The protesters, the police and the media were all ready, and they got what they’d been waiting for. On Monday night a grand jury decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of teenager Michael Brown, and parts of Ferguson erupted into violence. Cars were burnt and shops looted while the police fired tear gas and smoke. More peaceful protests have spread across the rest of the US as well, as Barack Obama calls ineffectually for calm. So where is the rage coming from? And why did people decide to respond by rioting?
As I mentioned in my previous post on Ferguson, it’s not exactly hard to see where the anger comes from. The high number of police shootings in the US – mostly of young black men – gives African-Americans the feeling that their lives aren’t worth anything. Supporters of the police will say that these men shouldn’t commit crime then, but this is missing the point. Even though many of the victims are caught in petty crime, it’s the speed with which officers reach for their weapons that’s the problem. In some of the cases it seems to be a shoot first ask questions later policy – a policy that doesn’t seem to be applied as much to whites. African-Americans are three times as likely to be shot by police as whites.
This statistic is made far worse by the fact that these police officers almost never see jail time. Even when cases do it make to trial, juries are reluctant to disbelieve an officer’s version of events, no matter how dubious they may be. This is somewhat understandable; if an officer says they made a split-second decision, it’s hard to dispute this afterwards when there’s no other witness. However, even when there’s overwhelming evidence that the police used excessive force, juries still rarely want to convict. In the 90s the savage beating of Rodney King was caught on video, and the police were still acquitted – leading to 53 deaths in the Los Angeles riots.
But still, why riot? Rioting seems to be the most counterproductive form of protest. Rioters everywhere are driven by anger at the system, but they don’t attack ‘the system’. They destroy cars belonging to ordinary people. They loot shops belonging to members of their own community. They attack people who have nothing to do with the government. It reminds me of an old punk song by the Dead Kennedys. The lyrics still ring true today, especially these words:
“But you get to the place
Where the real slavedrivers live
It’s walled off by the riot squad
Aiming guns right at your head
So you turn right around
And play right into their hands
And set your own neighbourhood
Burning to the ground instead”
In Ferguson it was the same story. While there were peaceful protesters in Ferguson on Monday night, many were just waiting for a fight. Just like the song says, when they couldn’t get through crowds of police at the Police Department, they destroyed their own community. It plays right into the hands of those who simply can’t understand their anger and their fear that they might be the next to be killed by the police.
To many of those in Ferguson though, there didn’t seem to be any other option. Now they’re at least being listened to, whereas all those peaceful protests after the killing of Trayvon Martin brought no change. I’m not condoning rioting, as I said I think it’s counterproductive. But it’s a complex story, and there are no easy answers. It’s also a story that we’ve seen happen time and time again, with seemingly nothing changing. And unless the American justice system starts to try to understand the fear and anger of African-Americans, it’s a story we haven’t seen to the last off.