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
Show Hide image

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

Gerald Wiener
Show Hide image

From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496