Racial Repression and the Murder of Mike Brown
Few who heard the eyewitness accounts of the murder of eighteen-year-old Mike Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson needed an autopsy report to know that Mr. Brown was gunned down in cold blood. The autopsy report and the investigations to follow are the technocracy of racist slaughter, official reports of all of the details except those that matter. Had the murder been an isolated incident it would be tragic. But the death of Mike Brown was a political assassination. The systematic nature in which youth of color are harassed, intimidated, incarcerated and assassinated perpetuates the historic repression of American blacks and browns from the barbaric founding of the U.S. in slavery and genocide to supposed resolution with the Civil Rights movement. This is to state that any of these murders might be considered individually but the aggregation paints a clear picture of systematic racial repression.
The sense of entitlement exhibited when white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot the young Mr. Brown combined the impunity of racial privilege with a pathological indifference toward the person of Mike Brown, his family and his community. Whatever the personal failings of Darren Wilson, it was in his official role on the Ferguson police department that he murdered Mr. Brown. Around the country the appearance of the police as invading armies in poor communities of color is because that is what they are. As the late Huey Newton put it nearly a half century ago, the police aren’t in poor communities to protect property because poor people have no property to protect. And the police in Ferguson conspicuously weren’t there to protect Mike Brown and other youth from violence.
Picture (1) above: the (private) autopsy of Mike Brown indicates that he was shot six times, including twice in the head. Given that Mr. Brown was unarmed and that by reports he was fleeing Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson when the shots that ended his life were fired, there was no conceivable threat to Mr. Wilson when he murdered Mike Brown. Public perceptions that there was any plausible rationale for shooting Mike Brown illustrate the role of ‘the law,’ and in particular the role of the police, in strategies of racial repression.
To the canard of black on black violence, three centuries of racial repression haven’t created a state of justice so why would continued repression by external forces be a plausible way to bring it about? Put differently, why would police violence of any sort be considered a solution to violence? The base premise at work is of intrinsic qualities of social dysfunction that justify / legitimate repressive tactics. The release by the Ferguson police department of a videotape allegedly showing Mike Brown shoplifting some cigars feeds into this premise. By way of comparison, pictured below are four Wall Street executives who ‘run’ banks that could be accurately described as ongoing criminal enterprises— this by the number of criminal and civil charges made against the banks, not as empty pejorative. Not only would it never occur to any cop in America to empty an entire clip into one of these executives under the premise of intrinsic criminality, the entirety of Western policing is dedicated to protecting them from criminal prosecution and from retribution by those harmed by the criminal acts that they oversee.
Picture (2) above: laws as simple as Sarbanes-Oxley legislation could have led to criminal prosecutions of senior Wall Street executives for the acts that led to financial crisis of 2008 – 2009 and the ongoing economic misery they created. The legislation requires that senior executives be held responsible for the criminal behavior of ‘their’ organizations. The impunity, and with it implied immunity from prosecution, of these executives is emblematic of race and class privilege that make a mockery of charges of ‘black criminality.’ How many poor citizens of Ferguson lost their homes to predatory lending by the banks these executives represent?
Implied in the release of the videotape is equivalence; that the alleged theft of some cigars changes the balance of culpability in the murder of Mike Brown. Certainly in terms of quantum of accountability senior Bush administration officials launched aggressive war and tortured and murdered and Wall Street executives made off with the economic equivalent of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans filled with cigars. The point here isn’t simply that the Ferguson police ‘miscalculated’ in releasing the video— they calculated exactly and precisely as they always do. The effort was / is racist slander, that even though Darren Wilson didn’t know of the alleged theft of a few cigars by Mike Brown he was by degree justified in murdering Mr. Brown because Mike Brown was of a ‘criminal type.’ Conversely, anyone who reads a newspaper knows that senior Wall Street executives committed crimes that they were never prosecuted for. Does the Ferguson police department see a ‘criminal type’ when they see these same Wall Street executives being treated like royalty on television?
The toxic narrative of black criminality ties in history to the (post-Civil War) Reconstruction practice of using ‘the law’ to continue the social repression of slavery by different means. Nominally ‘freed’ blacks were charged under criminal statutes carefully crafted to place them in work camps or in ‘convict-leasing’ programs. The goal was continued economic exploitation through mechanisms of social control. The modern ‘objective’ identification of black ‘criminality’ ties to Progressive efforts to develop a scientific basis for this social repression. Today the residual of this history continues to fail in several significant ways: a century and a half of laws written for purposes of social repression are still on the books effectively outlawing being black, brown and poor; the residual of the Progressive program is what is called by statisticians ‘selection bias’— if a population is fifty percent white and fifty percent black but nine out of ten people the police ‘investigate’ are black then most ‘criminals’ will be black even if the propensity toward ‘criminality’ is evenly distributed. Finally, relative social power determines the reach of ‘the law.’ Even if rich whites are charged with crimes they can afford an effective defense— a privilege plea-bargained away for economic reasons by many non-rich, non-white criminal defendants.
Away from Ferguson, the last dozen years spent ratcheting up racial repression by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg through his ‘stop-and-frisk’ policy illustrates the persistence of the Progressive project in strategies of racial repression. In defending stop-and-frisk Mr. Bloomberg raised both the issue of black-on-black violence and ‘going where the crime is’ to justify the policy. To the first, either there exists an intrinsic propensity toward violence and criminality or they have basis in social relations. Given the scale of history, well-to-do white guys have far greater propensity toward violence than any other group. Most of the great slaughters of history have genesis in Western imperial relations and their effects. And if six-hundred thousand white youth from the surrounding suburbs were stopped and frisked every year there might be some clarity gained around claims of ‘where the crime is.’ Stop-and-frisk is straightforward racial repression put forward as being in the interests of its victims. This is as true in New York City as it is in Ferguson, Missouri.
As the recent murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD for selling individual cigarettes makes clear, the ‘broken windows’ policing strategy of New York’s ‘liberal’ Mayor Bill de Blasio perpetuates racial repression under a full-blown theory (‘broken windows’) that never mentions race. Given American history and existing political economy those most likely to be found on the wrong side of prosecution for low-level crime are those who lack the social resources to commit high-level crimes. Drug laws have nearly a century of history as tools of racial repression and they turn a public health issue into a tool of racist policing and incarceration. Even if one accepted the premise of ‘broken windows,’ that low level crimes lead to a breakdown in public order, the functional immunity from prosecution that elites have points to a wholly different ‘public order,’ one where elite criminality is a fundamental component. To be clear here, what public order is it that is being protected when only the poor and people of color are charged with, prosecuted and imprisoned for ‘crimes?’
The growing militarization of the police is in part economics— what the U.S. economy increasingly ‘makes’ is weapons, faulty financial products and prisons. The distribution of military materiel creates a market for otherwise redundant weaponry. As with guns, were it not for the radical social dysfunction of the U.S. giving military gear to police would just be stupid, not necessarily murderous as it is. Given this dysfunction there is analog across the culture. Arming the police so that they can cause harm but can’t be harmed themselves (because of protective gear) finds analog in drone murders and in the business practices of large corporations. Military drones are a means of murdering people without direct risk of harm to those doing the murdering. And large corporations use their social power to take from the rest of us without risk to themselves— the predatory lending of the housing boom-bust is an example. So here’s the punch line— cops must be held accountable or people have a right to defend themselves from the police. The young Mike Brown had a more legitimate right to self-defense than Darren Wilson had to murder him.
Picture (3) above: at eighteen years of age Mike Brown had his whole life ahead of him. By reports he had an extended family and community that loved him dearly. There are no ‘facts’ that could justify his murder. Mike Brown was a human being who deserved better— from the Ferguson, Missouri police department, from all of those in Ferguson and surrounding vicinity charged with protecting and serving the public and from the nation to which he nominally belonged.
Those looking for resolution from the political ‘leadership’ in the U.S. are deluding themselves. Who has forgotten the empty promises from President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder that the Justice Department would step in if the courts failed to render a just verdict in George Zimmerman’s racist murder of Trayvon Martin? Might Darren Wilson have thought twice before pulling the trigger (six times) if George Zimmerman were serving a prison sentence worthy of the murder? But far more to the point, Messrs. Obama and Holder are the black faces now placed on this system of racial repression. When Mr. Obama calls for calm and ‘reflection’ in the face of Mike Brown’s murder, what does he expect that people will reflect on? That Mike Brown was murdered in cold blood by a racist cop in a racist police department that is part of a racist (in)justice system? That as tragic as Mike Brown’s murder is, he is but one of a never-ending stream of black and brown youth systematically harassed, intimidated, incarcerated and murdered? That there is never, ever, ever just resolution coming back out of this system? Or is it that after six years in office what is evident is that Messrs. Obama, Holder et al favor an unjust peace to justified social unrest?
What is happening now in Ferguson, Missouri has been a long time coming. The police / government strategy will be to demonize those rebelling and to come back with far more unjust force once the television cameras are out of sight. What the corporate-state wants is the appearance of order no matter how unjust that order is. Everything— EVERYTHING, that the Federal and state government and the police will say is to coerce unjust calm. Just ask the remaining survivors of the Attica rebellion or the Black Panthers who have been in prison for thirty or forty years now for defending themselves against police violence if this remains a question. Solving the social / racial divide in Ferguson, Missouri, New York and the rest of the nation requires redistributing the political and economic power and resources that the powers that be just spent the last thirty years putting into their own pockets. Without this redistribution words of conciliation and reconciliation are empty rhetoric designed to shut people up. Until people have the power to force the police to stop killing them nothing will be resolved.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is forthcoming.