The Summer of 2014 and the Return of the Politics of Racism

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Protestors Vanessa Lucas and Rona Caldwell in Ferguson. Photo by @ryanjreilly. Photo: @ryanjreilly/twitter

This summer in street politics has been long and violent. But in the midst of the chaos, there has been a steady signal. It is becoming possible to detect a subtle, tidal shift in the attentions of the post-Occupy American left, away from the subject of economic inequality and towards the problem of race.

In retrospect, it is possible to sense that change happening before Memorial Day. Highbrow conversation was then dominated by acclaim for Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay in The Atlantic, which made the case that the country had a moral obligation to pay reparations to African-Americans and delineated the economic cost of a long history of discriminatory policies. MSNBC spent much of the summer telling stories about Republican attacks on voting rights and efforts to impeach the first black president. The police-choking death of Eric Garner on Staten Island raised the possibility that not even a progressive political regime devoted to curbing policies like stop and frisk could end racial bias and brutality in law enforcement. In the background has been Gaza, a horribly vivid analogue of what an extreme form of antagonism between a state and its racial minorities might look like. And now there is Ferguson.

The past 72 hours in Ferguson have helped to clarify what those demonstrations are about. The protests seem to be growing at once more violent and more political. On Sunday night, from within crowds, men fired guns at police and threw Molotov cocktails. A group of armed men were reportedly identified by "police intelligence sources" to be holed up, menacingly, in a barbecue joint. A separate cadre of men attacked a police command center. No one seems able to say exactly who these men were, whether they were the core of the protests or something small barnacled on to them. But their actions were so targeted that it seemed to make more sense to describe them in political terms than to dismiss them as looters, gangsters, or opportunists. "There is a small group of people who cannot be defined as protestors/demonstrators," the St. Louis alderman Antonio French tweeted on Monday morning, after the violence in Ferguson escalated Sunday night. "They are more like fighters/rebels/insurgents."

At the same time, the degree of political rhetoric, both from within Ferguson and surrounding it, has escalated, too. Al Sharpton arrived, and so did the New Black Panther Party, and both seemed intent not on fanning the flames of the crowd but in redirecting them. The scholar Jelani Cobb, walking through Ferguson, noticed how easily conversation seemed to shift from an outrage over Michael Brown's shooting death to "underlying social dynamics" — the disenfranchisement of felons, the way law enforcement fell heaviest on African-Americans.

 It has been said often during the past week that the images from Ferguson have resembled those in the developing world — from Gaza, or Egypt. To me, they've looked much more like the riots in American inner cities in the late '60s. There is the intrusion of angry racial politics into quotidian commercial settings: Key events in Ferguson have taken place in the parking lot of a convenience store and in a McDonald's. There is the unyieldingly racial support for the police: The Guardian noticed a small pro-police demonstration, in which roughly 125 people held up signs of support for Darren Wilson, all but one of them white. There is the overwhelmed figure of the governor Jay Nixon, grasping blindly for some point of progressive compromise. There are those unbelievable photographs.

More than anything, though, there is the way in which this particular police shooting of a young black man acquired a special momentum, and national, and even international, importance. (Protestors in Gaza tweeted tips for dealing with tear gas to Ferguson, a declaration of some kind of comradeship.) Part — perhaps even most — of this was the callous response of the local police, who adopted both the garb and the posture of an occupying army. But I suspect part of it, too, had to do with the context this summer. At high, medium, and low levels of political sophistication, the left was already circling around the exact issues that surfaced in Ferguson.

It was common, on the first anniversary of the Occupy protests, to wonder what had happened to all the energies of the left and how they had dissipated so quickly. Now it just seems that we may have been looking in the wrong place. By making the targets of its anger so narrow (bankers, and the politicians who abetted them), the Occupy movement broadened its appeal far beyond the street. Middle-class issues, like student debt and gentrification, were included under its banner, and the two great champions of the inequality movement, Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio, represent (quite literally) two of the wealthiest political constituencies on the planet.

But the core of the inequality problem always lay in the pockets of deep poverty. The middle class suffered from economic stagnation, but it suffered much less than the very poor. To be stuck in Levittown from generation to generation is not necessarily great, but it is much worse to be stuck in East Baltimore. Maybe it means something that it was Occupy Oakland that noticed those tweets from Gaza to Ferguson and coallated them, turning them into a story, and maybe not. But either way, there is a logic to this progression. Once you start thinking about inequality and social stagnation, it makes sense that you will soon start to think about the poorest communities, and the forces that keep people trapped there. And that often means institutional racism.

This isn't the only way to view what is happening in Ferguson. But it may help to clarify some of what is happening now. French ended his string of tweets about the "fighters/rebels/insurgents" yesterday with a tweet that functioned both as an anguished plea and a kind of battle cry. "This thing has the potential to further escalate. Black leadership in STL has a chance to avoid that. We must reach out to these men today." Something big has surfaced in Ferguson, caught up in the dual escalations of explicit political talk and violence. The problem for French and other progressives on the scene is how to extract one from the other, how to keep the political signal, which had taken a long time to become visible, from disappearing back into noise.