African Americans are used to the government ignoring us, oppressing us and simply not functioning in an equitable way. This has been the truth of our existence in this country since our ancestors were brought to these shores. From public schools to emergency medical services, and yes police, it is an unfortunate reality of institutional segregation that Black people often receive poor or less than attentive service from government agencies that our tax money pays for.
But what about when NO government agency works? What do you do when no level of government service performs it’s duty in a way that is recognizable? That’s the question we have to answer after the grand jury decision today to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Mike Brown. Every single level of government failed today in this ruling, and somehow some way, African Americans in St. Louis have to figure out where they can go for justice.
The Old Ways Don’t Work Anymore
We all knew the chances for any real justice in the Michael Brown case were pretty unlikely. In the last 18 months alone the Zimmerman trial, the John Crawford trial and even the first Michael Dunn case have shown without a shadow of a doubt that getting a jury that is majority White to convict someone for killing a Black person is next to impossible, regardless of the circumstances. That is not new, but the way in which this entire scenario of Ferguson has occurred has shown us that the methods that African Americans are used to employing to get any semblance of justice don’t work everywhere and in some parts of the country are essentially ineffective. African American justice strategies have worked when, even in the face of institutional racism and violent suppression, there is some semblance of a competent government in which to lobby. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s the NAACP and SNCC knew that the Supreme Court was a functional if flawed government body. In the 1980s, African American progressives knew that voter registration could flip the make-up of city councils and mayor’s offices and in the ’90s, we knew that state boards of regents could be influenced, governors of state schools could be lobbied to protect affirmative action programs and diversity in higher education. In other words, activism works when government works. But no government entity worked at any level of the Ferguson case.
Racism+Incompetence= Recipe for Disaster
James Knowles, the young mayor of Ferguson, Missouri was completely out of his element when Michael Brown was shot, and demonstrated a level of incompetence that can’t be explained by prejudice alone. He refused to take counsel from other local mayors on how to handle the crisis, he didn’t speak to community leaders and essentially seemed to be following the bad mayor playbook. Meanwhile, the Ferguson Police Department violated the community over and over again with their response to Brown’s death and the resulting outcry. It’s been more than 100 days since the death of Mike Brown and they haven’t yet released a full police report. They didn’t have any sort of community policing to mitigate unrest (which could have prevented the riots and much of the violence following the shooting.) It seems that the Chief Thomas Jackson has changed his story more than once regarding alleged ‘injuries’ to Darren Wilson, why he was talking to Michael Brown and his friend and a host of other issues.
While the suburb’s lack of preparedness for the level of attention and scrutiny should be expected, there hasn’t been anything more impressive on the state level either. The behavior of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has been scandalously bad, from his mismanagement of state troopers and the National Guard, to his refusal to appoint a special prosecutor and even failing to show up to the funeral of Michael Brown after saying that he would attend.
As a local resident told EBONY, “The Civil Rights Movement missed the Midwest.” Congressman Lacy Clay did little or nothing, the local NAACP, 100 Black Men and local churches did nothing when the thousands of voter registrations they collected to oust Ferguson mayor James Knowles mysteriously disappeared, and there are reports that Senator Claire McCaskill has actually been trying to stop the DOJ investigation in whether Michael Brown’s civil rights were violated.
And lest we let President Obama off the hook, the Federal government gets a big fail as well. While it has been debated here and there, the reality is Obama failed to demonstrate any real leadership on Ferguson, he chose instead to offer obnoxious respectability politics lectures and promote his own programs. The president’s one chance to initiate lasting change, his suggested review and suspension of Program 1033, which gives military surplus to local police with no oversight, has died a quiet death behind the scenes in Washington.
Between all of the above, and this investigation having more leaks than the Titanic, there has been a tragic miscarriage of justice in Ferguson. From top to bottom, the outlets needed by local activists to enact the change that is so desperately needed to prevent future situations like this and provide justice for the family of this lost teenager have been completely useless.
So what does the Black community do when everything we’ve seen in the past, and tactics we’ve used in the past don’t work any longer? When midterm elections sweep in a huge number of officials who are likely to continue and fortify these same broken systems? When an 18-year-old can be killed by a police officer in broad daylight and no one even bothers to fill out a report? Find new ones. That’s really it. It would be nice to come up with some pithy answer, some grand solution like ‘voting’ or ‘activism’ or ‘soul power’ as MLK used to promote, but it’s obvious none of those things really work anymore in this particular area. Seeking justice in Ferguson will not be the same process as Florida, New York or Ohio.
The movement will have to find new ways to challenged state sanctioned killings of American citizens. Bring in the United Nations, change local economic policy or districting laws, but clearly our strategies have to change. It’s not an impossible task, in fact, there is certainly more public support, from all races and regions today that there ever has been in the past to correct the problems of injustice, racism and militarized police in America. But today’s ruling just reminds us that there is no justice today, and will be none tomorrow, if we don’t realize that broken government and racism are likely the most potent forces of oppression we’ve ever faced.