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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times