While you're at it, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, that Abdul-Jabbar) has written a powerful piece on how Ferguson is less about race and racism than it is about class war. Possibly a little more hopeful than the below, but equally frightening.
People shocked by Ferguson—and a lot of good, intelligent people are—and by the militarization of thuggish local police appear, to my jaded eyes, to lack a certain historical perspective.
There was a blip in North American history, lasting less, I think, than a century, where this sort of atrocity outraged the general population for any length of time. The Lawrence Textile Strike and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire were horrible but up until the Reagan-Thatcher era, that violence begat basic protections for workers. The war in Vietnam, the first televised war, meant that the US had to tread a bit more carefully internationally. But essentially the armed wing of the state has been beating on marginalized and, in particular, racialized populations, regardless—and this is important, would-be pacifists—of whether they resist or not or resort to violence or not, as long as it's been in existence, to a chorus of shrugs and sighs from those too privileged to be directly affected.
Ferguson dominates the media cycle at the moment, not because it is radically different in content from similar crackdowns in the past, but because it is the first of a thing. The first time many people have seen the active deployment of police outfitted with military gear. (Unless you've been at a protest in the past twenty years. Or you're not white.) The first time it's not just televised, but livestreamed, tweeted, reblogged. The first time people have been able to hold out long enough without being crushed to get it into the news cycle. Among the first times the citizen media has been able to loudly counter the mainstream narrative. But beyond the technological angle, it's not shocking or surprising or any sort of historical aberration; if anything, the aberration is the aforementioned few decades where speaking truth to power actually had an effect.
The next time this happens, the militarized police response, the almost inevitable murder of demonstrators, will be routine. That's how it works. That's why it's happening now, unfolding in the way it is; to pave the way for the new normal. So that next time we can just sigh and remember that getting outraged didn't work last time so why bother now? That's just how things are.
The other day on the radio, I was listening to an interview with Ken Jarecke, the photographer who, in 1991, took a picture of an incinerated Iraqi soldier just before the Gulf War ceasefire (this is the photo, if you need to see it; here is an interview—with the man's face blurred out—about the photo's significance). The photo was suppressed in the North American press; at the time, the trend in news reporting was to sanitize the war, to make it look like there were really no casualties at all on either side. I was 12 in 1991; I knew what war was, that obviously people were dying, but the essential truth of it, the genuine outrage and the horrific human cost, didn't hit me until several years later, when I came across that photo. Nowadays, such images are commonplace, and Jarecke was speaking about how photos of dead bodies from war zones had completely lost their power to shock. I think he's mostly right; the photos of dead kids in Syria and Gaza splashed all over my Facebook feed have never changed a single person's mind on the issues at hand. In 1991, the AP felt the need to suppress that photo for no reason I can see other than that it might make people question the war, might make them not go along so readily with the next one, might—and this would have been the worst thing—recognize the humanity of the enemy. It had power, back then. Now, we understand that the Other is human, suffers horribly as the result of our actions, and we don't give a fuck.
We are able to briefly give a fuck about Ferguson because it still has the power to shock—this time, and not completely; open racism is socially acceptable again in the US, and so the KKK can raise money to smear the reputation of the murdered child in question. When it happens again—and make no mistake, Ferguson is the future of policing—we will all understand the collective truth that this is the way it always happens, the way it's always been done.
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