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

Photo: Getty
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This is no time for civility towards Republicans – even John McCain

Appeals for compassion towards the cancer-stricken senator downplay the damage he and his party are doing on healthcare.

If it passes, the Republican health care bill currently being debated in the Senate will kill people. Over the past few months, the party has made several attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed under Obama, all of which share one key feature: they leave millions more people without healthcare.

Data indicates that every year, one in every 830 Americans who lack healthcare insurance will die unnecessarily. A report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the newest “skinny repeal” plan will leave an extra 16 million individuals uninsured. That’s an estimated annual body count of 19,277. Many more will be forced to live with treatable painful, chronic and debilitating conditions. Some will develop preventable but permanent disabilities and disfigurements - losing their sight, hearing or use of limbs.

This is upsetting to think about as an observer - thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in a country that has had universal, free at the point of delivery healthcare for almost seven decades. It is monstrously, unfathomably traumatic if you’re one of the millions of Americans who stand to be affected. If you’ve got loved ones who stand to be affected. If you’ve got an ongoing health condition and have no idea how you’ll afford treatment if this bill passes.

I’ve got friends who’re in this situation. They’re petrified, furious and increasingly exhausted. This process has been going on for months. Repeatedly, people have been forced to phone their elected representatives and beg for their lives. There is absolutely no ambiguity about consequences of the legislation. Every senator who supports the health care bill does so in the knowledge it will cost tens of thousands of lives - and having taken calls from its terrified potential victims.

They consider this justifiable because it will enable them to cut taxes for the rich. This might sound like an over simplistic or hyperbolic assertion, but it’s factually true. Past versions of the bill have included tax cuts for healthcare corporations and for individuals with incomes over $200,000 per year, or married couples making over $250,000. The current “skinny repeal” plan has dropped some of these changes, but does remove the employer mandate - which requires medium and large businesses to provide affordable health insurance for 95 per cent full-time employees.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain took time out from state-funded brain cancer treatment to vote to aid a bill that will deny that same medical care to millions of poorer citizens. In response, ordinary US citizens cursed and insulted him and in some cases wished him dead. This backlash provoked a backlash of its own, with commentators in both the UK and US bemoaning the lack of civility in contemporary discourse. The conflict revealed a fundamental divide in the way we understand politics, cause and effect, and moral culpability.

Over 170 years ago, Engels coined the term “social murder” to describe the process by which societies place poor people in conditions which ensure “they inevitably meet a too early… death”. Morally, it’s hard to see what distinguishes voting to pass a healthcare bill you know will kill tens of thousands from shooting someone and stealing their wallet. The only difference seems to be scale and the number of steps involved. It’s not necessary to wield the weapon yourself to have blood on your hands.

In normal murder cases, few people would even begin to argue that killers deserve to be treated with respect. Most us would avoid lecturing victims’ on politeness and calm, rational debate, and would recognise any anger and hate they feel towards the perpetrator as legitimate emotion. We’d accept the existence of moral rights and wrongs. Even if we feel that two wrongs don’t make a right, we’d understand that when one wrong is vastly more abhorrent and consequential than the other, it should be the focus of our condemnation. Certainly, we wouldn’t pompously insist that a person who willingly took another’s life is “wrong, not evil”.

Knowing the sheer, frantic terror many of my friends in the US are currently experiencing, I’ve found it sickening to watch them be scolded about politeness by individuals with no skin in the game. If it’s not you our your family at risk, it’s far easier to remain cool and detached. Approaching policy debates as an intellectual exercise isn’t evidence of moral superiority - it’s a function of privilege.

Increasingly, I’m coming round to the idea that incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary. Senators voted 51-50 in favour of debating a bill that will strip healthcare from millions of people. It’s unpleasant to wish that John McCain was dead—but is it illegitimate to note that, had he been unable to vote, legislation that will kill tens of thousands of others might have been blocked? Crude, visceral language can be a way to force people to acknowledge that this isn’t simply an abstract debate—it’s a matter of life and death.

As Democratic congressman Keith Ellison has argued, merely resisting efforts to cut healthcare isn’t enough. Millions of Americans already lack health insurance and tens of thousands die every year as a result. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but the coalition of resistance that has been built to defend it must also push further, for universal coverage. Righteous anger is necessary fuel for that fight.