Recently, we’ve had national discussions about: gun control, healthcare, poverty. The list goes on. These conversations inevitably get sidetracked and fade from the media, though the issues continue to burn in our minds. The economy continues to limp along. Legislators strike down labor laws. We are increasingly entwined in the lives and struggles of those across the world.
This barrage of ills, combined with a bombardment of local and international horrors, fosters apathy. Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Pakistan, Russia, and West Africa have been in the news recently because of overwhelming illness and violence, and we all know the media only shows a fraction of suffering and injustice in the world. Contradictory reports convey situations as muddled, murky, and convoluted.
But what do we actually know about Ferguson? A white policeman shot an unarmed young black man six times. The police responded by leaving the body in the sun and preparing for protests with military equipment. They shot rubber bullets at crowds and teargassed people into their homes. They arrested, threatened, and assaulted civilians, including journalists . They pointed sniper rifles at innocent protestors. The governor declared a curfew on the town. The police refused to release information about the alleged perpetrator until they simultaneously released a video of the victim supposedly robbing a store.
The paragraph is in past tense, but it’s not over.
Have there been riots and looting? Yes. Has there been violence? Yes. Have there been shootings? Yes.
Let’s look at the Civil Rights Movement during its most famous years. It was peaceful. It was simple. It was quickly accepted by citizens across the country. Right? Wrong. It was divided and dangerous. It was organized and strategic. It was considered a distraction from more important evils.
Right now, conservatives are criticizing protestors by pointing out the evils of ISIS, as though fighting against systematic racism and violence supports a vicious, self-declared caliphate. Back in the ‘60s, civil rights activists were condemned for causing trouble when the Soviet Union was oppressing its civilians and threatening world annihilation.
The language then and now is very similar. “Don’t they have anything better to do? Why can’t they control themselves and let the system work itself out? They only care about blacks. What about the rest of the world? There are two, equally valid sides to every issue. Why are they instigating violence?”
Even though the vast majority of protestors have been peaceful (some are actively preventing looting), the police blame their own brutal reaction on the handful of violent civilians. “Why can’t they just be peaceful and remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message?”
Here’s why: the only reason why so many (but not nearly all) civil rights activists in the 1960s were nonviolent was the highly concerted effort to train protestors to react to abuse with nonviolent resistance. They provided this training because they knew the natural human reaction to threats is fight or flight.
The police in Ferguson have devolved into “us versus them” mentality, which is why they don’t even have the judgment to make themselves look good on camera. Empathy and compromise become less likely. Some of them are having the time of their lives, finding thrill in fighting “the enemy” every night. Some are scared, because large groups of angry people, especially when they have just cause, are scary. White Southerners who beat peaceful activists in the sixties often described themselves as being driven by fear to “defend” their community.
The Ferguson police are taking out the media in a variety of ways. In many Southern attacks on activists, reporters were the first to be taken out. Cameras were smashed, journalists were beaten. It makes sense to remove the means of recording a serious crime. Thankfully, civilians now have ways to record and quickly disseminate information.
Racism today is perceived as being more subtle than it was in the past. Segregation and voter disenfranchisement still exist, but the solutions are less clear-cut. People dismiss this epidemic of police violence due to it being directed at “criminals.” The prison-industrial complex is so ingrained in American culture, many hardly think twice about it.
This is how discrimination happens. This is how inequality exists. This is how atrocities occur. They become normal and, thus, invisible. Those who experience it every day are told to shut up and stop exaggerating.
But the world was watching when white Southerners beat black activists fifty years ago, and the world is watching now. And they are outraged. Recordings of police brutality have been popping up for years. A few simple laws could significantly reduce police violence.
In 1961, the nation’s youth poured into Mississippi and Alabama to protest segregated bus stations. That sense of solidarity happened then, and it can happen now. In spite of widespread prejudice and racism today, past activists DID make a difference. This new world includes the internet, a tool for coordinating, fundraising, and gathering information, as we have seen across the planet.
We can learn from past and present movements. Gazans, also trapped in their homes, instructed Ferguson residents on how to handle tear gas. The most successful civil rights groups were and are tactical. Working together can be as challenging as facing down oppressors. Something Occupy Wall Street severely lacked was focus, an essential element in affecting change.
Diane Nash, a leader of the 1960s Movement, pointed out that metal is most malleable when hot and least manipulable when cool.
And right now, it is hot.