Before I begin, I wish to share a few thoughts. One, I do not currently see a premeditated conspiratorial-ity in the Ferguson events; 'the narrative', something I will address soon, was obviously in play. Two, I have little to say about the incident that started this set of events other than that I am sorry for Michael Brown, in a separate Missouri incident, Kajieme Powell, and anyone else who may have passed on due to police violence this summer.* I am also sympathetic to the police, the poor, the African American community, the press - in short all parties involved.
Ferguson touches on two major subjects I have been thinking about in 2014 - totalitarianism and the question of slavery.**
You go down there looking for justice, that's what you find: just us.
Richard Pryor, 'the early 1970's'
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said 'This is mine' and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
Rousseau, 1754 ***
On the one hand, the Richard Pryor quote is a simple insinuation of the obvious: police brutality and procedural injustice are real problems for African Americans and others. Think: crack vs powder, stop and frisk, etc. (Here is the full joke - listen near 1:11.)
But on the other hand, Pryor perhaps points very deep into the European notion of the rule of law and reveals how tenuous the rule of law really is (even in an esteemed, modern nation such as ours). Pryor hints at a profound truth: justice is only as good as the people involved - be they you, me, the streets, or the police.
If one of us fails to conduct ourselves with righteousness, awareness, positivity, and integrity, then justice will not prevail. Even (and especially) when we include the police in the term us, it's just us; justice is up to just us. Good cops, bad cops, good criminals, bad criminals - we are all in this together. We are the sole progenitors of human justice in the physical world. For many of us, that is a hard pill to swallow and difficult truth to understand that no one will save us but ourselves.
We face these issues in the context of a 'nascent totalitarianism' in the states - a term I offered here.
More Signs of Police Heavy-Handedness
The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppose.
Frederick Douglass, 1957
By and large, I do not trust American presidents - especially after Eisenhower and Kennedy. (We had plenty of other problematic presidents prior to Ike. I digress.) Obama recently ordered a review of police use of military equipment. I doubt he is sincere on this issue.**** It's a major question that all Americans face. As diverse groups as the ACLU and the Cato Institute have voiced concern over this issue. It's a truly odd phenomena and just seems to slowly get worse.
In the 90's, I remember reading very small circulation, Left-leaning and conspiratorial journals and magazines in book stores in the SF Bay Area. They reported on the rise of police exercises that relied on military equipment and planning. Today, we watch Youtube for this type of info. But we also now see the very same images on CNN.com and other mainstream outlets. (Other stories only make it all seem more strange by the day; check out this one on mercenaries in Ferguson.)
Adding insult (and more injury) to injury, we seem to see a rise in totally inappropriate police behavior around the press. I sympathize with police and the difficulties they face but it is un-American to mistreat the press. And by un-American, I mean illegal in many cases. It's bad enough that the press censors itself, which I can understand (sort of). But I increasingly see and read stories of blatant, aggressive, and seemingly unconstitutional police and state conduct. (If challenged in the next month, I'll provide a reading list on the subject.) It is a tremendously serious problem for a democracy and for a modern administrative state.
We are watching a corruption of our freedoms. Not only is it embarrassing, it is bad for business and an assault on our livelihood and rights - both of which are birthrights in this country. And it transcends Bush and Obama. However, it is not the center of gravity in Ferguson discussion.
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
P.T.S.S. is a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora. It is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.
Dr. Joy Degruy, joydegruy.com (in August 2014)
Let there be no confusion. PTSS is a big idea. It requires time, thought, and effort. It is also a book published in 2005 (with the subtitle "America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing" - which is IMO a very meaningful set of terms). I like Dr. DeGruy's assessment of this subject - even if I am still considering it's components and implications. Indeed, I understood the core of this thesis long before I read her book. To me, so much of the Black experience in America is tied to American slavery. Only an asshole or a buffoon could see otherwise. 1619 wasn't that along ago; and a lot of ugliness has persisted all the way up to 1965 and even now.
Ferguson is about the unresolved issues of chattel slavery and the economic war directed at Blacks in America. It is very complicated but I feel 'trauma' is truly the most important term involved both in terms of the nature of the problem and the pathology of a partial solution. Does that mean reparations are in order? I do not address that question here. (And, yes, I am aware of The Atlantic Monthly piece.) I will say this - as I have felt it for at least one decade: I support truth and reconciliation proceedings at the federal, state, county, or even at the local community level regarding the experience that Native Americans and Black Americans had from 1492 to approximately 1970 and perhaps even to this very moment. (I also separate the Native American treaty issue from truth and conciliation - one is a legal issue IMO and the other is something else.)
Truth and reconciliation is the real bread and butter move on race in America. It is not necessarily a transfer of wealth and yet it could produce (or at least initiate) an enormous and healthy shift in American life. Truth and reconciliation is IMO low lying fruit in the world of public policy and race in America. But...
...in the end, any real discussion of race, economics, justice, and individual responsibility will almost certainly prove tremendously humiliating and humbling for every single person involved regardless of his or her race. Egos will get bruised; pride will suffer on all sides.
* And I re-iterate what I say in another blog entry: "I am NOT an enemy of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials; for more info on that point see the second footnote here." Indeed, I recently announced the first option3 program that will provide a service to, among others, the police. A lot of guys would just say "Fuck the police" or "They're not one of us". And in a sense that is also a truth. But in the end, few people today want to confront the police in a sustained, multi-year effort. And I am certainly not suggesting you should even if I was sympathetic to what I believe are and were the aims of the protests in Ferguson.
** I have not published anything on American slavery although it has come up in my thinking on street violence for a while.
*** I quote Rousseau somewhat satirically.
**** ### Update (5-31-15): In some limited defense of Obama, according to CNN, he did restrict the sales of some military gear to local police departments.