From Ferguson to Real Change

There has been a deluge of reporting and commentary on the killing of an unarmed black teen in the Ferguson suburb of St Louis, and on the protests that followed.  Yet the way forward has been clouded by inadequate attention to at least four important issues:

1. Militarization of Police – A growing problem, visible to activists for years, has finally broken through to the media and the public.  Police have been purchasing (and receiving free from a major Pentagon program) large quantities of military style weapons. It’s gear that looks more like a Transformers movie than legitimate police equipment. It ranges from body armor and armored personnel carriers, to sniper rifles and 2nd generation tear gas. 
(What Military Gear Your Police Department Bought

Such gear separates police from protesters, undercuts legitimate “protect and serve” orientation and programs, and often makes confrontations more lethal. It also equips, emboldens, and legitimizes the Rambo-style officers in most police depts. 
Most people are shocked to learn that “roughly 137 times a day, a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants and the surrounding community into terror.”  (One Nation Under SWAT.)

2. Racism – Like minority communities in scores of other cities, Ferguson protests build on the frustration of people of color who have faced decades of poor education, lack of jobs and resources, and discriminatory policies that have been the root of unrest since the 1960’s. (See an activist’s view of Unresolved Race and Economic Issues, or the views of this pastoror another activist.) 

One example: Blacks are pulled over by police in far greater numbers and received larger tickets than whites, and are a key reason why US incarceration rates are the highest in the world.
(See the middle section of In Ferguson or Exposing the Toolbox of Racist Repression.)

3. Budget Priorities – The huge expense of race- and class-skewed policies cited above siphon money from sorely needed programs that would address underlying problems of prejudice and inequality. The list is familiar and includes greatly expanded jobs, social service, and community-building programs.

Funding for such programs must come from reducing military spending – which like all too many police and urban spending efforts emphasizes violent, 11th hour interventions that are ultimately ineffective, instead of major (but ultimately cheaper) programs to address underlying causes…. Moreover, those problems are at the heart of the ability of radical groups to find recruits.  (See From Gaza to Ferguson or Ferguson, Gaza and Luhansk, or 90-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Arrested in St. Louis.  For clear data on spending, see tables 2 or 7 or use the full LPF Budget Priorities computer-based activity.)

4. The Essential Contribution of Nonviolence – Ferguson also exposes the still rampant illusion that nonviolent responses to conflict are nice but don’t ultimately work: “Real” problems require “real” (violent) responses.  But as Desmond Tutu put it, nonviolence is “a force more powerful” than military  – or militarized police – responses to conflict, as history repeatedly shows in both arenas.  (See LPF Nonviolence resources  from a Shalomdiscussion essay to an AV-rich Nonviolence Forum.)

But Ferguson also reveals inadequacies of efforts to organize and deploy nonviolence campaigns.  Activist groups have been too complacent and isolated from younger generations who lack experience with the power of nonviolent responses to conflict.  Ferguson must be a wake-up call to activist groups as well as police forces, urban planners, state and federal budget officials.
(See In Ferguson, young demonstrators are finding it’s not their grandparents’ protest  and Nonviolent Protest and Accountability in Ferguson.  All this points to the importance of efforts like Campaign Nonviolence– LPF is a member – which is highlighting over 125 nonviolent actions around the US in the week following Sept. 21, the ”International Day of Prayer for Peace” – see our next blog post.  And consider participating! )