Missouri’s Legacy of Violent Racism


What is clear about the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is that the cop murdered Michael Brown pretty much in cold blood.  What is also clear is that if Michael Brown was a suspect in this shoplifting case and regular procedures were followed, then he should have been arrested and gone to court.  What is less clear is whether or not this killer cop will ever see justice.  Indeed, whether he will even go to court.  I bet many people reading this have shoplifted.  I bet some have even been arrested for shoplifting.  I bet some have even plead guilty to the charge or been convicted.  I also bet that the majority of those who plead out or were convicted either did community service and restitution or spent a few weeks in jail.  Obviously, no one who did get caught shoplifting and is reading this was murdered.

The truth of the matter is that Michael Brown was murdered for walking in the street while black.  The cop who shot him several times, even while he begged for his life, committed murder.  He was not in any danger, except perhaps in his own mind.  As the police response to the protests against the murder proved in a very graphic way, this cop was part of a force whose first response is to weaponize on as grand a scale as possible.  The fact that a fair number of US residents seem to support the cop and the department he belongs to is evidence of a very disturbed society.  It is not a society that believes all of its members deserve the same justice.       In fact, it is a society that seems to consider its poorer members as something approaching savagery.  This perception is especially true when those members possess a skin tone other than white.  Indeed, if a person is non-white, the amount of money in their bank account of it is usually irrelevant, as is their social status.  The basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar (when he was still known as Lew Alcindor) said back in 1967 “Everybody knows me. I’m the big basketball star, the weekend hero, everybody’s All-American. Well, last summer I was almost killed by a racist cop shooting at a black cat in Harlem. He was shooting on the street–where masses of black people were standing around or just taking a walk. After all, we were just niggers. I found out last summer that we don’t catch hell because we aren’t basketball stars or don’t have money. We catch hell because we are black.”

Missouri has an especially racist legacy.  The last of the slavery states, it was a launching pad for numerous raids into Kansas by slaveowner militias hired to turn the vote in that state in favor of the slavers.  It was from Missouri that raiders went to the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas and burned it to the ground.  This led to a guerrilla war that involved John Brown and his band.  Symptomatic of the US’s racism is how so many history books cover that war.  John Brown’s campaign is consistently labeled as murderous, while the actions of the raiders is often portrayed as a response to Brown’s tactics.  This is despite the well-documented attacks on Lawrence, including one led by William Quantrill and known in history as the Lawrence Massacre. The coverage of the Michael Brown murder in the mainstream press suggests that the actions of those who carry on the raiders’ task (in this case the Ferguson police) continue to be excused for their violence.

When it comes to the US and racism, many Black and Brown residents of the United States will tell you, things haven’t changed that much.  From the attacks on the President of the US because of his skin tone to the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown and hundreds of others, there is one common factor.  That factor is racism.  It is the scourge of our nation.  Although the targets of that racism bear the brunt of its effects–from job and educational opportunities to living quarters and treatment by authorities, it will be its perpetrators who make the final payment for their actions.  John Brown wrote about slavery in his final note “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had…vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

Despite more than a hundred and fifty years passing since those words, that blood continues to spill.  All too much of it is from those whose ancestry includes slaves.  I only wonder when the tables will turn.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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