One of the few times President Obama has been out-and-out defeated in his presidency came earlier this March, when he nominated lawyer Debo Adegbile to oversee the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Republicans, as with nearly every action Obama has undertaken during his presidency, mounted a vigorous opposition to Adegbile’s nomination, seizing on the fact that he had once been part of a defence team that had successfully worked to commute the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted in 1981 of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Setting aside the controversy over whether or not Abu-Jamal actually committed the murder, it has always been common practice, when considering a lawyer’s ability to serve in higher office, the quality of performance in the court, not whom the lawyer represents. For example, Chief Justice John Roberts, before he became a justice, did pro bono work for welfare recipients and GLBT activists, but no one opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court on those grounds. Heck, John Adams, our second president and a conservative lion, defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Still, the right-wing media pulled out all the stops to oppose Adegbile, and in the end convinced enough conservative Democrats to break away from President Obama to outright defeat Adegbile’s nomination in the Senate, despite the dangerous precedent this will set in terms of how aspiring lawyers choose which clients to represent.
Fox News, in particular, waged a month-long campaign against Adegbile’s nomination, running several segments attacking him throughout his confirmation process. As many pointed out after his nomination was defeated, though, there was a very telling thing about those segments. If you watched the Fox News segments but didn’t hear the audio, most of the time you were just watching this African-American prisoner, often walking around in chains. When you watched with the sound on, though, the word you heard most often was Adegbile’s, not Abu-Jamal’s. It was an obvious, facile attempt to link Adegbile to the dominant conservative stereotype about African-American men, so that when people in the right-wing media bubble heard his name they didn’t think of a mixed-race lawyer, but instead thought big scary black man who’s gonna rape and murder our womenfolk. Say what you will about it, but it worked, and the taint of this character assassination is probably going to follow Adegbile for the rest of his professional life, and possibly his personal life as well.
When the initial news of Michael Brown’s death came out last weekend, I wish I could say that the details — how he wasn’t armed, how he had his hands up in a gesture of surrender when he was gunned down by a policeman — shocked me that much. There was certainly a good deal of anger; I was a fan of rap music in the 1980s, and so I saw things like the Rodney King beating and the 2 Live Crew obscenity arrests through that prism. (The latter was what not only got me involved in identity politics, but politics as a whole.) It isn’t just what African-Americans have suffered at the hands of the police and the justice system, either, because I had the same reaction when Columbus police went after my friends at Antioch when they protested John Kasich’s proposed student aid cuts, and what Cecily McMillan of Occupy Wall Street went through at the hands of the NYPD. Still, the deep problems African-Americans have with the American justice system deserve special attention, but we’ve reached a point where they are now so commonplace that sometimes it’s hard to get angry unless it happens to one of your friends, or it happens in your own town.
As the days following Brown’s death passed, though, the scenes from Ferguson just got grimmer and grimmer. Police officers in military camouflage and body armor, pointing sniper rifles at peaceful protesters, choking whole neighbourhoods with tear gas, acting with seeming impunity, broadcast to the whole world some of the worst of what America is. You’ve probably heard all the statistics about how African-Americans make up two-thirds of Ferguson’s population but less than a tenth of its police force, but to me the most damning facts to come out of the police escalation were from former American soldiers who pointed out that Ferguson police had more body armor than some of the first troops who invaded Iraq a decade ago, and that they weren’t allowed to point their weapons at protesting Iraqis. That says a lot about how many (certainly not all) police treat African-Americans.
The Ferguson police’s reaction to the protesters also adds to a very troubling pattern of police response to liberal and conservative protests over the past year. The most obvious example that came to mind during the Ferguson police response was the reaction to the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch this past spring, where anti-government protesters pointed assault weapons at federal agents who were confiscating the property of a rancher who had repeatedly broken the law over several years by not paying grazing fees when he let his cattle graze on federal lands. Instead of bringing in tanks and other military items in the face of this armed far-right resistance, like Ferguson police did with the peaceful protesters there, the feds backed down and allowed Bundy to continue to graze his cattle for free on federal lands. More recently, anti-immigration protesters were allowed to prevent a bus full of Central American refugee children from going to a processing station in California without police interference, but when liberal protesters in Detroit used similar tactics to try to stop water trucks from shutting off service to needy Detroiters, they were arrested. If police at a Tea Party rally had pointed their guns at protesters, does anyone doubt that the police would have been blamed for the shootout that would have inevitably followed?
The situation in Ferguson got better on Thursday when the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over policing duties in the city and allowed the protesters full legal exercise of their First Amendment rights. Things were looking up that day, but then Friday the Ferguson police dropped a bombshell on everyone by releasing video allegedly showing Michael Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store and intimidating one of the employees. Putting the racial dynamic aside for a moment, the tactic here is as old as the judicial system itself: The police wanted to put Brown on trial in the court of public opinion, thus deflecting attention away from what their own police officer did. Regardless of what Brown did, nothing justifies shooting an unarmed person, with their hands up in a gesture of surrender, and the fact that the police continue to withhold so much information about the shooting just raises more and more questions about whether or not they’re trying to hide something. All of this would be true, as many have pointed out, regardless of the colour of Michael Brown’s skin.
Once the video was released, though, it was instantly in a near-constant loop in all of right-wing media, because it gave them the angle they needed to satiate their viewers’ most base instincts. From Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to the birtherism crowd, conservatives have been preying on white conservatives’ fears with only the slightest gossamer of deniability draped over their efforts. We saw this most recently with Trayvon Martin, when right-wing media went into overdrive to try to pick out any small problems in Trayvon’s past to hold up as alleged examples of how evil he was, then plastered video screens with the most sinister-looking pictures of Trayvon they could find. The video of Brown allegedly intimidating a store clerk and stealing cigars, even if it doesn’t directly exculpate the police officer who killed him, will be enough justification for many right-wingers because even if Brown didn’t deserve to die at that moment then he was going to deserve it soon anyway because he was obviously going to turn into a gang member, a drug dealer, another violent n***** who was going to rape and murder their wives and daughters, “just like the rest of them.”
I almost spelled the n-word out there because I’m getting tired of softening the ugliness of this kind of racism. I’m sick of all this talk about the “soft racism” of conservatives, as if something as horrible as racism can even be softened. Yes, southerners may no longer be rapturously smiling to cameras in front of lynched African-Americans, but you know what? African-Americans are still being murdered. Michael Brown is dead, Trayvon Martin is dead, and as long as we allow this so-called “soft racism” to persist without a vocal and sustained response, it’s just going to mean more African-American parents burying their teenage kids, murdered by people who have been led to believe by right-wing media that they’re doing the country a service. The n-word may not be on their lips, but it’s damn sure on their minds.
I don’t condone looting or other acts of stealing or violence in response to what the Ferguson police have done this past week, but if you don’t understand why Ferguson residents, and people across America, are coming out in such large numbers and protesting what happened to Michael Brown so loudly, then you don’t understand the problem at all. If we don’t raise our voices then the next young African-American man to get gunned down in an American street could be one of our friends, or someone in our own family. Staying silent is no longer an option.