Ferguson and the normalization of black murder


Since Michael Brown died at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, the protests in Ferguson have shone a light on major issues of today: militarization, Gaza, the police state, and the myth of post-racial America. In the media, a battle to control the narrative has shadowed the turmoil on the streets, as sources of news and opinion vie to dominate discussion. The debate develops by the hour, but the essential facts remain unchanged: Michael Brown was an unarmed African-American. In his murder are echoes of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, and many more.

Fatal police violence against black bodies is extremely commonplace. As Mia McKenzie, founding editor of Black Girl Dangerous, points out, cops, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes murder a black person every twenty-eight hours in the US. Her article “Things to Stop Being Distracted by When a Black Person Gets Murdered by Police,” published over a week ago, is an essential primer on the media’s reflexive lies and evasions: declaring rebellions and uprisings “riots,” fixating on looting, bringing up the murder victim’s past, devoting space to superfluous celebrity opinion, and upholding the standard of respectability politics (which Obama has embraced). Jamilah King at Colorlines discusses what she terms “the perfect victim frame”—how a victim's perceived morals are essential to earning public empathy, and thus serve as a distraction from, once again, “the most urgent matter: a police officer’s killing of an unarmed young man.”

Both the protests in Ferguson and our failure to reckon with its underlying causes—even when they prompted a federal commission, as in the case of the 1922 Chicago Commission on Race Relations and the 1968 Kerner Commission—is very much in line with the US history of urban rebellions. The Kerner Commission, following a summer of rioting in inner cities across the country, famously cautioned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Though the US has always been home to a multiplicity of races, as Asian American activist Soya Jung points out, the police state continues to rely on blacks as objects of fear.

Public opinion on the police response to the Ferguson protests is split along racial lines: 65 percent of African Americans say the police have gone too far in responding to the shooting’s aftermath, as opposed to just 33 percent of whites. Eighty percent of African Americans say the shooting raises important issues about race, while only 47 percent of whites concur. “For blacks, the ‘war on terror’ hasn't ‘come 'home.’ It's always been here,” Tamara K. Nopper and Mariame Kaba write in Jacobin. Noting that many mainstream news articles have picked up on the topic of police militarization without a discussion of American race relations, Nopper and Kaba argue that we shouldn't need a spectacle to confirm the lived reality of a police state for many black Americans, as “law and order” even without intense militarization has been a longtime aggressor. Jamilah King concurs, writing

Today, if we are to believe law enforcement and personal responsibility-loving politicians such as President Obama, black victims of white racism must still, as Colvin put it, ‘fit the profile.’ Their victimhood is only supposed to matter if their lives are pristine. That’s why St. Louis County law enforcement keeps trying to chip away at the popular image of Michael Brown as a college-bound gentle giant … This is why we must be clear about the danger of the perfect victim frame. In cases like the Brown killing, this structure serves to legitimize the sometimes-lethal police brutality of people of color.

The tragic death of Michael Brown should remind us not just that the death of African Americans at the hands of the police is common, but also that it has been normalized.

To read the articles mentioned in full:

“Things to Stop Being Distracted by When a Black Person Gets Murdered by Police” by Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous.

“Itemizing Atrocity” by Tamara K. Nopper and Mariame Kaba in Jacobin.

“Michael Brown and the Danger of the Perfect Victim Frame” by Jamilah King at Colorlines.

To follow the protests in Ferguson, we recommend:

Following the list of Ferguson locals and journalists on Twitter. 

“Ferguson reports raise questions on the media criminalization of blacks,” by Renee Lewis, Al Jazeera.

“Why the Fires in Ferguson Won’t End Soon” by Jamelle Bouie in Slate.

Contributions by Verso authors:

 “100 Years of Tear Gas” by Anna Feigenbaum, author of forthcoming Tear Gas: The Making of a Peaceful Poison, in The Atlantic.

 “A Blood Sacrifice for the NYPD” by Chase Madar, Jacobin.

 “How Anonymous Got It Right and Wrong in Ferguson,” Washington Post interview with Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower author Gabriella Coleman.

 “How to End Militarized Policing” by Alex S. Vitale, the Nation.

 “Unethical Journalism Can Make Ferguson More Dangerous” by Malcolm Harris, Al Jazeera.

 “Who Is an ‘Outside Agitator?’ ” by Richard Seymour, Jacobin.

 For further reading:


Recommendations from Mariame Kaba @prisonculture on policing, violence, and resistance including Police Brutality: An Anthology, edited by Jill Nelson et al.

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

"African-American Empowerment in the Face of Racism: The Political Aftermath of the Battle of Los Angeles" from Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics by Manning Marable, excerpted on our blog