In Ferguson, a New Type of Race Riot Is Taking Shape

In the United States, the case of Michael Brown, a young black man, unarmed and killed with six bullets by a white police officer, is not isolated. Similar scandals have taken place the past 20 years. American police officers kill on average 400 people every year (most often in situations of legitimate self-defense), much more than European police officers. The right to carry arms is much more extended and makes police work more dangerous. Additionally, the “rules of engagement” (gun usage) are much less strict in Europe.

The death of Michael Brown on August 9 triggered a movement of protests that has lasted almost two weeks in Ferguson, Missouri, with more than 160 arrests, a curfew, and the intervention of the National Guard. The violent repression of manifestations in Ferguson must be placed in an institutional context. There are more than 18,000 police forces in the United States, divided between the city, county, state, and the federal government. Each has its own hierarchy, budget and human resources. It’s the police of each city that manage disturbances, without being trained to. Composed of staff often from the army and preoccupied with the arms that criminals may have, American police spend considerable sums on military equipment (grenade launchers, machine guns, armored vehicles, etc.) that they use when the situation overpowers them. Demonstrations are not considered a legitimate means of political expression in the United States, and their repression reduces them to riots, so the political message cannot be understood.

In 1932, a demonstration of veterans was suppressed by a charge of cavalry with fixed bayonets, led by General MacArthur, causing four deaths and more than a thousand injuries. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, young white people who had joined the demonstrations alongside black people were stunned by the violent repression by police. The repression of the Occupy movement (struggle against social and economic inequalities) in 2011 was brutal, their emblem being the tear-gassing of seated students at UC-Davis in California.

“Potential Suspects”

According to the police, Michael Brown’s “crime” was having crossed the street outside of the crosswalk. American police have come to be interested in similarly minor infractions because they have a statistical approach to their job. Thanks to geographical software, police officers identify criminogenic zones and allocate human resources, with the mission to stop as many “potential suspects” as possible.

All individuals who commit infractions, including minors, are arrested “preventively,” before they commit a more serious crime, as statistics predicts. Driven by the logic of performance indicators, police officers control and search massive amounts young men belonging to racial minorities.

This strategy, although controversial, is supported by the entire political class. Combined with mass incarceration, it is effective for fighting crime. Even Bill De Blasio, the new mayor of New York, who led his campaign against this police strategy, remains ambiguous. He recalled William Bratton, the legendary chief of police under Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York (1994-2001), with the mission of preserving the effectiveness of the police while trying to amend the more unfair effects on the lives of black youth.

Since 1993, criminality has crumbled in American cities, while the rate of incarceration is five times that of 20 years ago. Today, more than 2.2 million people are in prison, of which 45 percent are black. Mass incarceration has terrible effects on black neighborhoods, where children grow up without parents or the fabric of a community, where ex-convicts are excluded from the job market, and where the majority of black youth without diplomas will be in prison in the course of their adult life. Prison has become a structured experience in the life of entire generations of African-American men.

In light of these changes, why aren’t there more demonstrations and massive race riots against this regime of police and prison? While these scandals of unarmed Black people being killed are recurring, the last race riot dates back to 1992 in Los Angeles.

There are three reasons: Residential segregation limits the risk of contact between black and white people, the decentralization of budgets and municipal jurisdiction allows the co-option of elite black people in the local system of power, and the formation of a black middle class legitimizes racial order. These forces have limited the discontentment behind the influence of police and prison on the lives of black people. But over the course of the 2000s, these forces weakened.

“The Property Differences between White and Black People Have Increased”

Ferguson is a historically white residential suburb, developing a larger black population during the 1980s. But local power rests in the hands of white people. The police force is 90 percent white. Public employment and municipal grants haven’t profited from a black majority. Additionally, black people, in Ferguson and elsewhere, were part of an illusion of financial prosperity by risky mortgage credits in the 2000s, after decades of discrimination in the credit market. The average salary for black families stagnated during this period, and the wealth differences between white and black people have increased. The costs of education, health and housing have gone up, becoming out of reach for families even with two means of income. The real estate increases since 1990 in American cities and the displacement of poor populations to the suburbs has unsettled the historical fabric of local organizations that support the poor. For black Americans, it’s the whole of these forces of legitimization in the social system that has eroded these communities during the 2000s.

If the segregation between black and white neighborhoods has casually decreased, a massive re-segregation of institutions like schools and prisons is coming. Studies show that, upon contact with white society, with its breadth of inequalities, the black middle class has lost its illusions about a progressive march toward racial integration. The only black people who believe in integration are those who have no contact with white people.

One can make the hypothesis that the events in Ferguson reveal the emergence of a new type of racial riot. Historians distinguish between those associated with the creation of the black ghetto and the struggle for urban space during the 1910s-1950s and those from the 1960s-1970s, which are more centered on poverty, police violence, and the looting of stores in the ghetto that don’t belong to black people (to Jewish people in the 1960s and Korean people in 1992). In Ferguson, lootings seem secondary. Riots are the accusation of radical politics, new since the civil rights movement, against the legitimacy of public violence and the penal state that exerts itself against black Americans.

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