Saturday, September 20, 2014

Weekend Semi-Open Thread: As Asked by Charles Cobb at the Washington Post. How Did Black People Fail in Stopping the Problems in Ferguson Before Michael Brown was Killed?

Last night, I saw Kevin Smith's new movie Tusk. It is a monumental achievement in the man-animal hybrid genre. Tusk is the Manimal of the early part of the 21st century--in the future it will be remembered as a landmark film and cultural document, one akin to Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Am I kidding? Am I being serious? You will have to see Tusk and decide for yourself.

As is our habit here on WARN let us proceed to our weekend semi-open thread.

Charles Cobb is a veteran of the Black Freedom Struggle. He was on the front lines of the insurgency against Jim and Jane Crow and its regime of racial terrorism.

Cobb is also the author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement. He has both the practical credibility that comes from risking his life in the fight against American white supremacy during the civil rights movement, and the research/academic credentials to locate his own individual experiences within a broader historical and theoretical context.

Writing for the Washington Post online, he recently dropped what fans of professional wrestling call a "pipe bomb".

A pipe bomb is when a person tells the truth instead of limiting themselves to the official public script and/or narrative.

The public discourse on the police riot in Ferguson that occurred in response to the execution of Michael Brown by the cowardly thug cop who will not be indicted, and in response nothing will happen Darren Wilson has--with the exception of the Right-wing hate machine--largely been framed around police brutality, white racism, and black victimhood.

Because of the clear and obvious questions of morality and injustice at play, the dominant media frame has (and in my opinion quite correctly) placed the responsibility for the police riot and momentary spasmatic citizen's revolt, on the local and state authorities in Ferguson, Missouri.

While acknowledging the fact of white police thuggery and racism, Cobb's essay"Black people had the power to fix the problems in Ferguson before the Brown shooting. They failed." asks raw questions about black folks' responsibility in perpetuating the conditions of their own disenfranchisement.

Cobb writes:

Many images that came out of Ferguson, Mo., last month looked like scenes from Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s: the gun-wielding police officers, the sign-carrying protesters and the chants demanding equal treatment and human dignity. But that’s where the similarities ended. 
For all the righteous indignation it inspired, the Ferguson turmoil has become the latest in a series of flash-in-the-pan causes that peter out without inspiring lasting movements for racial justice. As an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi during the ’60s, what I learned was the importance of organizing at the grass-roots and how even small actions at this level can have national impact. That is why I cannot help but notice that many black leaders, in their efforts to drive change, are ignoring some of the great lessons of the Southern Freedom Movement. 
For one, the black leaders we most often see in the public eye have become experts at complaining about what the white man does to black people. Al Sharpton and others fill their rhetoric with fury about the white power structure, but ultimately serve messages that are superficial and myopic. To be clear, I am no right-wing ideologue blaming black people for the oppression that has beset them for generations. At 71 years old, I have experienced my share of brutal and dismissive racism. But this one-track approach will not generate change. Perhaps the great lesson of the southern Civil Rights Movement is that as much as it challenged white supremacy, it was the challenges that black people made to one another that truly empowered the movement.
He continues to bring the heat here:
Now consider Ferguson. Only 6 percent of eligible black voters participated in the last municipal elections — this in a town that is more than two-thirds black. No wonder the six-person City Council only has one black member and the 53-person police force only has three black officers. Just two generations ago, black Southerners endured arrests and beatings in order to vote. And yet, it seems we’ve already forgotten the immense power of the ballot. With the existence of the Voting Rights Act, low black voter turnout or registration cannot be charged solely to white people, no matter what machinations they use to suppress voters. 
Black people are not faced with anything like the violence that confronted those seeking voting rights five decades ago. Let’s end the excuses. The people of Ferguson have all the power they need to simply get rid of their unrepresentative government — vote them out. This does not take any great political computation.

The abysmal voting numbers in Ferguson — and in communities like it around the country — are a failure not only of the people, but of black leaders. We see them parachute in and out of Ferguson, Harlem and Sanford, Fla. We see them on TV. We see them in marches. But ultimately, they offer nothing enduring.
Charles Cobb has brought to the public forefront the conversations which occur in the semi-private spaces of the black counterpublic.

He is also signalling to how in a digital global era the events in Ferguson (and elsewhere) are mediated visuals which are depicted in a spectacular fashion that in turn create a sense of immediacy on the part of the viewer, but where the images themselves (and the momentary public outrage they create) may not result in long-term systemic change because substantive political work takes blood, resources, and long-term planning, sacrifice, and energy.

In all, "hashtag activism" and "liking" posts via social media are not replacements for real, substantive politics.

Cobb is also asking an important foundational question about what constitutes a "leader" for a given community? This is very timely given the recent release of the The Root's List of 100 Top Black Influencers under 45. While I like and respect the work of many of the folks included on the list, one must ask, how is their work actually impacting and improving the day to day life chances of black and brown people? Should this be a criteria for being considered a "black leader" or "influencer"?

And are leaders a reflection of the particular social and political circumstances of a given era? Is there some universal rule or definition?

Cobb's essay is bold and necessary; it is also missing some nuance. The people of Ferguson and other dis-empowered communities do not participate in government because they correctly sense that the State is non-responsive to their needs and lacks legitimacy. However, this calculation leads to do a dualism and feedback loop: the State is non-responsive and does not serve the needs of the black and brown folks of Ferguson and similarly situated communities because the latter are not participating and included in it.

It is important to locate this angst, citizenship, and non-participation within a dynamic context. Racially discriminatory laws remove millions of black people from full democratic citizenship because felony disenfranchisement deems them as unable to vote. Black political leaders and organizations were destroyed by a decades-long effort by the federal government and other actors to discredit, kill, undermine, and imprison them.

The remnants of the civil rights movement were then corralled into the "success" of leading bankrupted central cities that were robbed of resources by suburbanization, globalization, and the removal of federal support for America's cities just at the moment (what was not a coincidence) when they became more black and brown demographically.

In addition, during late 1960s and 1970s many civil rights leaders were bought off and cooptated by corporations and private foundations that sponsored events and conferences such as the 1972 National Black Political Convention.

Black politics and its traditional models of protest, organization, and engagement are obsolescent and ineffective in the post civil rights era and its long shadow of the neoliberal state, austerity, and consumer fundamentalism.

Naivete about the relationship between government and civic involvement must always be pushed back against: Power does not want an active citizenry; an elite and corporatist democracy wants to limit effective citizen participation not expand it.

The people of Ferguson, and the majority of the American public, are forced to deal with the consequences of a broken and ineffective government that is working precisely as intended by the 1 percent, the rentier banking and finance classes, and the other members of the American plutocracy and deep state.

Dysfunctional government creates a lack of faith in democracy. Neoliberal governance and policy makers use those feelings to expand their influence and power. Empirical research has documented how American policy makers are most responsive to the demands of the rich while being relatively indifferent towards the needs and wants of the American people.

There are a litany of reasonable and centrist public policy positions and initiatives which are favored by the American people but that its elected "leaders" ignore. American government officials also have contempt and loathing for the public.

Sheldon Wholin's vision of what he termed as "inverted totalitarianism" is the result of the above processes.

In the United States, inverted totalitarianism is also advanced through the rise of persistent and intrusive surveillance technologies, anti-democratic interest groups that subvert the public will as enabled by the Supreme Court and decisions such as Citizens United, and an exhausting and distracting media environment in which spectacle has replaced responsible reporting and advocacy work.

Could it just be that the people of Ferguson know that "normal politics" and the system are a sham? And if so, what are the alternatives to the United States' broken, non-responsive, and corrupt arrangement(s) of political power?

As always do feel free to share new items, or other information of public and private concern that you think may be of interest to the readers and followers of WARN.


Buddy H said...

There's a lot to digest in your essay. I'm still exploring the links. The policymakers being most responsive to the demands of the rich is the great national tragedy. Nothing has changed in over two hundred years.

On a positive note, I have an abundance of movies to enjoy in the small city we moved to. The theater around the corner from us is playing old Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movies every Saturday and Sunday morning. Cheap admission. My wife and I enjoy our walks there. It's a whole new life for us. And there's a small film forum further down the street that shows documentaries and other movies that lack wide distribution. They're showing "Snowpiercer" this October. Might be too violent for my wife, so my son will see it with me.

The big movie studios wanted to chop up and ruin Snowpiercer, and the director refused. They punished him by restricting distribution.. I'm looking forward to seeing it on a big screen with an appreciative audience.

Gable1111 said...

Ferguson should be on the mind of every black and brown voter this election and every election thereafter, no matter how local. And it should be the case particularly in Ferguson, where I was shocked to learn, when Brown was killed, that the mayor, all but one of the city council and all but three officers in a 53 person police force are white, in a town that is two thirds black. And this police force is used in a debt peonage scheme that wrings out most of the funding for town operations via a system of arrest warrants and court fees against African Americans. They are being forced to pay for a system that abuses them, when they have the power to get rid of it.

Given all this, that only six percent of eligible black voters came out in the last election is absolutely shameful.

As for our broken, corrupt political system that leeches off and stunts the lives of blacks, as Cobb said, it should be a grass roots effort starting at the local level. Everyone of us who is eligible to vote, registers and actually votes. Voting should become something that every self respecting black person (and maybe that's a clue to part of the problem) would not be caught dead not doing. It should be shameful and embarrassing to not vote. Take a minute to ask friends and neighbors if they are registered, and if not tell them how, and if they are, just a word about the importance of voting.

Instead of looking to national politicians who happen to be in many cases little more than black celebrities (and who could really give a rat's a**) we need to do as Cobb said, and nurture our own at the ground level and grow up from there. Leaders will emerge from these efforts, just as they did before.

Unfortunately this leaves me with questions, starting with, why can't we do this? Why can't we as a people do as we did, and be as motivated as we were in the 60s and 70s even? Is it a lack of leadership? Or is each of us so wrapped up in our 24/7 social media worlds chasing material comfort that we simply can't care beyond the next Michael Brown?

chauncey devega said...

Could folks be numb to a cruel culture and drunk on consumerism and religious fundamentalism? Seeking the next new thing and old struggle that is presented in a spectacular way?

chauncey devega said...

Snowpiercer is great. If you are curious there are ways to watch it online--but still go to the movie and support it. I am going to see Zero Theorem, have you heard about it?

Buddy H said...

I haven't seen it, but anything by Terry Gilliam is always a feast.

Gable1111 said...

Indeed, and this is why, in retrospect, "hope and change" was one of the cruelest campaigns yet. In their poll-tested, market driven politics, they knew people wanted something different, and many were reeled in, knowing all they'd be getting the same old sh*t. People retreated even deeper into consumerism, "god" and the comfort of the conventional wisdom that basically told them it was okay to be shallow and ignorant. The definition of a "real American."

joe manning said...

One thing we know for sure is that conservatives get out the vote. So not voting is acquiescence to rightist governmental hegemony, Ferguson being exhibit A.

Courtney H. said...

You got that right. Tariq Nasheed discusses one way to activate people in the Ferguson community:

Miles_Ellison said...

The other part of that equation is suppressing the votes of people who aren't conservatives.

Paul Willis said...

I really think that people need someone decent to vote FOR, before we can castigate them for exercising their viable option of abstaining. The "lesser of two evils" is often times the only choice presented (like in our last Prez election); where we really need black people to step up is in actually running for these local offices (and to another degree, applying for jobs on those police forces).

KissedByTheSun said...

Meanwhile a white man named Eric Frein has been known to make statements about killing cops, actually did kill a cop, wants to kill more cops, and he's yet still alive.

joe manning said...

Voter suppression, apathy, and gerrymandering brought us the TP.

Gable1111 said...

I've never understood this logic. There may never be anyone "decent" to vote for, and part of the reason for that IS a lack of participation in the political process. So according to your logic, not voting is ok.

Blacks, whites and others fought and in some cases died for the right to vote. And given the situation in Ferguson, which the numbers make obvious, was brought about by not voting. The blacks in Ferguson don't have the luxury of exercising as a choice not to vote. The situation there has no chance of changing if the people there don't exercise what political power they have.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Grass roots means setting up community groups that endorse a slate of political candidates that will represent the interests of their community.

chauncey devega said...

He has the complexion for the protection. Tragedy as farce.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Ridley Scott just made a movie about ancient Egypt that features an all-white cast that is to portray the ruling elite. It also will portray the minor black characters as thieves and slaves.
So, do you think a successful African-American boycott of this film will have a significant impact on future role casting in Hollywood?

What type of POC uproar would deter Hollywood from casting Brad Pitt as Dr. King...???

DanF said...

Bullshit. He also repeatedly quoted Ghanda saying, "Be the change you are looking for." If Obama is guilty of anything, it's having too much faith in people's ability to self-motivate and buy-in to something bigger than themselves and then go do it. He frequently said the problems of this country are too many for one person to solve. At every damn stop he made a call for action. For the people to get up and effect change. Not just vote, but change the world. Anyone who listened heard that it wasn't about him. It was about us, and what the hell were we gonna do to make things better? There are things the people of Ferguson can do to make things better. Voting is just one of those things.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I also get the impression that Ferguson has experienced a lot of residential turnover (i.e. white flight), so many people living there now might not have deep roots in the community that lead to political involvement. That makes it easier for the older, white power structure to stay in place longer, especially since municipal elections have low turnout practically everywhere. Basically, I think Ferguson has its own dynamics and that Cobb should not rip on its citizens too hard.

As you and others are pointing out, it's hard to go out and vote when none of the candidates actually care about you. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that voters put people in office, then threaten to withhold their votes if their demands/needs aren't met. This has actually worked for the Right, which has made the GOP its ideological captive. Democrats constantly betray their base, then turn around and beg for votes. If Democratic voters play hardball, they might actually get listened to.

Paul Willis said...

Voting for one of two sides of the same coin is definitely NOT an exercise of power. You and I will just have to remain in disagreement over that.

However, I am open to learning. You seem to be implying that one of the reasons black candidates or candidates who will keep black interests in mind while legislating (what I meant by "decent" candidates) do not run is because blacks do not vote. I think that is a mistaken assumption, but perhaps you have some evidence to back this up, if it is what you are assuming?

Paul Willis said...

An uproar from POC will never have any effect on Hollywood decision makers. They don't need our dollars for their blockbusters, and they can always gather them by releasing a few "must see" movies for us.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Everyone wants to blame President Obama. Perhaps, you might recall another of his quotes:"We are the ones we've been waiting for" and ponder its meaning with regard to the lack of minority voters in the mid-term elections. Or any local election, the outcome of which will decide if a racist is behind the wheel of a police car.

Gable1111 said...

I'm making an observation about our politics as a whole. Obama only comes into it as a symptom of what is wrong with it. As a politician doing what politicians do. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is what it is. I don't see Obama as anymore than that, but I will admit that I hope that when history is written his legacy is more than "the first black president.". (and it probably would be were it not for the ACA)

Yes, "the people" are responsible too, which is why I made the point in another post about the necessity of being involved in some way, at least by voting.

Wild Cat said...

They do. African-Americans tend to watch in-theatre films at at a 2:1 ratio to the rest of the population. To spit on 22% of your total movie-going audience is financial suicide.

Boycott and protest. Help them commit suicide for their white-supremacist actions.

Gable1111 said...

I'm not in the camp of voting for a democrat or republican makes no difference and therefore voting is a waste of time. If that's what you are saying, then we'll have to agree to disagree on that.

I made the comment I made regarding Ferguson in particular. Here you have a city in which 67% of the population is black, yet only 6% of eligible black voters voted. And black residents are being abused by the police force, and extorted by a policy that targets them for traffic violations and usurious fees. If you are telling me that it wouldn't matter if 100% of those blacks had voted, that the situation in Ferguson would be EXACTLY as it is today, then I would say you misunderstand me and the situation there.

A lot of work needs to be done before the votes are cast. Organizing needs to happen at the community and precinct level. When this happens candidates arise out of these efforts, e.g. you will have candidates willing to do what the people want because they themselves are coming up from the people. This is what needs to happen. Then leverage the power they have in numbers to put those people in office. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

Gable1111 said...

Devil's Advocate: the same uproar that caused Donald Sterling to sell the Clippers??

balitwilight said...

Even if 90% of Ferguson's "black" population voted, and "black" mayors and police officers materialised, Ferguson would be similar. There are cities all over this country with "black" mayors or representationally "black" police forces that litter the streets with young men gunned down by the police, or fuel their for-profit prisons with the destroyed dreams of "black" parents. Just look at Newark, etc.
As long as America continues to be the corrupt, apartheid, neo-liberal, authoritarian, prison-state dystopia that it has become from coast to coast - those "black" appointees would just be administrators of a different stripe - like the inmate capos in a concentration camp. I present to you Exhibit A: Barack Obama.
Speaking of Barack Obama's further legacy, one of inverted totalitarianism's major foundations is militarism. As long as a citizenry can be made to live in an unending state of Crisis and "Threat" (TM), so propagandised (from left to right) that it can be made instantly to hyper-focus on any manufactured-"threat"-of-the-month (ISIS) - then all the levers for inverted totalitarianism will remain firmly in place.

Paul Willis said...

I agree with your third paragraph.

Paul Willis said...

I submit Brother X-Squared would say Hollywood spits on us on the regular...

Black Sci-Fi said...