Ferguson, St Louis: Echoes of the past

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hands-up.jpg

Hands up. Don't shoot!

A young black man at a “Hands up, don’t shoot” protest faces up to heavily armed police

The shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, a suburb of St Loius in Missouri, sparked a wave of anger and protest in America. Weyman Bennett attended the memorial service for Michael on behalf of Stand Up to Racism and Unite Against Fascism campaigns. Here he looks at what has changed, and what has not, for black people in the US.

You could feel the anger on the streets of Ferguson even after the days of demonstrations had peaked. Families in this relatively nice suburb of St Louis were sitting outside their homes in deck chairs with home-made placards demanding justice for Michael Brown.

People were still laying flowers and leaving messages on the spot in the middle of Canfield Road where the 18 year old was murdered by police on 9 August. The killing sparked weeks of rioting and protests. The sense of shock and disgust was everywhere. It was not expected that a young man would be so cruelly gunned down in the street as neighbours looked on. On the day of his funeral he should have been marking his first week at college.

Michael was unarmed, and according to reports he was shot repeatedly as he put his hands up. Police have not released a report about exactly what happened. For most people, even right wing pundits, it is incomprehensible how cops are unable to explain exactly what happened on that fateful day.

This is reminiscent of the killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham three years ago, where the police version was instantly challenged by eyewitness reports.

All the evidence points to the policeman firing two bursts of five shots, with some witnesses saying the second burst was fired as Michael Brown lay on the road. His murder has raised questions about what has changed in the US decades after black people won their civil rights.

There was something old about the memorial for Michael in the Baptist church on Dr Martin Luther King Drive — as old as racism. It was as if you were stepping back into the 1960s, with an overwhelming feeling that very little has changed.Among the thousands who turned out for the memorial, there were old civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King’s son and Jesse Jackson.

Al Sharpton told the mourners, “Something is wrong in America,” and pointedly asked how could the police call for peace on the streets, yet deploy snipers on the roofs?

The memorial echoed with the powerful music and the slogans we associate with the civil rights movement. Michael’s mother said he hoped that one day his name would shake the world, but not in the way he expected. She asked that his life should not be lost in vain.

What was shocking was that Michael’s family weren't alone. Sitting next to them were the family of Trayvon Martin, who was murdered by a vigilante in 2012, as well as that of Jordan Davis who was killed in the same year by a white man after an argument over loud music. There were a host of other families of those killed in similar circumstances.

What is different to the 1960s is Barack Obama is in the White House, a black president; there are a black police chiefs and black judges. A black policeman is now nominally in charge of the cops in the area. Yet the families are still asking if they will ever get justice — the same questions they were asking during the civil rights movement.

Over the past decade in the US all races and ethnic groups have been hit hard by austerity. But black people have been hit the hardest. According to the 2012 Census Bureau black medium household income has fallen to just 58.4 percent of white income, almost back to where it was in 1967.

Michael Brown’s generation will not see the same levels of intergenerational mobility as before. Black middle class people are sinking back into the working class, while many working class families have fallen into the bottom quarter of earnings. At the same time a small group of black people have become even richer.

There is a debate taking place about how to explain and respond to these developments. On the one hand there are those who hold to the 19th century ideas of leaders such as Booker T Washington — that black people have to improve themselves, that they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That conservative mentality is still there.

But this, of course, fails to address how the sheer weight of poverty is driving people to crime. People blame individuals for criminal behaviour rather than seeing it as a consequences of deep poverty.
This is reflected in the shocking rates of incarceration for black men in the US — some 40 percent of prisoners are black despite being only 12 percent of the total population.

Another response comes from those arguing that black people need to continue along the democratic route, chasing votes, and there were representatives of the Democratic Party at the memorial. But as one of Michael Brown’s friends told me, “We expected that having a black president would make no difference. Now we know it makes no difference.”

The third response has been the demonstrations and protests. And it is going to become a feature of US society that there will be continuing anger at the way blacks and Latinos are being treated. There will be many more flashpoints. What was interesting this time was that there was less of a “backlash” against white people on the protests. The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protests have spread to include groups of workers, such as those postal workers who refused to handle any mail to Ferguson police.

This shows that many people are drawing different conclusions about how to fight against racism, oppression and austerity.

A poem by Maya Angelou read out at the memorial summed this up: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”