Notes on Ferguson
Force of Gentrification
Unfortunately, when talking about Ferguson, few people are really talking about gentrification. And if we can’t say gentrification and Ferguson in the same breath, we can’t look at the bigger problems. The murder of an unarmed black teenager? How about the racialized murder of civil society by the police state and the ongoing destruction of the world that it is bringing about?
These things may seem fragmented, but they are all connected. It’s necessary to look at them separately before they start to make sense together. Through the tear gas, pepper spray, and smoke, the home invasions, church trespassing, and illegal arrests, the police state is creating a toxic breeding ground that could happen anywhere. It is becoming a model for domestic military response to fast-growing insurrection.
Ferguson was a small town on the outskirts of St. Louis until the 1950s. When the US industry boom occurred after World War II, rapid urbanization ensued. Towns like Ferguson would double in population size between 1950 and 1960, and then double again between 1960 and 1970. But then something happened. We call it neoliberalism, but might as well call it good old fashioned colonialism.
The industrial economy was kneecapped by the State, and nothing was put up in its place to break the fall, except the prison industry and “urban renewal.” Towns like Furgeson started declining in population, but another phenomenon emerged: the racial switch. As gentrification slammed communities of color in St. Louis during the 1990s and 2000s, Furgeson went from 73 percent white to 67 percent African American. One of the hardest hit areas in the whole country, the Washington Ave “Historic District” designation saw the white share of the population of Zip Code 63101 in St. Louis rocket from 28 percent to nearly 50 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Today, Ferguson is the 19th most rapidly gentrifying city in the US—after being the “shatter zone” for people of color being pushed out of other urban areas, the population of Ferguson is being pushed out again. Police practices of persecuting the poor—such as convicting people in closed-session court, giving them large fines, and then locking them up when they can’t pay—are plentiful in Ferguson, and the police openly discriminate on the basis of color.
The police force in Ferguson has become notorious for its outlandishly racist policies, such that some might say that the racism of the Ferguson police we have seen over the past two weeks is worthy of the Third Reich. But this is Missouri, the state that the St. Louis coordinator of the NAACP calls “the most racist state” in the US. We have our own history to contend with here in the US of Amerikkka.
Did Somebody Say Extraction?
So what does this have to do with ecology? During the 1990s, as towns like Ferguson were switching their racial demographics thanks to African Removal (aka Urban Renewal), the Wall Street Populism of Bill Clinton deregulated the market so that investors could speculate much more heavily on the housing market and on world commodity futures like grains and palm oil. As the subprime market reached the crisis, equity firms could switch their capital to foreign commodity production when the collapse came.
The bailout for Wall Street enabled precisely this maneuver, as billions of dollars simply vanished from civil society, while equity firms shoveled money from Main Street to African palm plantations. What’s wrong with a little African palm? Let’s just say that the deforestation of tropical rainforests makes palm oil just a hair better for the environment as tar sands oil (according to the World Wildlife Fund). Match that to the fact that the process of taking local polyculture food production off the market for biodiesel consumption by urban yuppies has caused crises in the global food market, starvation, and riot throughout the world, and an interlinked chain of revolt begins to form.
This monocultural economic tendency in land distribution is generally known as extractivism. It manifests an overall vision of financialization, which liquidates the traditional “middle class,” petite-bourgeois economic threshold by focusing on extracting resources for cheap and then shipping them somewhere else to be manufactured or processed into commodities. Through this practice, use value is eradicated, and everything is rendered exchangeable and replaceable.
The death of the middle class (and, really, the industrial proletariat) in the US during the 1970s was suspending by the hyper-reality of the subprime market, but now that the bubble has burst, we see how extractivism has liquidated not only a class of people, but their communities, their place, and their civil rights. Climate change is coming to liquidate the rest, and we are seeing a snap shot of what is to come in California.
Tensions are starting to relax in Ferguson. Perhaps it is time to reflect. What we know about the police response is that they have been operating in a similar fashion to the IDF in Gaza. They have broken down doors in efforts to terrify the populous. They have desecrated sanctuaries like churches and schools in order to break down the social composition of resistance. They have openly stating their desire to kill protestors, while abusing journalists and taking them out of commission. These are typical strategies of the colonial power, but they are by no means the limit of its expression.
The activity of the mainstream media, for instance, tells us all we need to know about the extent of coloniality. The reporters remarking on “outside provocateurs,” re-establishing order, and supporting police officers are betraying their bias only at the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that level of radicalized power dynamics, there is an entire regime of discrimination based on the video clips chosen, the times they are displayed, the people who are interviewed, and the questions they are asked. This montage-like display of riot suppression produces the fiction of state control and displaces the daily narratives of the peaceful protestors risking their lives and livelihoods by demonstrating that they exist and will not be moved.
We can expect this from the State; in fact, we can expect worse in the event of larger insurrection. Police officers continue to murder people of color throughout the country—in fact, the rate seems to be increasing from Louisiana to California and back to Missouri in just a few recent cases, as if as a response to the unrest in Ferguson. This serves as a reminder that Liberals are correct, police officers are human beings and not robots, but the flip side to this is that they are more likely to act hysterically and serve on the side of paramilitary forces rather than justice. They are already inputs of a racist hegemony that cannot be reformed. Any challenge to their power will just as likely push the police against the government in service to the more generalized history of racism that has propelled settlers towards genocide in this land for the past 400 years.
In Donetsk, Ukraine, allegations are emerging that the European Union’s champions have used white phosphorus bombs on civilians who are challenging their power. If this kind of action is taken in Europe, what can we expect in the US, where police are many times more militarized?
Right Sector, the paramilitary vector that policed the Maidan Protests in Ukraine, is holding Russian journalists hostage in Crimea while attempting to continue “the revolution” by transforming the new Kiev government into something even more right wing. If this form of State terror, with its right wing maintaining a state of exception, is accepted against European separatist movements, what extent of state repression will be permitted in the US, where the Ku Klux Klan has openly and actively demonstrated in favor of the racist police state in Ferguson, while raising more than $200,000 via GoFundMe for the officer who killed Michael Brown–nothing less than hundreds of thousands of dollars as a bounty for the body of an innocent black teenager?
The problem is not that there is some global conspiracy. The problem is that it is all right in front of our faces every day in the police state of Amerikkka. The settler response of the Bundy Ranch to environmental regulations is equivalent to the reaction of Ferguson police to popular backlash; the racialized content of their ideology is the backbone of US settler constitution, not some external agitation.
Therefore, the only alternative to this process of devastation and annihilation is the final and total destruction of the police state, the abolition of the prison system, and liberation from the (post)industrial wage system. This movement is not so far from our collective imagination. In Detroit, The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center is already moving forward with community sharing models in a post-job economy. By pushing beyond what we once thought of as urban, towards a future of meeting community needs through mutual aid and solidarity, we can build this collective vision.
This is just the beginning of discussion we all need to have. We need to analyze the strategies and tactics of the police state if we are going to overcome it. If this future is to become a reality, we need to organize together. The words of Mya Aeten-White, a Howard student who was shot in the head by the Ferguson Police, urges us forward: “We don’t die, we multiply.”
This article is also being published at earthfirstjournal.org/newswire
Alexander Reid Ross is co-moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). He can be reached at areidross(at)gmail.com.