Demonstrators protest the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Getty
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Amid the tear gas and arrests of reporters in Ferguson, we must not lose sight of Mike Brown

The shooting of an unarmed black man by police in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri has provoked civil unrest, media fury and a debate about the community’s reaction. But riots, reporters' arrests and black anger are not the issue here – the death of Mike Brown is.

Mike Brown: this is about Mike Brown. It’s important to write his name twice, because he is in danger of disappearing from view. It is the appalling fate of young black men like him to be lynched twice: first when they are killed, and then afterwards, when their reputations are dragged so far through the dirt that all remaining of them is a shapeless, shadowy mass of black criminality. So the speculation about Brown’s life has raged away, as if there were somehow in his past a misdeed so terrifying that people could somehow feel that, even though he had allegedly been tracked down and shot in the back, justice had been done. The events unfolding in Ferguson are about many things, including the militarisation of the police and the corresponding chokehold being placed upon any form of protest in public spaces. But, above all, they are about the local police’s vigorous defence of their right to kill an unarmed black teen in peace.

Perhaps that sounds strong. But nothing else explains the impunity with which these forces continue to operate. Meanwhile, Mike Brown’s body is in danger of becoming the mere canvas on which the latest grand failure of an institution is painted. His story is already drifting from view, submerged beneath two things: the police’s treatment of journalists, and the fierce initial media interrogation of black people’s response to this tragedy.

The latter of these issues is what may be referred to, again and again, as “the black reaction on trial”. Put simply, the behaviour of black people in response to a horror that they have suffered is examined more keenly than the horror itself. That explains why, in this case – as noted by Chris Hayes of MSNBC – their news network, and not the police, were the first to interview the key witness in Mike Brown’s death. The death of Mike Brown is not so remotely interesting to the law enforcement authorities – or, indeed, some sections of the media – as what black people will do by way of reaction. This also explains the apparent disappointment with which so many reporters first on the scene sidled away from the action, or lack of it, concerned that the protests were not aggressive enough for their tastes.

Why, then, have black people not taken to the streets of Missouri and mown down every white policemen that they have set eyes on? It is not because they have otherworldly powers of emotional restraint, because that would be to suggest that they were somehow less human, less sensitive, than any other group suffering their fate. No: it is because they are mourning a member of their community, and they are looking for justice. It is impossible, on that note, to imagine that Mike Brown been white he would have been left lying on the tarmac for so many hours after his death, the latest gruesome testimony to America’s racial inequality.

Why, again, are black people not unleashing a vengeful hail of bullets? Because they get it: they get why they are killed by authorities with unerring regularity. President Obama gets this, even though he called for “reflection and understanding” in the wake of Brown’s killing; as if there were anything left to reflect upon or understand. The answer was set out clearly by none other than James Baldwin in his short book of two essays, The Fire Next Time. As long ago as 1963, he explained the surprising calmness of African-Americans in the face of these atrocities, and why they comprehend the actions of the policeman who gunned down the fleeing Mike Brown, even as they do not forgive them.  

“The American Negro,” wrote Baldwin, “has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honourably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbours or inferiors. . . Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

Baldwin got it then, and black people get it now: while we consider the fact that these scenes are as vivid and visceral as they were in the Sixties, evidence of a system so efficient that it erases the individuality of each of its victims. So, again: Mike Brown; Mike Brown; Mike Brown.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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