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“They Will Not Take the Street”: Ferguson and Colonial Histories

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Last week, activists staged protests in Ferguson, Missouri to memorialize the death of unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of an armed policeman a year ago. The protesters marched and shouted, publicly challenging the legitimacy of the police department. The police response shows continuity with a longstanding logic and practice of colonialism in regard to protest and space.

On Monday, 10 August, marchers were ordered by police to disperse, and police began to drive them out of the street. The people resisted, and several were arrested. In the telling words of the St. Louis County Chief of Police, “They will not take the street tonight. That will not happen.”

The street, in the Chief’s logic, becomes something contestable, something to be taken. To go further, the street is something which can belong to someone, and, conversely, not belong to someone else. In short, some people belong in the street, whiles others do not. In the United States today, as in the United States for over two hundred years, this is a highly racialized belonging. And, like race, the matter of belonging is a political one. There is no person or group of people for whom the street space is innately off limits; the only boundaries to the street are politically determined. Because of the Ferguson activists’ collective protest and criticism—and very likely because of their race, for those who were black—they put themselves politically out of bounds in the street, at least as far as the police were concerned. This politicization of space and the exercise of force to create boundaries has a long history in colonialism, in the United States as much as in other colonized zones.

To highlight this, consider the United States alongside South Africa, a country more “famous” for its colonialism (but not more violent). Though the details differ, the similarities are conspicuous. The specific events recounted here are typical of their contexts; they illustrate a spatial politics that was characteristic of colonial modes of control.

In 1811, British troops under a Colonel Graham fought and drove thousands of Xhosa people in the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony across the Great Fish River. It was a “clearance” accomplished with enough violence, in the words of the colony’s Governor, to inspire “a proper degree of terror.” The river was then enforced as the “permanent” border between the European colony and Africans to the east. In 1818, a mounted, armed column—a “commando,” to use its South African name—of British soldiers with Boer and African auxiliaries crossed the Fish to punish Xhosa “incursions” into the colony—the pretense was Xhosa cattle theft—and once again meted out extreme violence. The commando fired cannon into forests where Xhosa people had hidden, killing indiscriminately, and then made off with more than 20,000 head of cattle. The logic is clear: the political separation of people could be enacted and enforced with violence.

In 1838, after a local war between white militias and Cherokees, the United States Army was ordered to remove all Cherokees from Georgia to Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi River. This was in accordance with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which legislated the “clearance” of Native Americans from the southeastern United States of. As General Winfield Scott, of Civil War fame, put it to the Cherokees, they would acquiesce or several thousand soldiers would “render resistance and escape alike hopeless”; if the Cherokees hid in the forest, they would be “hunted down.” According to the United States Government, with the enforcement of its army, the many Native Americans of the South did not belong. The Cherokees walked for a thousand miles as prisoners of the United States Army, and at least four thousand died en route to Indian Territory.

Back in South Africa, in Grahamstown (named after the terrorizing colonel), 1917, several hundred black residents from the “location” marched to the City Hall to protest against oppressive lease agreements and indiscriminate shooting of Africans. “Locations” were designated areas in which black people could live, under white administration. Grahamstown was intentionally divided when the locations were instituted: the white town in the west, the black locations in the east. The most marginal land was (and still is) the site of self-built, “informal” shack settlements. The activists in 1917 were refused a proper audience, and retreated to the location but did not disperse as they had been ordered. The next morning almost 1,000 armed whites on horseback and in cars invaded the location alongside the police. A local headline read, “Grahamstown Army Marches on the Location.” Several dozen of the protesters were arrested. Police action and abuse intensified in the months after the protest. The logic is again clear: people belonged in certain spaces, and those spaces were policed, violently if their boundaries were challenged.

In 1932, about 20,000 marginalized poor, styled the “Bonus Army” and mainly unemployed war veterans, some with starving families with them, built an enormous shack settlement across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. They demanded that their bonuses promised during the war be paid early, while there were no opportunities for work, no money for rent and food. An enormous military force (including tanks) was sent against the “Bonus Army” with tear gas and bullets. The shack settlement was burnt down. While separate space was not as central to this event as it was to similar ones in South Africa at the time, the idea that spaces of protest were subject to control and dispersal through massive violence is clear. Simultaneously, post-slavery racist violence was unremitting and racial segregation institutionalized in parts of the United States. It represents a nearly permanent “police action” in the United States from the 1860s through the 1930s to prevent any people perceived as “not belonging” from “taking the street.”

Grahamstown, August 2014, where the racial division is still stark and marks enormous inequalities: A few hundred protesters led by the Unemployed People’s Movement marched to City Hall to demand the dissolution of the municipality because of corruption that prevents the adequate provision of housing, water, and electricity—and dignity—to people living in the locations. During the hundred years we have passed over, apartheid, with its utterly coercive creation of boundaries, had intervened and then gone; but the inequality, spatial division, and state violence persist. Among other instances, but definitely the most brutal example of this violent repression, thirty-four striking miners were killed by police at Marikana in August 2012—the first post-apartheid massacre by the South African state. Though no police violence ensued at the Grahamstown protest, the “incursion” of the protesters into “town” was met with a huge show of police force. Several armored vehicles and cars blocked the roads to the west, and cordons of armed police in riot gear blocked the entrance to City Hall. The potential for violence was brandished, and the protesters’ unwelcome was manifest.

That was the same month that Michael Brown was murdered, and the large-scale protests began in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking violent police responses. Brown’s death, and the death or detention of many other people in the United States demonstrates the gun-enforced fact that “the street” is not a safe place for many Americans—that they do not belong there. This is a highly racialized threat. It coincides with the enduring marginalization of Native Americans on reservations and the erection of a militarized wall to keep out people from south of the Rio Grande. All of these are intensely colonial demarcations of space.

South Africa is sometimes called the “protest capital of the world,” and it is also the most unequal society on earth. Inequality in the United States is widening, and the persistent low-grade war by police against (mainly) poor, black people has sparked a level of protest not seen in America for several decades. How far will police and military go to contain protest? Will the space of protest be so closed that the United States ends up with its own Marikana massacre in this century?

Stamping the ugly seal of history on the events in Ferguson last week, four ex-police and ex-military white men armed with assault rifles walked Ferguson’s streets while the protests were going on. Protesters, not all black but protesters nonetheless, were ordered to disperse and some were arrested. The rifle-wielding men were merely verbally “condemned.” Militarized colonial violence has always called upon armed civilians—local militias, the Ku Klux Klan, the South African commandos—to protect (white) colonial space, to drive people out or away. These four armed men are one more familiar feature of the enduring colonial avowal, “They will not take the street.”

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Paddy O’Halloran is a native of Providence, Rhode Island.  He is currently a master’s student in Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa.  His research interrogates race and space through the politics of social movements.

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