Riots Work: How Riots in Ferguson, Missouri, Were Able to Transform the Discourse of an Entire Nation

(by: Daniel Gutiérrez)

The images are brutal. From armored personnel carriers, to sniper’s perched on rooftops, clouds of tear gas billowing down streets, the sudden sparks of flash-bang grenades — it is no wonder that the web is in an uproar and drawing the immediate response that Ferguson has become a war zone.

In less than two weeks, an unknown blip on the North American map has become the central debate of a superpower. One that thought it answered the question of race decades ago (at least, for those that are white).

While sociologists and government analysts are most likely scrambling to formulate theories as to why the killing of this unarmed black male created such uproar, the elephant in the room is quite clear.

Riots work.

Looking back at the historical record, mass civil disobedience has the ability to change the political landscape both dramatically and rapidly.

It reminds me of the mass protests that enveloped Brazil in June of last year during the Confederation Cup. The sudden protests over an incredibly small bus fare hike (that is, in actual monetary terms and not social terms) were enough to not only mobilize incredible quantities of human beings, but it accomplished in a matter of weeks what would have taken parliament years to do — that is, it reversed the fees, and promised millions of dollars towards public works.

Thanks to the people of Ferguson who did not merely write their representatives, but instead expressed their disgust on the streets to such a full capacity, a number of things are currently being debated. Things, that up until recently, were principally on the fringe of mainstream debates.

The Criminalization of Black (and Brown and Unprofitable) Bodies

Days ago, Ferguson police released the name of the police officer that murdered an unarmed black male. As they did this, they also released video footage alleging that Michael Brown is the person that appears robbing a local convenience store.

Local community members were quick to call out the move as a distraction to the actual crime. That is, that young black men can be killed at any moment, and quite legally. Regardless of whether or not Mr. Brown committed a crime, the fact remains (according to multiple witnesses) that he was executed while no longer posing a threat to the police officer.

The cases of other black (or brown people, or even homeless people — pretty much anyone that isn’t a white, middle-class heterosexual person) that have died at the hand of police or government officials are too numerous to list here. That said, I’ll list but a few cases that stick out in my own personal memory.

The case of this homeless man who was shot to death by police for wielding a knife.

The case of this brown male who was electrocuted and kicked to death in front of a public audience at the San Ysidro border crossing.

The case of this brown woman, who while fleeing the police from her local home in San Diego, was shot numerous times at point blank range.

Or, this black man. Though not murdered, he was beat bloody and hospitalized for taking the wrong freeway exit and ending up in Ferguson at the wrong time.

Or this black man. He was pulled over by the police, beat up (for nothing), got his car crashed into by the police, and was charged on multiple counts.

Oh, and since Ferguson, Ezell Ford (another black youth) was also killed.

Ferguson is hardly the exception. The very few cases listed above demonstrate a structural practice of state violence. Some (like myself) would hardly shy away from calling this a State of White Supremacy.

What Ferguson has been able to accomplish is create a debate around blackness and its criminalization in the US. And this is evident in the US Media. Let’s look at some headlines:

What White People Can Do About the Killing of Black Men” from Huff Post.

America Is Not For Black People” from Deadspin.

Black America’s Everyday Reality: Ferguson and the World That Terrorizes Us” from Salon.

Michael Brown Shooting: ‘They Killed Another Young Black Man in America’” from the Guardian.

Ferguson Reports Raise Question on Media Criminalization of Blacks” from AlJazeera America.

Jesse Jackson: There’s a ‘Ferguson’ Near You” from USA Today.

Does the Second Amendment Only Apply to White People” from Huff Post (which is a pretty good point).

And my personal favorite, “21 Things You Can’t Do While Black” from Mother Jones, which only highlights the absurd reality that having black skin is in itself criminal under the law.

Does a Militarized Police Force Mean Security?

What’s more, Ferguson has also created a debate regarding the militarization of local police forces. Since the 1990s, local police forces have been given military left-overs first for purposes of drug enforcement and then for anti-terrorism. Due to a program in which police are given military-grade hardware under a “use-it-or-lose-it” policy, police have to use the gear within a year, or forfeit the goods, thus giving incentive to use the hardware.

This problem is one that has existed in leftist circles for some time. But due to the widespread terror that was inflicted on the population of Ferguson, this policy has come under attack by the mainstream.

Again, let’s take a look at the headlines:

The Evolution of Police Militarization in Ferguson and Beyond” from the Wire.

Police Militarization Is Out of Control, and There’s No Oversight” from the New York Times.

“’Let’s Put Away the Toys, Boys’: Ferguson Spotlights Police Militarization” from AlJazeera.

This is the Terrifying Result of Militarizing the Police” from Business Insider.

Here’s How Lawmakers Use the War on Terror to Defend Police Militarization,” from Huff Post (which brings up the absurdity that this is equipment is hardly used against “terrorists”).

Paramilitary police: Cops or Soldiers?” from the Economist.

The Economics of Police Militarism” from the New Yorker.

What this discourse, and especially images and video feed, have also helped to promote is the concept that perhaps security is not best accomplished via the barrel of a gun (or the grill of an armored personnel carrier, or the cloud of tear gas or the sight of a scope) . The fact that a police force has military-grade equipment is hardly a signifier that the communities they patrol are in fact safe. And the past couple of weeks — that’s proof.

Democracy is in the Streets

Some may read this as an open and unquestionable endorsement of riots. This is hardly so. Rather, the amount of property damage is hardly equitable to the amount of human lives that have been loss in a social network of misery and economic hardship from the loss of lives by the police.

It must be acknowledged, furthermore, that this kind of mass mobilization is something born out of social organization and consciousness. This comes on the tail of a growing debate that really blew up around Trayvon Martin, but has only continued to grow under the surface, and blew up yet again in Ferguson. This goes back to Rodney King and even further to the Civil Rights movement. The reason this keeps coming back? It’s simple. Justice within institutional frameworks hasn’t worked.

While government officials laud democratic institutions and proper channels, let us not forget that democracy has not its power in the assembly house. No, that’s on the streets. And Ferguson is proof.

The true test of Ferguson will be whether or not the events that continue to unfold today will be able to open avenues of popular debate regarding structural racism and inequality in a post-Civil Rights America.

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