 people were arrested, cars were overturned and buildings were torched. Pictures of burned out cars and hooded, masked men raging against the police led coverage worldwide.

Ahead of the second night after the decision, the number of national guardsmen deployed in Missouri was trebled to 2200.

Sky News repeatedly ran a segment called ‘Ferguson in Flames’ and the age old story of anger and fear was retold.

The images that moved me though were the ones of the people interviewed on the streets of Ferguson.

These weren’t angry people baying for blood, they were distraught, wrapped in sadness.

“We just hoped for this one time, that our lives would matter,” one young woman explained with tears streaming down her face.

“That someone would see that our lives are valuable”

Another protester pointed out that Michael Brown’s body was left laying in the street for four hours like a bag of garbage.

The feeling of powerlessness and frustration that injustice causes was there for everyone to see but the media finds these emotions hard to convey to its viewers. Anger is much easier.

The anger is self-feeding. Dramatic images of those who have allowed their frustration to turn to destructive anger will encourage others to react that way.

It will also feed the fear that is at the very heart of this issue.

The sadness and anger are not about Michael Brown in particular. He symbolises all of the young black lives that are snuffed out by very people who are supposed to protect them.

Political website Mother Jones reports that at least four other unarmed black men have been killed by police in the US in the last four weeks.

These include:

Eric Garner

Eric Garner

  • Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold while NYPD tried to arrest him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes
  • John Crawford, who was shot by police in Walmart while holding a BB gun he’d picked up off the shelf
  • Ezell Ford, who was allegedly shot in the back by police during an “investigative stop”
  • Dante Parker, who died in police custody after being tased while resisting arrest

Just a day before the Ferguson decision, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police in Cleveland after he was seen with what turned out to be a fake gun in a playground.

Right wing commentators often point out that black young men shoot other black young men more regularly than the police do as if this somehow explains away tragedies like Ferguson.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani told NBC’s Meet the Press it was a mistake to focus on police killings rather than black on black ones.

“93 percent of blacks are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here,” he said.

Comparing the actions of people sworn to protect black communities with those of criminals makes no sense though.

Black people are regularly jailed for killing other black people, white policemen almost never are.

I wonder how you persuade black young men that their lives (and the lives of their peers) have value when they are repeatedly thrown away so cheaply and with so little recourse to justice.

Peaceful, legal protests don’t make good TV though so the cameras are drawn towards the flames like giant metallic moths.

image6

The coverage of Ferguson, focussed as it is on the anger, plays to a familiar narrative.

Black communities are cauldrons of seething tension, fed by centuries of oppression and dangerously close to boiling over.

The oppression is very real but black communities are about much more than anger.

The black anger myth simply nourishes the fear that some people have of black people.

If racism was born out of the need to disregard our humanity in order to justify greed, it is nurtured by the fear that we are desperate to excise some hideous revenge for what happened.

Of course, there is some anger and of course there are calls for reparations but more than anything, people just want to know that they are valued and truly equal.  All humans have a hunger for justice and the need to have a hand in their own fates.

But fear doesn’t allow this happen.

Fear is the ebola of emotions, it spreads by touch.

If some white communities fear black anger, some black communities fear white fear.

Even without loathing white fear can be fatal.

Renisha McBride

Renisha McBride

It was fear that shot 19 year-old Renisha McBride in the face with a 12-gague shotgun after she crashed her car in a rich Detroit neighbourhood and knocked on a door asking for help.

It was fear that shot 17 year-old Travyon Martin when he walked home after buying Skittles and iced tea.

It was even fear that apparently partially justified Oscar Pistorius shooting Reeva Steenkamp through the door of the toilet.

The fear of black people is completely understandable though.

Fed on a diet of news coverage and Hollywood saturated and in violent black criminals, and starved of daily personal contact with normal black people, a person can hardly be blamed for subconsciously harbouring the idea that a black face is a dangerous face.

Officer Darren Wilson said Michael Brown stared at him with the “most intense, aggressive face”.

“The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

It sounds like he’s describing every angry black man who has ever snarled menacingly out of a TV screen.

There are no official figures for how many black people are killed by police in the US but some studies, such as by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement which studied data from local media, claim they happen roughly twice-a-week.

This is unnervingly close to the frequency of lynchings which were prevalent in the US from the end of slavery until the 1960s.lynching

Lynchings were designed to bring terror to black communities. They served to remind black people that, though they were no longer slaves, their very lives depended on them behaving in ways that didn’t upset their white neighbours.

Today’s ‘extra-judicial’ killings by the police work in a remarkably similar way.

Young black men are shown repeatedly that if they don’t wear their clothes in the right way or behave in ways which help white people not to fear them, their very lives are in jeopardy.

In their days both practices are met with a shrug and vague murmurings about ‘deserving and undeserving’ victims by mainstream society. Neither generates any serious concerted effort to stop them.

…and in both cases, black communities are left full of fear, anger and loss.

Lynching didn’t stop, it just put on a uniform.

Penned by a Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher from New Your and first recorded by legendary Billie Holiday 75 years ago, Strange Fruit, is an iconic song contrasting the horror of these lynchings with the perceived ‘elegant nobility’ of the south.

Here’s my go at a reworking for 2014.

Strange Stains

American streets bear strange stains

Blood on the lawns and blood in the drains

Black men dying on the city streets

Strange stains left for their folks to see

Familiar tale of urban life

A bitter cop, a scared housewife

A teenage boy just walking home

Then the sudden crack of lead on bone

Here is a stain to boil the blood

To fuel the marches and unleash the flood

For the streets to rise, for the heads to roll

Here is a stain on society’s soul

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Maurice Mcleod is a London-based journalist, a regular blogger, and a member of Writers of Colour. He was communications manager at NCVO and is the director of communications company Marmoset Media and is a a trustee at Race on the Agenda. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian’s Comment is Free. Maurice tweets as @mowords

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9 replies

  1. Those in authority abusing that authority must be stopped, regardless of the victim. The chokehold in New York was especially troubling to me. It appeared to me that the response was to the action. What appears to be lost in your piece is the fact that doing things that puts yourself in danger, invites an aggressive and often lethal response. Rob a store, you’re in danger. Defy a police officer’s request, you’ll get a response. Say, “Yes, sir.” to a police officer’s request, it’s likely nothing will happen. Live and act like a ‘gangsta,’ you’ll likely solicit an ‘anti-gangsta’ response, especially from a police officer. Carry a hand gun (even a play one) in a crowd, you are in danger. Try doing that when walking through a mall. The calls to 911 will be in the hundreds and the local SWAT team will enter with fire arms loaded and with extreme prejudice to protect the public and themselvesl. At some point, those who lost their lives need to own their behavior that put themselves in some very dangerous situations. Judgment in the heat of a confrontation with one who, in appearance, can do harm, is impaired and partial, but caused by the person being dangerous.

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting but I have to disagree. Even in the US there is no death sentence for selling illegal cigarettes or holding a fake gun. If the police were so trigger happy with everyone it would be bad enough. They are supposed to protect people, not kill them. But that’s not even the case.Lethal force is used against one group of people above others. That surely can not be right, can it?

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    • “Carry a hand gun (even a play one) in a crowd, you are in danger. Try doing that when walking through a mall.”

      You mean like this? http://www.motherjones.com/files/target-open-carry-1-630.jpg
      Or this? http://i2.cdn.turner.com/money/dam/assets/140604153253-target-open-carry-620xa.png
      Or even aiming at the police maybe? http://static.businessinsider.com/image/534db531eab8eacf1caab272/image.jpg

      Oh but those are white people, right? Wake up out of your 1960’s haze Mr degeenens2014.. you’re being naive and idiotic.. btw I’ve said “Yes sir” to Houston Police Department and had my head bounced off the hood of the police cruiser and let go with no charges or tickets because, jokes on them! i was doing nothing wrong but they had hoped I was. I am white. Your entire post is invalid. Open your eyes.. you, your family or someone you know could be next at the hands of an out of control police officer, but I hope you never see that day. Do not ignore those that have lived it though.

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    • I’m sorry, but this only holds true for some people in the US. What about the wacko whites that march through supermarket isles with their shot guns, LOADED, smug faces upturned to those around them? They are applauded. That is what happens to them…

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