Water Street Common,Ypsilanti, Michigan.
In Ferguson Michael Brown a young man, age eighteen, was shot eight times while he walked down the middle of the street. That is indubitable. Here’s a spin on it. The earth, including the street, is “the common treasury of mankind” as the Diggers and Gerrard Winstanley said in 1649. As a moment in the sun Michael Brown walked down the middle of the street in youthful glory.
Whose streets? Our streets.
Michael Brown wore a cap; it was red. That is true and backed up by evidence available to all. Here’s a spin on that. Since Roman times the red cap has been the cap of liberty, the sign of the manumitted slave. You see the cap on the first coinage of the USA. It was the cap of liberté, égalité, and fraternité during the French Revolution. It is on the Haitian flag.
I do not say that Michael Brown was a Jacobin revolutionary or a Digger of the commons. Those are interpretations of the significance of his assassination. I read them as signs of the times.
I thought of Ferguson and Fukushima and the Financial Crisis as several big branches of the capitalist system but it’s hard to see how they are connected. That’s why we call it a system. There is a big suck from Ferguson to Fukushima to Wall Street. The “convenience store” is but a tiny particle in that suck of “the fruits of earth” from the Ninety-Nine to the One Per Cent. As an historian I find that it’s sometimes easier to understand the mutual re-inforcements of disparate elements in rendering
profit, interest, rent to the great possessioners or the One Per Cent by returning to the origins of those elements.
The structures of racial slavery (Ferguson), the steam engine (Fukushima), and the enclosures (Financial Crisis) did not actually originate in 1802 but that is one of the years when people tried to put a stop to them. And that is a date when each attained a virulence, or a maturity, exceeding anything that had gone before. Slavery, Enclosure, and the Machine became deep structures of modernity. In England where capitalism was born there were more Enclosure Acts that year than ever before. Communities lost common lands and traditional wherewithal. Families lost homes. Boys and girls were sent to new types of capitalist enclosures, the factories and the prisons. A humble commoner wrote,
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labor’s rights and left the poor a slave.
That year the steam engine, already powering the wheels and motions of the cotton factories, was put to work driving a horseless carriage and then powering a locomotive on rails. Automobilism was imagined and the age of coal commenced with a new type of thermodynamic energy which drove the machine which transformed human labor which drove slaves to cotton fields, orphans to cotton factories, men and women to despair. It took from the underground the energy of millions of years ago, and like Beelzebub or Lucifer, put this heat into the mechanics of “dark Satanic mills.” A quantitative expansion of human life and a qualitative degradation of human creativity was the melancholy result. To call the consequences of these structures the “anthropocene” is to ignore human agency and the struggles for roads not taken.
This system was built upon the ancestral labors of trans Atlantic African slavery which metamorphed from the unbelievable cruelties of the plantation to the sweet cup of tea or the comforting addiction of the tobacco. The production and trade of these drugs provided the investment capital for the ports, coal-mines, textile factories, and merchant ships of globalization. More slaves were shipped that year in British slavers than ever before.
As the first modern proletariat the slaves’ resistance culminated in 1802 with mutinies in the West Indies, a numerous series of plots and conspiracies of the southern state of the USA, and a massive riot and incendiary destruction of the first capital of the independent mainland country, York, Pa. in 1803. Gabriel Prosser planned a revolt of thousands of Virginia slaves in 1800. He and thirty-five others were hanged for the attempt. The southern states militarized their regime as a result of the numerous plots, conspiracies, incendiarism, and jail-breaks of 1802, while by 1803 the northern states abolished slavery for fear of such troubles.
The war of extermination against the slaves led by Napoleon and silently supported by Great Britain failed, and Haiti became independent and free at the end of 1803. Yes, the price (the Louisiana Purchase) was the expansion of slavery across the continental mainland including what is now Ferguson.
This was the year of the red cap of liberty. This was a year of casualties: Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, Edward Marcus Despard in England, Robert Emmet in Ireland. It was a year of the commons when Thomas Spence called for The Restoration of Society to its Natural State. Land belonged to all equally.
After the death of Travon Martin and the release of George Zimmerman the historian Robin D.G. Kelley asked us to be clear: “the Trayvon Martins of the world never had that right [to stand their ground] because the ‘ground’ was never considered theirs to stand on…. The point is that justice was always going to elude Trayvon Martin, not because the system failed, but because it worked. Martin died and Zimmerman walked because our entire political and legal foundations were built on an ideology of settler colonialism — an ideology in which the protection of white property rights was always sacrosanct; predators and threats to those privileges were almost always black, brown, and red; and where the very purpose of police power was to discipline, monitor, and contain populations rendered a threat to white property and privilege.”
The militarization of police is part of the system. War is part of the system, the ‘health of the state’. As Tom Paine recognized, war abroad is necessary for peace at home. The structures of the heat engine, the enclosures, and slavery are hammered deep into place through the banging clamor of war and its terrible carnage of blood and fire. The emotional environment is insecurity, fear, anxiety, despair. Chopping off the head of Louis XVI (1793) or Charles I (1649) did more harm than good. We must change this whole system.
Hands up! Don’t shoot!
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org