Watching the citizen protests in Ferguson, Missouri and the massive police overreaction, I couldn’t help but think of the old 1960s revolutionary phrase about “heightening the contradictions,” the idea that a little subtle and acceptable instigation could prompt the state to expose its own brutality.
My stepfather-in-law used to do that. He and fellow divinity school students and young progressive ministers used to go to protests in the sixties—even on the streets of Chicago at the ’68 Convention—convinced that cops would think twice about clubbing their way through a phalanx of clerical collars to get at the hippies. And, well, if the cops didn’t, at least there’d be hell to pay on the nightly news.
There probably were people like that in Ferguson. But night after night glued to the television was enough to confirm that the majority of people on the streets hadn’t studied their Mao or their Abbie Hoffman or Bobby Seale. They were just people, and their grievances and motives were written all over their faces. Yet the police response—a false dawn of spotlights, flares and rows of armored police in infantry vehicles, leveling military-grade rifles at streets where kids had been breakdancing to the beat of handclaps just an hour before—could not have heightened the contradictions more if it had been induced. And it could not have been more stunning without the effectiveness of its predecessors this century.
The drama in Ferguson owed much to the success of security theater over the last fifteen years. We started with the 1990s intensification of the War on Drugs, making enemy combatants of entire neighborhoods and acclimating us to the necessity of shock troops clearing streets of people convicted on sight for the act of standing still. Later, we vastly overreacted to the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and the greater paranoia of the Global War on Terror, in the process becoming too quickly accustomed to a total imposition of police power as a necessary response, even at the expense of containing public protest. We never entirely lose sight of the dangers posed to public safety—assigning the First, Fourth and Sixth Amendments to scattered cages—but the effect of the danger is like a lion in a zoo. It’s only exotic if has the potential to be deadly, but we wouldn’t countenance looking at it except through bars.
The scenes on the streets of Ferguson last week reminded me of the streets of Tampa during the 2012 Republican National Convention—whose outside events almost no one remembers, because almost nothing happened, and almost no one was there, leaving no one to ask how absurd it was. Erect the right kind of cage, and it seems respectable, almost scientific. And God help you if you haven’t enough time to build one. The only threat to “reasonable” security theater is the wrong kind of theater, especially if you’re telling the 24-hour news about your plan to engage street violence just as Thomas the Tank Engine choo-choos right past and completely outflanks you.
By 2012, the Tampa PD had learned the lessons of the NYPD during the 2004 RNC and in Zuccotti Park in 2011: that the great antidote to galvanic protest is massive inconvenience, followed by everyone’s tendency to ignore anything that isn’t loud or shiny. This worked on journalists and protesters in equal measure.
For the former, zigzagging security cordons and layers of checkpoints made getting inside the convention a chore. Once in the bubble, opportunity cost discouraged you from exiting. Even if you learned of a protest, reaching it took nearly an hour round-trip. Why leave for a potential dud when Marco Rubio was right there? Ultimately, most journalists restricted themselves to two media spheres connected by a covered, air-conditioned umbilicus lined with TV screens playing CNN, encouraged by the heat, rain and security strata to never exit a controlled environment.
If they had, they’d have found similarly controlled people. Fences lined the streets of a downtown already indifferent to pedestrian traffic. The posts stood like inverted metal hockey sticks, bent inward at the top to prevent people from crawling over into the street, confirming that the number one job of security theater is preventing protesters and police from interacting face to face. A cop can’t abuse you if you can’t come into contact with him.
Local radicals had already been defused, both by the TPD and the fecklessness of the broader Occupy movement. Occupy was driven from the city center, while confrontational midnight roustings landed “uncooperative” Occupiers in 24-hour detentions that made them miss work and accelerated attrition from the movement. And, like everyone else in the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan GWOT fire-sale, the all-Democrat Tampa City Council and Mayor’s office had up-armored the city in advance of a phantom invasion.
“They bought a tank for [the RNC],” a pig-masked Occupier named Cade Kelly told me months earlier. “They made sure to drive it by us, so that we knew what we were going to be seeing at RNC. I’ve been woken up multiple times with jokes about tear gas and pepper spray.” His peers who didn’t quit got the message, refusing to use their names or even to be dropped off near protests, for fear license plates were being logged for later harassment. Two days before the RNC, I watched the TPD try to roust a permitted protest area, only to melt away when the bus I was on stopped and unloaded a half dozen photojournalists. “They’ll be back as soon as you leave,” a college-aged white girl told me.
In the end, nothing happened, and we never got the spectacle of rifle-bearing SWAT team members scattering through the city like a bucket of black beetles upended on a scale model of Tampa. People could protest, and a free press could notice, and both were heavily disincentivized from doing either. If a system works best by inhibiting any elements that question its own perpetuation, the system worked.
Obviously, the system hasn’t worked in Ferguson. It’s a quintessentially American tableau with historical antecedents that go far beyond the last decade and a half of security theater.
The one hiccup in this narrative is, of course, Occupy Wall Street, and the midnight, airspace-cleared scouring of Zuccotti Park that Hizzoner Michael Bloomberg tried to sell as a reasonable restoration of order. There was a real moment there, where a plutocrat lived up to every cliché of law enforcement as the legalized nightstick of plutocracy, just as beefsteaks were idly pepper-spraying kids in the face on college campuses.
But Occupy bungled it, as my friend Eric Augenbraun put it, by never answering “what defines the movement aside from the tactic of occupying public spaces.” The optics didn’t help, either—people fucking in tents and getting high and generally looking like what would happen if you radicalized the String Cheese Incident. It takes a certain kind of courage and a certain kind of heartbreak to challenge a broken system just as your life is starting, but the lack of cohesion and the frequent adventure vibe muddled a condemnation of the status quo that, when it comes from the streets of Ferguson, is unmistakable.
The thing about Ferguson is it doesn’t need messaging or intermediaries. You can understand everything that’s happening even by staring at a muted TV—sometimes especially so, if Don Lemon’s busy giving a lecture to black kids about saying “ma’am” with their pants on tighter, or whatever his job is. All you need is a functional long-term cultural memory. An unarmed black teenager is dead, shot multiple times by a white cop from a disproportionately white PD in an overwhelmingly black community. You know everything that that means.
All the usual dismissals fall impotently away. You can’t dismiss these people as bored, privileged interlopers when you see an economically depressed local community responding to its own structure. The message is a centuries-long refrain about legal force used as an instrument of terror by an economic and racial overclass, and the moment you might dismiss that as the airy evocation of some college revolutionary, it is instantly reinforced by rubber bullets, by snipers on rooftops, by the brutal color binaries of white faces and long black guns firing clouds of white gas at black men and women who stand palms upraised. Journalists will exit the craft table area for that.
Democracy is a messy business; its public expression is reactive and confrontational, a constant real-life version of some John Stuart Mill thought experiment about the needs of a community to address itself, and the rights to it that we truncate to preserve public order. And Ferguson is, in part, an authentically indecorous confirmation of the American experiment contravening the relatively new and terribly rational imposed security narrative.
The citizens of Ferguson are speaking to the instrument they democratically and economically empower, and in the process have been maligned by every element indebted to modern security theater—the conservative crowd that pushes law-and-order both as a governing plank and a handgun sales pitch. (Not to mention networks that just love gee-whiz military stuff on the teevee.) Beyond the bestializing of blacks as part of a centuries-long narrative of dehumanization, the ease—almost necessity—with which the right addresses Ferguson citizens’ publicly impeaching the legitimacy of the state as “animals” speaks to the desire to see them caged. Someone can be paid to build that cage, so long as the right people are elected to fund it. The most seductive aspects of modern U.S. prison culture are temporary walls you can move to wherever they’re necessary.
You could hear that when the cops decided reporters Wesley Lowery and Ryan J. Reilly were being too indolent when it became time to move the barricades to a McDonald’s. You could hear that when cops told Argus Radio’s Mustafa Hussein, “Get the fuck out of here and keep that light off or you’re getting shelled with this.” You could see it in the no-fly zone over police activities. Or in cops trying to sequester the media in approved media zones while trying to corral citizens in approved protest zones. Or cops trying to co-opt the media with ride-alongs. Or in official curfews for protests, which were sold repeatedly as measures for civil safety and the safety of police, but which tried to shift the theater to a daylight in which it’s harder for journalists to slip into crowds and easier for cops to identify protesters, for God knows what purpose later.
There is no reasonable comparison to the history of blacks’ terrorization at the hands of the criminal justice system—unless you write for National Review. But at the risk of being crass about this current situation, the distance between Ferguson and something like the 2012 RNC, or the 2008 RNC, etc., may be this: a calendar. Ferguson presents us with an aberrancy because it is staggering to us after 15 years of living in a security state to see people demonstrate a just anger and an unambiguous message outside a captive environment. Give the Ferguson PD a months-long countdown to Mike Brown’s shooting, however, and we likely wouldn’t have seen any of this.
In the light of that, it’s easy to read the terrifying police response to Ferguson, as so many have, as not a local government responding to the voices of the community but rather an occupying force addressing an insurgency of the ineluctable other that needs to be subdued. It’s an attitude made more immediate and more horrible by the spontaneity of Ferguson citizens’ outrage at Mike Brown’s shooting and by the legacy of racial repression in America. But it’s an attitude we have accepted elsewhere because it’s been expressed more telegenically about less sympathetic groups amid better planned repressive theater.
It’s very easy for a wing of the American political population to say that the residents of Ferguson belong in a cage and that events in that town over the last few weeks have confirmed that. It’s easy, because they’re falling back on the same screaming leitmotif running through 400 years of African-American history. But it’s only gotten easier in the last 15 years, because they’ve been egalitarian enough to throw the rest of us in with it, and for the most part, we’ve gone quietly.