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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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

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 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt