THE BLOG
11/20/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Ferguson in Context

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Grand Jury will soon announce whether Officer Darren Wilson will be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown. The announcement is widely expected to be that Wilson will not be indicted, leading to further protests on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri and around the country. Central to this story are black millennial protesters who have been seeking justice for over 100 days. These young people -- organized in groups such as Lost Voices, Millennial Activists United, Hands Up United, the Don't Shoot Coalition, and others -- have been protesting every day against systemic racism in law enforcement that is exemplified in the killing of Mike Brown. These young activists have employed nonviolent strategies of civil disobedience in the face of a militarized police force and the National Guard. In the coming days, the threats to their safety will likely increase, as local citizens are reportedly stockpiling weapons and the Ku Klux Klan has issued threats. To begin to make sense of this situation, it must be set in historical context.

On August 9, a Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, who had been stopped for jaywalking. The entire encounter lasted 90 seconds and there are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened. Several eyewitnesses assert that Brown had his hands up when he was fatally wounded. After Michael Brown was shot, his body was left uncovered on the street for four hours and thirty-two minutes, as neighbors watched in disbelief and outrage. Following this incident, some community members, grieving and demanding justice, took to the street where Brown was killed. The police responded with unwarranted force. In the weeks following Brown's death, West Florissant Avenue was patrolled by hundreds of officers in riot gear, armed with military-grade weaponry, along with SWAT teams and members of the National Guard. Reporters were arrested and a no-fly zone was established to keep media away from the scene. Protestors were tear-gassed nightly, shot with rubber bullets, and threatened. They were arrested for such crimes as stepping off the sidewalk and pausing for more than five seconds as they walked down the street. Many media commentators portrayed them as dangerous thugs and criminals, painting the extreme show of police force as a necessary response to threat.

The persistence of these protesters has drawn national and international attention to the events in Ferguson. The infamous five-second-rule, which was used to arrest peaceful protesters, has been ruled unconstitutional. The ACLU questioned the degree to which the First Amendment was "suspended in Ferguson" and Amnesty International released a report stating that the police actions in Ferguson included human rights abuses. Brown's parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., spoke to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in November, seeking justice from an international community.

External criticism does not appear to have altered the basic strategy of law enforcement in Ferguson. On November 11, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon gave a press conference in anticipation of the Grand Jury announcement. While there was some mention of First Amendment rights, the larger message was that "violence will not be tolerated." In what sounded like a thinly veiled threat, Gov. Nixon stated that 1,000 officers were ready to respond to any unrest. In another conference, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar defended the response of law enforcement during the protests and remarked, with no obvious sense of irony, that "We were fortunate not to have a loss of life." Law enforcement in Ferguson has been stockpiling the same type of riot gear that they used against protesters in August, including pepper spray and rubber bullets. On November 17, Gov. Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson and activated the National Guard.

During the initial protests in August, law enforcement first employed undue force against a grieving community. This elevated the situation and helped it become one in which there were limited instances of property damage and threatening behavior. The police then stepped in with a ridiculously disproportionate response, exaggerating accounts of danger to falsely justify their own violence. It appears the same cycle is in play now. Before any hint of danger from the protesters, law enforcement is bringing in an extreme show of force. While the rhetoric is about violence and unrest from the protesters, in reality the violence has been initiated and escalated by law enforcement.

In recent weeks, protesters have prepared for the Grand Jury announcement by stockpiling warm clothes and makeshift gasmasks. Hundreds of people have been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience. Local religious communities have offered steady support and sanctuary. The different approaches to preparation between law enforcement and protesters speaks volumes.

For the protesters and the religious communities that support them, the incidents in Ferguson must be understood within an even larger historical context, that of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching. The racism inscribed in slavery continues to function in different ways within American culture. The humiliating rules of the Jim Crow South, used to regulate black bodies and reinforce white supremacy, find current echoes in racial profiling, which is often referred to euphemistically as "stop-and-frisk" or "broken windows" policing. It can also be seen in recent voter suppression tactics. Perhaps even more shocking, however, are the echoes of lynching in this case. From 1882-1968, thousands of black men, women, and children were lynched. Their killers were rarely brought to trial. Lynching was used as a form of intimidation to terrorize black people into compliance with white rule. Key to this was the public display of lynched bodies. When a black person was lynched, his or her body was publicly displayed for the community to inspire fear and squelch dissent. The clear message was that this could happen to any black person who stepped out of line, at any time, with no repercussions for the perpetrators. This history is the context of Michael Brown's death.

The Grand Jury has been presented an unusual amount of evidence and testimony regarding what happened in the 90 seconds of interaction between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. The community in Ferguson already knows that Michael Brown's bloody corpse lay uncovered in the street for four hours and thirty-two minutes. Whether or not Darren Wilson is indicted for his behavior in those 90 seconds, American society as a whole bears indictment for those four hours and thirty-two minutes. That level of disregard for black life cannot be attributed to the actions of one police officer. It is a societal, structural disregard that reveals a culture of racism with deep historical roots and tremendous power in the present.

The protesters in Ferguson are calling all of us to reject the racism that made this possible. We must affirm that black lives matter. Many religious communities -- including Christians, Jews, and Muslims -- have been answering this call and joining the black millennials in protest. When the Grand Jury announcement is made, there will be nonviolent gatherings around the country, to protest the 90 seconds that ended Michael Brown's life, the four hours and thirty-two minutes that his body lay on the street, and the centuries of racism that continue to shape American society.