Nel's New Day

August 16, 2014

Ferguson Highlights Extreme Race, Class Divisions

Ferguson (MO) had one night of largely peaceful protesting before events took a bad turn last night. Because of media reporting, many people in the nation are blaming the demonstrators for their lack of control. A more careful view of events, however, shows a different view. A posting called “Dumbest Police Chief in America” summarizes the stupidity of both the Ferguson and its police chief, Tom Jackson, from the time one week ago when a police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old black male for walking in the street.

As the blog points out, Jackson inflamed the community yesterday through his press conferences. He contradicted himself repeatedly, said he wasn’t interested in talking with the community at large, announced that the victim probably stole cigars from a convenience store before stating that the police officer didn’t know about this, and then praised the officer who killed the teenager. Jackson didn’t even bother to inform state highway patrol Captain Ron Johnson, in charge of the security in Ferguson, about his press conferences. Johnson said that he heard about it television. Jackson said that he told the head of the St. Louis County police because he forgot that they were no longer involved in the Ferguson situation. A fuller description of yesterday’s events is here.

To their credit, many of the protesters helped protect the convenience store from looters last night. Because of the anger from Jackson’s statements, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has called a curfew tonight from midnight to 5:00 am—again without involving Johnson. Making the situation even worse is that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch is currently in charge of determining whether the officer who killed Brown will face criminal charges. McCulloch has already told a reporter that shifting oversight from the Ferguson and St. Louis County police to the state highway patrol was “illegal” and “disgraceful”  and that their show of force was not “excessive.”

Many in the community as well as St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley believe that McCulloch shouldn’t handle the case because of extreme bias. State law does not allow for the removal of McCulloch except for a relationship to the defendant or another conflict of interest such as having represented someone involved in the case. McCulloch has said that he has no intention of giving the case to anyone else.

The racial and class divide is shown in Julia Loffe’s piece for New Republic: 

About a 15-minute drive from the Ferguson protest that, by now, feels more like a block party, in the more upscale St. Louis suburb of Olivette, there’s a new strip mall with a barbecue joint and a Starbucks and an e-cigarette store. On a mild Thursday evening in August, people sat around tables, sipping coffee, sipping beer, dabbing barbecue sauce off their fingers.

All of these people were white.

It was a stark contrast to Ferguson, which is two-thirds black. Olivette is almost the exact opposite, at over 60 percent white. St. Louis, and the little hamlets that ring it, is one of the most segregated cities in America, and it shows.

Here in Olivette, the people I spoke to showed little sympathy for Michael Brown, or the protesters.

“It’s bullshit,” said one woman, who declined to give her name. When I asked her to clarify what, specifically, was bullshit, she said, “All of it. I don’t even know what they’re fighting for.”

“It’s just a lot of misplaced anger,” said one teenage boy, echoing his parents. He wasn’t sure where the anger should be, just that there should be no anger at all, and definitely no stealing.

“Our opinion,” said the talkative one in a group of six women in their sixties sitting outside the Starbucks, “is the media should just stay out of it because they’re riling themselves up even more.”

“The protesters like seeing themselves on TV,” her friend added.

“It’s just a small group of people making trouble,” said another.

“The kid wasn’t really innocent,” chimed in a woman at the other end of the table (they all declined to give their names). “He was struggling with the cop, and he’s got a rap sheet already, so he’s not that innocent.” (While the first point is in dispute, the second isn’t: The police have said that Michael Brown had no criminal record.)

If anything, the people here were disdainful and, mostly, scared—of the protesters, and, implicitly, of black people.

“I don’t think it’s about justice for Michael Brown’s family,” said the teenage boy. “It’s just an excuse for people to do whatever they want to do.”

One man I talked to, a stay-at-home dad who is a landlord to three black tenants and one white one in Ferguson (“my black tenants would never do that,” he clarified) was more sympathetic to Brown and also had the sense that the police had overdone it a bit. But he was scared of the protests. I told him that the protest that day was entirely peaceful, festive almost. “You know,” he said. “I have a wife and three children, and if something were to happen to me, that would be very bad.”

As for the protests, well, they weren’t about justice; they were just an excuse. “People are just taking the opportunity to satisfy their desire for junk,” said one woman, knowingly. As if black people, the lust for theft encoded in their DNA, are just barely kept in line by authority.

“When they kill each other, we never hear about it,” one of the Starbucks women said. This, she meant, was a good thing. “When it’s black-on-black violence, we never hear about it.”

I asked why she thought that was.

“Because, basically, they hate whites!” her friend chimed in. “Prejudice, reverse prejudice. Prejudice goes both ways.”

The others signaled their agreement.

“It’s not Ferguson people. It’s a lot of outside people coming in.”

This was a sore subject with several of the people I spoke to. A major problem with the protests—and they very clearly did not mean the militarized police response to the protests—was that they were tarnishing St. Louis’s image as a nice place.

“I’m embarrassed to say I’m from St. Louis,” the “bullshit” woman grumbled.

“Me, too,” said her friend. “I don’t tell people I’m from St. Louis anymore.”

“We have never had anything like this in St. Louis!” her friend exclaimed, flustered, as if trying to clear the city’s good name. “Ever!”

As the women grew uncomfortable, one of them hit on a way to fight back.

“Where are you from?” she asked me.

“Washington,” I said.

“Well,” she said, satisfied. “You people have trouble too sometimes.”

And they all laughed.

These people—like many others, including Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s The Morning Joe Show and Rush Limbaugh—just want these people to be quiet about the dangers that they face.

As Jeff Smith, who once represented St. Louis City in the Missouri Senate, knows, black people “want St. Louis to quit it with the knee-jerk paternalism and actually hear their message. They want white St. Louis to finally make an effort to grapple with its shameful racial history, a history in which a complex alchemy of private decisions and public policies conspired to leave north St. Louis County divided by race and class. They want to win some agency of their own lives instead of being at the mercy of forces that have so often let them down—or actively impeded them.”

One way that police could quiet protesting voices is to shut down cell phones during public demonstrations. A bill accidentally proposing that has passed the California legislation. The “kill switch” bill was intended to stop cell phone theft by requiring all smartphones sold in the state of 37 million people to include a feature that allows users to remotely wipe data and make devices inoperable. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out, the bill “is not explicit about who can activate such a switch.” Ferguson police officials amply demonstrated law enforcement’s abuse of all the tools available to them. The San Francisco subway authority already interrupted cell phone service in 2011 because of protesting.

Jerry Hartfield is one prime example of why black people should be angry. With an IQ of 51, he was convicted in 1977 of a murder and sentenced to death in Texas. The ruling was overturned in 1980, but a series of mistakes kept him in prison. Now a court has declared that he must be tried again before he can be released. The judge won’t let him out because “there is no evidence that Hartfield has suffered any anxiety relating to his pretrial detention.” The same month that the judge left Hartfield in prison, another judge gave probation to a child molester because “he will not fare well” in prison.

Blacks may be better off in prison. According to the FBI, police kill almost two black people every week, and almost 20 percent of those killed are under 21, more than double the rate of whites in the same age group. These are just the police-reported killings: there could be far more.

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