Watching Ferguson Burn: What Constitutes Appropriate Rebellion?

"A riot knocks on the door and, when it stays closed, kicks it back open"

Riot police run past a burning St. Louis County police car as hundreds of protesters gather in Ferguson, Missouri on November 24th, 2014. Credit: Jahi Chikwendiu/Getty

"This is what it feels like when you feel like you can't go any lower. I understand the anger, but I'm sad. The way this is going to be told, is these people will seem crazy. That's the way the narrative will go. But these people are worse than crazy, they're hopeless at this point. And this is what it looks like when people get to the point of hopelessness."
Dr. Stefan Bradley, All In With Chris Hayes, Ferguson, Missouri

Days before the grand jury verdict, the typical Constitution Bozo Outfitter in my mom's hometown, like so many signs across the south, read, "Pants Up, Don't Loot." The admonishment was familiar to anyone following the racial discourse in living memory. Bill "Here, Drink This" Cosby only became more beloved by white America for telling black people their problems began at their belts. The racial equivalent of telling a hippie to get a haircut, it ignores that the rest of the system isn't rigged against the hippie. It doesn't matter if a crowd's pants are down if you pay attention to the man at the dais reading out a miscarriage of justice while the walls go up around them.

Watching the preparations Ferguson, Missouri, made for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch's announcement of the grand jury findings in the case of Officer Darren Wilson's killing of Michael Brown was deeply unsettling. A dismal air of inevitability hung over the event. The Ferguson police had negotiated some terms with protesters, but they still had their police tanks and gas canisters at the ready. Even in Clayton, Missouri, they were putting locks on the fucking mailboxes. That's how little you could trust these people. You couldn't trust them with mail. Civic unrest trumps civic failure, and nothing occludes institutional contempt for the citizenry like wanton displays of disrespect for process. This is America: You're supposed to play by the broken rules until you can fix them, even if they're fixed beyond correction.

Once McCulloch began speaking, his office and Ferguson's anodyne preparations took on a note of the sinister. Announcing a "no bill" grand jury vote on an explicit 10-shot killing late at night might been chalked up to the bumbling of an overwhelmed office during the day, but later it seemed almost ideal for the purposes of impeaching protester backlash by having as many pissed off people off from work with nothing to do but be on the street. A target-rich environment of institutional excuses. All those weeks of leaked grand jury details — optimistically written up by the media as tempering details intended to manage expectations — instead seemed like prep. Rather than letting off steam slowly, it felt like stoking the fire. 

The gall of McCulloch's comments only emphasized the notion that the worst was being planned for because the worst was being engendered. He began by condemning social media and 24-hour media for listening to some eyewitnesses and broadcasting incomplete details — as if the outrage here stemmed from citizens drawing attention to their outrage, not a white cop gunning down an unarmed black youth over jaywalking with rolling papers. It was all too redolent of the right-wing playbook that says, "The real racist is someone who sees racism when I don't," only tweaked to, "The real outrage was all these expressions of outrage without my consent."

Next, he delivered a litany of details so heavy with emphasis on Mike Brown that it was easy to forget that Brown was not the subject of potential indictment. All suspicions of McCulloch's family ties to police and history of giving them a pass seemed instantly justified: The man tasked with seeing if Darren Wilson could be put on trial decided instead to question his victim. Meanwhile, the absurd length to which McCulloch went to make the narrative as muddied as possible appeared intended to justify the "document dump" he gave the grand jury. The atmosphere of see? who could even make head or tail of this? obscured the fact that it's a prosecutor's job to weed out conflicting data to present a grand jury with a clear narrative and secure an indictment. It is, in fact, ridiculously and overwhelmingly easy for a prosecutor to get an indictment.

McCulloch followed his document dump on the grand jury with one on the media. Instead of a focused response of op-eds, the media instead must now do the job of crafting narrative that McCulloch abdicated. At worst, it's meant to buy enough time that the fires of outrage in Ferguson have dissipated before they have a clear enough paper trail to fuel them. At best, McCulloch's refusal to tell a story means that he has offered no story to be gainsaid. You can't poke holes in disaggregated pile of data the way you can in a tapestry and have anyone take as much notice. Omission and indolence are less galvanic than lies. By surrendering the duty to make some kind of case, McCulloch puts the onus to do so on a media he has already condemned as biased, at which point the only two characterizations of the sloppy pile he's left behind are the work of incompetence or corruption. 

Combined with the Ferguson and Clayton police preparations, McCulloch's entire demeanor seemed to say, "Your move," and either way the black community was fucked. If they didn't riot, then the rotten system that lets white cops get away with killing black kids and prosecutors get away with using the law to absolve them works. Even a peaceable demonstration of disgust and refusal to some extent absolves the machine that churns up bodies. You have your vote, you have your First Amendment, and if nothing changes, then that must mean what we have is the most just compromise we can strike. Even if striking it requires turning your town into a fortress to make sure that we can all shake on the deal and walk away. 

But they did riot, and you could see the smug radiate off Twitter from every white armchair general in the modern American race war. "The blacks" sank to the expectations set so low by images of the fortress state of their town. Set aside the fact that turning a town into a fortress to "contain" the calls for redress from a population is an act so offensive that it itself should provoke a riot. The great authoritarian trick about preemptively implying that everyone in a town is a lawless goddamn animal is that there is no immoral law or immoral selective suspension of the law that they can then rebel against without confirming the echoing pre-judgment that they are animals. 

How, after all, do you not resort to lawlessness when the law shows an inherent disinterest in upholding the law, if the preservation of the status quo takes precedence over the pursuit of justice? Or, more pointedly, how can you legitimately do that if you're the wrong kind of person? What constitutes appropriate rebellion is an easy question to answer for every armed neoconfederate asshole with an annotated Glenn Beck version of the Constitution. Unrest and revolt is 100 percent OK within the right kind of demographic, which is why white dudes can parade around government buildings with AR-15s on their backs in a display of political unrest as "heritage," while ACORN registering votes and preventing predatory lending constitutes organized crime. It's the same reason why midwesterners can look at blacks vandalizing police cars — symbols of oppression and murder from an unaccountable overclass — and condemn it while unironically celebrating the political vandalizing and looting of the Boston Tea Party. A riot and the tea party acts of force — are impossible to mute in a way that signs and petitions are not, and white men with guns know this. You can't politely shut the door and say, as McCulloch and his ilk did in August, "I'm terribly sorry, sir, but this isn't the time." A riot knocks on the door and, when it stays closed, kicks it back open. But who we charge for the door is prosecutor's discretion. 

McCulloch ended his presser with mealymouthed platitudes about working together to ensure that events like those in Ferguson would never happen again. What he didn't acknowledge was that he had been working for months to ensure that this one happened and lots more will follow. A thug in a suit boosting the law to make it do what he wants ensures that someone else will try the same thing, regardless of his wardrobe or his standing on the social spectrum. What separates McCulloch from those he inevitably creates is only appearance.

Ultimately, the high-minded civic bullshit and even the historical narrative-saving protests of the white protester is just a temporary pose. It's costuming for a day, with the resumption of life awaiting the player the moment he gets tired, takes off his clothes and returns to being himself every day. McCulloch can go home, and every hippie or anarchist kid can get a haircut and a pair of flat-front chinos, and the moment they do, they all take their place among the civitas, with all rights to acceptance and recreational disobedience embodied therein. But a black dude can listen to every Cain, Carson, Cosby, Elder, Keyes, Sowell or Williams in the country and pull those pants up, and wherever he is and whatever he wears, he's still a black man in America. And we don't let those people disobey here.