What I saw watching St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch finally speak on Monday night, after making everyone wait on tenterhooks, was a carefully orchestrated performance: the posture of casual but absolute power along with the recognition that it cannot be stemmed. He challenged the most vulnerable of Ferguson’s citizens to wait, to watch, to listen and to respond. Disorder was not to be feared but stoked. To show the world — and most of all, Ferguson’s black residents — that those who resist are still nothing more than a coerced and ultimately socially abandoned community, determined the timing and form of his announcement.
It was not the nonindictment against police officer Darren Wilson that shocked. That was expected. After the recent and unredressed deaths of unarmed blacks at the hands of police — Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Tanesha Anderson, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice and the others, many others — how could this shooting of a black man by a white police officer be punished? Even our president cannily reminded us, yet again, as he did with Trayvon Martin, of the rule of law and urged our calm acceptance of it. “Violence is not the answer,” he said. How do we understand the rule of law in a country with such a long history of legal stigma, obligatory degradation and state-sanctioned violence? Obama’s cold logic, polished reasonableness and immaculate condescension sounded like madness (How can anyone speak like this at a time like this?). He spoke as if to rescue a dying country, where rescue means nothing, not now.
What so unsettled me about McCulloch’s address, relaying the decision of the grand jury after lamenting the whole process leading up to it? I watched him at the same time that I watched on a split screen the crowd of people waiting on the street near the police station, confronted by a row of officers. The people stood together in a fabric of reciprocity, though that cooperation was sometimes threatened by the presence of provocateurs or the sound of gun shots in the dark. Unlike the protesters, the police looked unreal. They shimmered as if lit up inside their plastic shields.
Again, the violence committed against the Brown family and the attempted shattering of their identities as individuals was not in the refusal to indict Wilson. The real cruelty lay in the ingenuous choreography of futility. Destruction is what the white supremacists — let me call them all by that name — are after. Looting is what they look for, what they need in order to continue the raw exercise of brute power. Why else would McCulloch, as many have asked, wait until the night to appear, if not to insult the bereaved and enrage their neighbors?
Law and order can be justified only when expected stereotypes are replayed before the public — the criminal blacks, the thieving blacks, the unruly blacks. And like clockwork the National Guard was called in, more than 2,000 on Tuesday night, joined by a hundred FBI agents and officials from the Department of Homeland Security. White power is explicit. It brooks no subtlety. Its actions are clear, unmistakable and insurmountable. The rituals brought to bear on the residents of Ferguson, who are treated as if irreparably outside it, are engineered to destroy their personal and moral integrity.
Exclusion and stigma, always based on color, drive this country, economically, politically and socially. If you are stigmatized, then you have an even greater responsibility to consider your comportment. Monday night, before McCulloch’s announcement, a daughter of Martin Luther King quoted her father in a message to the people, the black people of Ferguson. She reminded them to conduct themselves on “the high plane of dignity and discipline.” It is always the oppressed, the marginal, the most aggrieved who are asked to be dignified, not the officer who shoots or chokes a black man or slams a black woman’s head into the pavement. The call for nonviolence works only when it applies to the marginalized, the people who must take to the streets in pursuit of justice. It never applies to the police who operate in this country with brutality and impunity.
What happened in Ferguson — what happens with regularity all over this country — has a long and sordid history. When slaves were emancipated, the U.S. criminalized blackness through black codes and Jim Crow. When those laws were overwritten, we criminalized blackness through redlining and the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws. Now our prisons are filled with African-Americans who bear witness to a legal system that projects a phantasm of criminality that is almost always black. Killing unarmed black men in the stores, parks, streets and stairwells of the United States is not exactly backed up by the rule of law, although Obama is astutely selective in his use of that phrase. He uses it only when admonishing unreasonable, overly emotional blacks. Such rules are not meant for police, for they exercise something old and hoary, what was known — especially after emancipation — as police power.
Police power is state power, ostensibly activated whenever there is any threat to the health, safety or welfare of citizens, usually moneyed and invariably white. In the 19th century, that threat once came in the form of people labeled vagrants or criminals. They were superfluous to the community of reasonable men, useless to the civil order and therefore expendable. Since 9/11, the so-called war on terrorism has widened the net. Alleged terrorists, enemy aliens, illegal immigrants, all tarred with the same brush, are easily cast outside the pale of empathy.
McCulloch condemned social media, the witnesses and journalists. He relied on what he called physical evidence and portrayed the victim as, at best, something trivial, and at worst, unworthy of life. Were Brown’s hands up or down, open or fisted, at the waist or on his hips? He wore a red hat and a white T-shirt, and he carried a few cigarillos. So when Wilson saw him coming down the street, the officer knew that Brown was guilty: the one who stole, the one who had to be stopped, shot dead on the street. But the — I almost said “colorful” — description of the man too big and too dark to live took odd detours in Wilson’s testimony before the grand jury. Brown, no longer quite human, was described as an alien specimen of some other species or like the professional wrestler Hulk Hogan:
I shot another round of shots … At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.
No power is absolute, and the protesters in cities throughout the United States know it. They hear the white officials of Ferguson who are disappointed in the destruction of property. They hear Obama, whose scolding takes flight in a supremely insensitive bout of narcissism: “I have no sympathy at all for destroying your own communities.” But these words no longer matter. The brown and black residents of Ferguson, most of them made to feel that they belong nowhere — certainly not in their own communities, heavily policed and constantly harassed as they are — still believe in justice. Even though they have little cause to believe, they are fighting for the law to make good on its promise of equal protection, to give them the right to have rights. Faced with the same old condescension and treated with casual contempt by the powers that be, they respond with the only dignity that counts in this world gone wrong: resistance and solidarity. And they are no longer alone.