Murder: a protester outside Buzz Westfall Justice Center where a jury began looking at the circumstances surrounding the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Photo: Getty
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Welcome to America, where police shoot an unarmed black man six times – and then call him a villain

What is happening in Ferguson is about more than Michael Brown and his family. It’s a shadow play of a national crisis in race relations and class repression.

“Please repeat, this is America,” I hear Elon James White say. Right now, I’m listening to live radio despatches from reporters choking through tear gas in Ferguson, Missouri. Their voices are muffled by gas masks and there is screaming in the background. For days, there has been a running battle between law enforcement and local protesters after a policeman shot a black teenager called Michael Brown.

At many of the protests, only one side had weapons. Peaceful demonstrations, with people holding up their hands – just as Brown is said to have done – have been met with tear gas and pepper spray. Journalists have been attacked and arrested. Amnesty International has sent observers.

I am struggling to hear the radio report over the industrial roar of an espresso machine and the smooth jazz drifting in through speakers. I am sitting in a hipster café in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The girl at the next table over from me has no idea where Ferguson is, or what is happening there, despite the battle for her country’s soul going on 1,200 miles away in the Midwest. She was unaware, until I brought it up in conversation, that on 9 August, an unarmed African-American teenager had been shot and killed by police. Outside, on a balmy, late-summer morning in a mainly white university town, with no police on the streets, life goes on as normal. Please repeat – this is America.

In Britain, we’ve seen this already. Almost exactly three years before the Ferguson protests broke out, the Metropolitan Police shot and killed an unarmed man, Mark Duggan, in Tottenham, north London. Peaceful demonstrations turned into several days of pandemonium as young people came out to loot shops and fight the police. Thousands of arrests were made and the government was hours away from sending in the army.

The protests in Ferguson are different in many ways from the 2011 English riots but there are also disturbing similarities: in August 2011, the official story was that the civil disorder had nothing to do with “real” politics, nothing to do with racist policing and repression. It was – in the words of the Home Secretary – “pure criminality”. It had nothing to do with class, or austerity, or the racial prejudice baked into both of those axes of oppression. Law enforcement was justified in making mass arrests and using extreme force to bring the situation under control – the only response to civil breakdown, then as now, was to bring in the big guns. And, as with the situation in Ferguson, everything hung on the character of the deceased.

In a fast-moving media situation, with people scared and looking for answers, the tide of public anger can sometimes be turned back if only it can be proved that the victim was armed – or, if he wasn’t armed, then that he looked armed. Or if he didn’t look armed, if he was just a terrified kid with his hands in the air, then he was a criminal thug who deserved to die.

In the weeks after the Tottenham riot, Mark Duggan’s reputation was summarily executed in the British press. Photos of the 29-year-old father with his face set in a thuggish snarl were plastered everywhere. It later emerged that this image had been cropped from a photo of Duggan standing by the grave of his baby daughter. The expression on his face was grief.

This month, Missouri police similarly attempted to retain control of the narrative. First, they claimed that Brown had attacked the officer who shot him. Autopsy reports showing that Brown was shot six times in the front went viral online. The story changed: Brown was portrayed as a bad kid who may have stolen cigars from a shop. Then footage emerged apparently showing him paying for the cigars. By this point, the world was watching the lies fall apart from one moment to the next.

What is happening in Ferguson is about more than Brown and his family. It’s a shadow play of a national crisis in race relations and class repression, as white police officers in battle gear place a largely African-American town under military occupation, using sound weapons and rubber bullets, suffocating the streets with tear gas. Its citizens crouch in lines with their hands up, wearing T-shirts emblazoned “Stop killing us”.

This isn’t just about Ferguson. It isn’t even just about America. It’s about the story of America, the story of capitalism as fair, stable and triumphant, and whether this can be sustained in a world whose certainties are lying in shards at the feet of the rich. The old story of a just superpower no longer holds. If there is no justice in Ferguson, how can there be justice in Fallujah? In Shejaiya?

For white Americans in sleepy university towns, life goes on as normal. The streets are clean and there are still bagels for breakfast. For everyone else, the jig is up. Social media is making all sorts of convenient fictions impossible to sustain. It remains to be seen if the idea of America as a just and mighty world policeman can survive the internet age – and what the consequences will be if it can’t.

Postscript

This will be my last column for the New Statesman, for now. I’ve been awarded a journalism fellowship by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, which prohibits me from doing regular writing elsewhere. It’s a unique opportunity for me to deepen my reading and become better at the work I love but I’ll miss the NS very much – it has been a privilege to work with this editorial team and to correspond with such an engaged and interesting cohort of readers.

I’ll return in June 2015. In the meantime, I absolutely promise not to pick up any bizarre American spelling conventions, as long as you all promise not to let the Tories back in. I hope we have a deal. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Whatever Arlene Foster did, at least no one died

After all, Northern Irish voters forgave Martin McGuiness his spell in the IRA. Plus: why did Boris Johnson get a pass on Brexit bungling?

What was Sir Ivan Rogers trying to tell us when he referred to “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” in his letter of resignation from the EU ambassadorship? According to “friends” quoted in the Times – which almost certainly means Rogers himself – he thinks that Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, were guilty of a “failure to understand briefings”. Put more crudely, he thinks the two Brexiteers are a bit thick.

I do not like the political positions of either Fox or Davis. But I note that both have science-based first degrees from universities other than Oxbridge (Fox studied medicine at Glasgow; Davis took molecular and computer sciences at Warwick). Both were also brought up in council houses. The third leading cabinet Brexiteer, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian raised on a large family farm on Exmoor, is, like Rogers, a Balliol arts graduate. He is apparently excluded from complaints about brain capacity. I wonder why.

 

The Cummings man

Rogers is not the first to question Fox’s grasp of the issues. Vince Cable said in September: “He doesn’t understand what a customs union is.” If so, he is not alone, according to Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign. In a 20,000-word blog that purports to explain the referendum result, Cummings states: “I am not aware of a single MP or political journalist who understands the single market – its history, its nature, its dynamics, its legal system . . . Cameron, Osborne and Clegg certainly don’t. Neither does Bill Cash [the veteran Tory Eurosceptic]. Neither does any head of the CBI. Neither do Jon Snow, Robert Peston, Evan Davis or John Humphreys [sic] so they do a rubbish job of exposing politicians’ ignorance.”

Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, offers no evidence of his own grasp of the subject. But since his rambling screed cites, among others, the 19th-century German chancellor Bismarck, the American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the 18th-century English statistician Thomas Bayes, I suppose we must take his erudition on all matters for granted.

 

Cash for ash

After the First World War, Winston Churchill observed, “The whole map of Europe has been changed . . . but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” Now, as we grapple with Brexit, Northern Ireland’s troubles return in the contemporary form of renewable heating subsidies overpaid to businesses and farms, some of them no doubt in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and nearly all (one guesses) to members of the Loyalist community. The subsidies, overseen in an earlier ministerial position by Arlene Foster, the Unionist first minister, have led Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Foster’s deputy in the power-sharing executive, to resign, threatening the survival of the province’s eternally uneasy peace.

McGuinness argues that Foster should stand down pending an inquiry. Perhaps he is right. But whatever Foster did or didn’t do, nobody died. Which is more than can be said of McGuinness’s spell as an IRA commander, into which no inquiry was held.

 

Firm smack of regulation

The trouble with trying to create a sensible system of press regulation, which ministers are still struggling to do, is that somebody must finance it. In my view, neither government nor newspapers can be trusted as paymasters likely to respect the regulator’s independence.

Perhaps some charitable foundation or private individual with no axes to grind could be persuaded to step into the breach. But, no, the only available source of finance is Max Mosley, the ex-head of Formula One motor racing. Through family charities, he bankrolls Impress, the sole regulator recognised under legislation passed after the hacking scandal.

It is hard to imagine a less suitable paymaster. He is the younger son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader in whose Union Movement he was once actively involved. More recently, he sued the now-defunct News of the World for breach of privacy in reporting his involvement in a sadomasochistic sex orgy. Whether he was right or wrong to do so is beside the point. By no stretch of the imagination can he be described as a disinterested party. Following the News of the World case, Mosley tried to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that the law should require newspapers to give advance notification of their intention to expose private matters. The “victims” could then, if so minded, seek pre-publication injunctions.

This form of censorship was denounced by Milton in the 17th century. Mosley has no grasp of the most fundamental principles of press freedom and fair regulation.

 

A poor prognosis

A bad Christmas and New Year for the Wilby family, with all of us suffering colds/chest infections/flu/bronchitis/pneumonia (delete according to dramatic preference). But at least we didn’t have to risk treatment in an NHS hospital, encountering what the British Red Cross rather fancifully calls “a humanitarian crisis”. Of our two nearest hospitals, one is in special measures, while the other didn’t have a single spare bed from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve.

The Labour Party came to office in 1997 determined that the NHS should provide standards of choice and personal attention as good as in the private sector. Only thus, its leaders reckoned, could middle-class support for the service and willingness to pay the necessary taxes be maintained. The Conservatives’ goal is the opposite: to reduce the NHS to a condition in which the middle classes abandon it, leaving a rump service for the poor. Taxes can then be cut, with the affluent needing the money for private insurance. The Tories are well on the way to success.

 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge