- W.E.B Dubois
“Porque cuando la tiranía es ley, la revolución es orden [because when tyranny is law, revolution is order]”
- Calle 13 (Residente)
On November 24th, 2014 a St. Louis grand jury did not indict officer Darin Wilson for the murder of Black youth Michael Brown. Responses on social media ranged from salutes of victory to disappointment and ultimately, rage. Oftentimes, this response was colored by race between Black communities and other people of Color, and then Whites. However, before the assorted reactions on social media, there loomed the threat from Ferguson activists that if the Grand Jury would not indict, that there would be hell to pay. Ferguson activists kept their word. Violence, protesting, looting, state terror and militarized police all culminated into events that have been described as a “war zone” by mainstream media and personal accounts, and while deficit conversations develop about rioting and violence as committed by Ferguson activists, we should realize that these particular consequences serve a purpose in their intricate nature and are done not without reason.
I write this with the hope of providing context behind the violence and to unveil a multilayered process that can be fully appreciated as we decolonize and challenge OUR approach to Ferguson. Firstly, we should not assume that Ferguson activists and locals are involved in looting as part of rioting. To assume such a portrayal is irresponsible of mainstream media forums and highly deficit of the complexity that’s occurring in Ferguson. Second, while I avoid an essentialized frame of resistance in Ferguson, violence and looting are part of the reality of what’s occurring. That needs be admitted and understood, but must be done so in the context of what has happened, the emotional trauma of locals, their response, and even their resistance. The states reaction to Ferguson also reveals power dynamics and how far activists must go to truly be recognized and valued, because “a riot is the language of the unheard” (Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963) and one can only remain unheard for so long. Lastly, we must decolonize our lens as we see Ferguson unfold because resistance is complicated and cannot be forced into a discourse of what is progressive or regressive. Neither the liberal, nor the Eurocentric deserve a say in what is occurring and how. In the end, what arises from Ferguson is an inconclusive framework developed out of resistance and revolution, but very much valuable to the entire discussion particularly speaking as a person of Color myself.
Looting and violence is happening in Ferugson as a response to no indictment of the murder of Michael Brown. That is one reality, but it is the one that mainstream media will tell you and many participants on social media will distribute. Other realities have difficulty coming to the surface. For example, the fact that Ferguson activists have mobilized groups to protect local businesses from looting and robbery is one that has just recently arisen. Another is that peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience continue as part of the reactionary process to no indictment. Just as much as violence has been a response, so has peaceful protest. So not everyone is involved in the violence and looting as mass media suggests.
However, what about the intense and forceful response of militarized police to both violent and peaceful protests in Ferguson? Why are they not put under the scope, at least to the degree by which Ferguson activists are constantly placed under with regards to violence and chaos? Why are people telling Ferguson activists to calm down when police on steroids show up in Ferguson ready to wage war?
Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, wrote in a piece titled Guerilla Warfare: A Method, the following: “Violence is not the monopoly of the exploiters and as such the exploited can use it too and, moreover, ought to use it when the moment arrives.” Violence against oppressed communities ought to be dealt back with violence. Too often we excuse violence as a cheap form of resistance that is not deserved by either party. But why is it okay for the police to arrive as a militarized force, ready and capable with equipment utilized from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to counter protests in Ferguson, but it’s not okay for the Ferguson activists to resist with their own violent strategies? Already there is a power dynamic set. The oppressor may counter insurgency with militarized weapons but the oppressed cannot. Mainstream media has promoted this deficit tone, that Ferguson activists have rallied to a violent cause, one with no purpose, without context, and destructive to their respective community; but this isn’t new. Rebellion and violence as an act by oppressed communities has always been misunderstood, undervalued, and silenced.
For generations poor communities of Color, specifically Indigenous and African-American, have been subject to a host of violent methods and acts that have sought to displace them. From the disappearing of Black males through the Prison Industrial Complex to the silencing of Indigenous identities by film and media, people of Color experience violence from the physical to the intellectual. As we become recipients to a generational continuity of violence it is then wondered whether anybody has heard us before or even cares? The great civil rights leaders have spoken countless times, marched in so many directions, and printed so many papers that demand recognition as well as advocacy. But maybe instead of getting along, and moving past pain and guilt, what we need, what we want, is not a spot at the table of the master, but to create our own table or decide whether there should even be one! Autonomy and self-determination does not come by coordination and collaboration, compromise or forgetting, it must be claimed and owned. What this looks like should not be defined by Eurocentric standards, especially with regards to violence because the response will most likely be that destructive or violent means do not achieve anything for anyone.
President Obama and other civic members claim countless times that violent reactions to the no-indictment verdict does not move the conversation or the cause in the right direction. Many social media supporters of Michael Brown say the same. However, what is occurring instead is a mitigated advocacy of a divisive issue that is more or less political neutrality, this is talking versus walking; this is providing lip service versus actual engagement. Counter to their arguments that violence has not done anything to change society or move it in a just and equitable position, are countless acts and events that have shown the contrary.
ALJAZEERA journalist Ned Resnikoff writes that at times “the crisis caused by riots and property destruction has had a significant role in forcing authorities to respond to demands for political change.” Specific events such as the Watts Riot, Stonewall Inn, Selma, Haymarket, and Blair Mountain are events where violence was met with social acknowledgment and political consequences. Each pushed an issue to the forefront by the sheer violence of what happened. Sometimes something loud has to happen, really LOUD in order to be heard and recognized. This is a tragic truth; sometimes violence is required.
Violence as resistance, among other misunderstood methods, has its place from what we expect of communities and what sometimes communities hope to achieve on their own. Who are we to foreordain how a community harnesses its resistive energy and unleashes it? Eve Tuck is a youth resistance scholar who suggests that there are contradictions within the framework of schooling that are intended on progressing students towards completion, but are actually foundational to students being held back or marginalized. This results with identities that are often described by Tuck as Dangerous Dignities which comprehends resistance as a multi-faceted process, riddled with complicating discourses and something that goes beyond the whole reproductive and resistance argument; as a dangerous dignity sometimes we expect youth to resist in certain ways to transform oppressive structures, but frankly, the resistant outcomes are unpredictable and sometimes not transformative according to our lens.
Tuck’s research findings tend to “complicate, extend, and sometimes explode current conceptualizations of youth resistance.” What needs to happen is an approach to Ferguson with a serious critique of resistance through the relationship of Humiliating Ironies and Dangerous Dignities, and of liberal and Eurocentric notions of progress. Why can’t progress be an entire community rising up? According to Tuck, resistance can play out in the following:
“Does resistance do what we think it does? No, almost never. And it doesn’t go in the directions that we anticipate it will go…We also learn that the material realities of resistance can be dramatically different; the consequences may be muffled or delayed in some scenarios, while the consequences may be simultaneous/immediate in others. But resistance does do something, it does produce, or prompt, or prevent something.”
Resistance does something, regardless of the shape or form it takes. It produces knowledge, even if it is violent!
A recent article by Cheryl Corley at NPR suggests that Ferguson has become the Arab Spring to a whole new generation of activists local to their struggle. Robynn Haas from the Catholic Voice further demonstrates this with a profound account of Ferguson youth activists taking the stage at a mass meeting in October with national civic, community and faith leaders and critiquing their engagement while motivating the crowd. Haas reports the following commentary by Ashley Yates at the meeting:
“‘Ashley Yates, a young activist and a leader of the movement in Ferguson, also took the podium. "People take our anger and they try to make it violent, when the real violence is the AK-47s and the M16s that are pointed at us," Yates lamented to the audience. Violence is "when you see a sniper pop out of the top of a tank with a smile on his face, when all you have is your hands and your words and your anger," she said. "I am OK with being angry," she continued. "If you can see a dead black body lying in the street for four and a half hours and that doesn't make you angry, then you lack humanity…’”
The resistance occurring in Ferguson is peaceful; it is civil disobedience; it is marching; it is talking; but it is also violent. And in its violence it is being recognized; at the same time, tragically it is being misinterpreted by so many leaders and media organizations, by so many of us. Nevertheless, we must admire Ferguson activists for putting a face to the issue and reacting in ways that could not be ignored by the country, by us. We had to come face to face with it. Where that takes us? I don’t know. But at least it exists in our minds now, and with it, an obligation to not paint the violence and resistance of Ferguson as backward or regressive, but as something much more profound in the making.
“Critique is resistance; Resistance is Revolution”
- (Black TransGender Activist)