Ferguson Redux: The Fire This Time

“This is the hate that hate produced.”  No this statement was not made by someone in Ferguson, but rather it came from someone at the scene during the Watts riots in 1967. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Rioting is the language of the unheard.”  This came from one of his many speeches.  The complete quote is as follows:

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

As so many commentators have noted, Ferguson and the fate of Michael Brown, was not just an isolated incident.  Indeed, it represents the entire country and the near apartheid conditions that exist in this so-called “post-racial America.”

To better understand what is happening and the role of the police in predominantly black communities, it might help to resurrect a 1967 article by sociologist Robert Blauner who wrote about what he called “internal colonialism.”  His article appeared in the journal Social Problems and it was called “Internal Colonialism and Ghetto Revolt.” Using the concept of colonialism, he makes the argument that the “internal” variety has much in common with the colonialism itself.  He said that there are four components of colonialism.  First, “Colonization begins with a forced, involuntary entry. Second, there is an impact on the culture and social organization of the colonized people which is more than just a result of such ‘natural’ processes as contact and acculturation. Third, colonization involves a relationship by which members of the colonized group tend to be administered by representatives of the dominant power. There is an experience of being managed and manipulated by outsiders in terms of ethnic status. A final fundament of colonization is racism. Racism is a principle of social domination by which a group seen as inferior or different in terms of alleged biological characteristics is exploited, controlled, and oppressed socially and psychically by a superordinate group.”

I think this description describes what is happening in America today.  As a case in point, in Ferguson the black community the relationship with the dominant group tends to be “administered by representatives of the dominant power.” Looking at news coverage of the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, I was struck by the obvious fact that just about everyone in control were white males, including the governor, the district attorney and the vast majority of the police.

Speaking of the district attorney, it seemed obvious that, unlike what most often happens, he did not really seek an indictment, but rather almost went out of his way to discourage an indictment. Indeed, as the Washington Post noted, between 2009 and 2010, U.S. prosecutors “pursued 193,000 cases” and out of “more than the 30,000 cases they didn’t prosecute, 11 cases were because a grand jury did not return an indictment.” That represents less than 0.1% of the 30,000. This jives with a report that noted that in less than 3% of cases do grand juries refuse to indict. It is even rarer when police officers are indicted for killing a citizen.

Ferguson represents the “fire this time,” a slight modification of James Baldwin’s classic book “The Fire Next Time,” published in 1963.  In a recent commentary, Bob Herbert used “the fire this time” to describe the black community’s reaction to what happened in Ferguson and elsewhere. He said: “But these tragedies all emerge from the same fetid source -- the racism embedded in the very foundation of America. And it's that racism -- stark, in-your-face, never-ending, frequently murderous -- that has so many African-Americans so angry and frustrated, so furious, so enraged. Black people all across America, not just in Ferguson, are angry about the killing of Michael Brown. And they remain angry over the killing of Trayvon Martin. And many are seething over the fatal chokehold clamped on the throat of Eric Garner by a cop on Staten Island in New York.”

The fire will continue to burn until the day that true justice prevails.