Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Front-line Ferguson

Events in Missouri this week raise the question of why there is such persistent racism in the United States, even under the country’s first African-American president, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“When I compare this racial segregation with the modernity and advancement of the country, it makes my heart sink” — Kwame Nkrumah in Hard Times in America

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon last Sunday ordered the deployment of the National Guard in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting dead by law-enforcement officers of the African-American teenager Michael Brown. Is this a case of the United States declaring war on its own citizens?

 Police repression following the shooting has now reached the point where references to injustice, racism and heavy-handed clampdowns have become commonplace. From an international perspective, the protests against the police, which commenced peacefully, are simply nipping at the American authorities’ heels.

The incident has also opened old wounds. For the majority of African-Americans, it looks as if little has changed since the days of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

On 9 August, Michael Brown, 18, was shot at least six times, twice in the head, by police in Ferguson, a mainly African-American suburb in Missouri. Brown’s hands were raised high, denoting surrender, and he had not been pursued for any particular crime. The police presumably suspected trouble from a young man they thought to be a stereotypically disgruntled and violent African-American youth.

The case is a grim reminder of similar murderous acts against young African-American men. It brings back memories of the Rodney King beating that sparked off the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Brown’s killing also comes not long after Eric Garner, an African-American, died following a choke-hold arrest in New York.

By its very nature, bad policing is polarising. Last year, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, an 18-year-old African-American youth, in cold blood in the state of Florida. Again, Zimmerman shot Martin for no apparent reason other than suspicion. But suspicion of what — what was the crime committed by Brown this year, or Martin the year before?

US President Barack Obama, himself an African-American and the first to preside over the nation, has been criticised by certain sectors of the African-American community in the light of his reaction to these cases. It is crucial to bear in mind that Obama is subject to the political and bureaucratic backlash of America’s predominantly white political establishment.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, a seasoned civil rights campaigner, recently declared that the Brown killing is a defining moment in America’s history and especially the manner of policing the country. “We’re not out of this yet. We haven’t even had the funeral,” Sharpton reminded his audience on a nationwide broadcast.     

“What happens when the kids see their friend lying in the casket? I don’t want that to get lost in all of the kumbayas that we are doing in Ferguson now,” Sharpton concluded.

The veteran civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson concurred. “There is a Ferguson near you,” he warned. Urban communities remain divided along racial lines in the US, and this week’s tragic events in Ferguson are like taking a disheartening trip back in time.

It is a fact that spatial apartheid is rife in contemporary America. Getting communities of different racial groups to live side-by-side peaceably with each other is no easy task.

Bouts of gunfire rang out around Ferguson throughout Sunday night and early on Monday morning. The police launched their first barrage on Sunday evening. The peaceful protests then turned violent, the suspicion being that the police had provoked the protesters in an attempt to intimidate them. The result was mayhem.

Income inequality and the alleged fear of violent crime by African-American young men have had the effect of keeping African-Americans in ghettos throughout the United States. In Ferguson, Molotov cocktails, bottles and other objects were thrown at police. Officers in riot gear ordered the demonstrators to disperse, but the violence intensified.

It may be useful to remember the maxim of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana. “The foulest intellectual rubbish ever invented by man is that of racial superiority and inferiority,” Nkrumah proclaimed in an address in Accra in 1952.

It seems that the authorities in America, among them the judiciary and the police, are die-hard believers in the racial superiority of whites, whether or not the country has an African-American president.

According to this logic, the police in Ferguson used teargas against the protesters hours before a midnight curfew came into effect. The perpetrators of the violence have used such actions before, with African-American protestors obliged to wage war against racism and social injustice.

From the vantage point of defiant African-American youth, the persistence of racism is no deterrent to their determination to fight back. It is also important to bear in mind that the powers that be in the US are waging war out of weakness. Yet, as the Missouri pandemonium exemplifies, Obama has sadly been unable to bring the country to its senses.

The tragic trajectory of this week’s events has been with us for centuries, and the ideas of the African and African-American intellectuals of yesteryear still ring true today.

African-American writer and novelist James Baldwin, in Black Colloquium in Paris, recorded this recollection of a conversation with Alioune Diop, the Senegalese intellectual: “Yet, in speaking of the relationship between politics and culture, [Diop] pointed out that the loss of vitality from which all Negro cultures were suffering was due to the fact that their political destinies were not in their own hands.”

This is still the case even when the African-Americans have a president of their own, it seems.

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