The mostly young, black and poor people who stood up to the police in Ferguson five years ago had two rallying cries that seemed, perhaps, overstated and non-strategic to older, more seasoned and settled activists. They had been working on incremental systemic change for decades when Michael Brown was killed and Ferguson erupted. They focused on white supremacy as a core issue. Conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote “this evil – the evil of white supremacy resulting in dehumanization, inhumanity and murder – is the worst stain, the greatest crime, of American history.”
They boldly declared that “the whole damn system is guilty as hell.” Subsequent events, in St. Louis, Missouri and around the United States, have shown that they were right – and we were wrong. As deep and shattering as their critique was, it was accurate, and any attempt to improve this city, state and nation must take the critique of these courageous, mostly young, black, marginalized people as a starting point.
To cite white supremacy, many thought at the time, was a little abstract and sweeping of a critique to describe the problems of a nation that had passed some progressive laws and set many legal precedents to address the admittedly white supremacist origins of the nation – not to mention that had elected a black president twice. But they were right – we were wrong. Their critique started with the somewhat vague notion of “black lives matter.” If you can accept racial disparities in the use of police force against American citizens without opposing it, they claimed, then you accept the idea that black lives are less valuable than white lives. You accept white supremacy. They were right. Nothing proved their point more convincingly than the subsequent election as U.S. president, a white supremacist who has publicly encouraged police to treat suspects in a violent and unconstitutional matter.
Likewise, “the whole damn system is guilty as hell” seemed a bit overstated and non-strategic as a critique for a criminal justice system where many reforms had been enacted (and many more seemed possible) since the admittedly wholly and hellishly guilty systems of slavery and its long horrendous aftermath that were African Americans’ historic experiences in this country. They were right – we were wrong. Nothing proved their point more convincingly than the subsequent election of a black woman as St. Louis prosecutor, which triggered the almost farcical collusion of white men both within (St. Louis police, the city counselor, a judge) and outside (the private attorneys who represented a former governor) the criminal justice system in an effort to undermine her authority and destroy her career.
White supremacy still must be overcome, and the whole damn system is guilty as hell. The Ferguson protestors’ critique was neither overstated nor non-strategic. They were dead-on-the-money accurate, and no strategy that ignores these brute facts has any hope of success. However, they also were right to take positive energy from these insights which might seem forbidding or even hopeless to those of us who are more settled. For, as the poet said, if you ain’t got nothing, then you ain’t got nothing to lose. Those of us with much to lose must return to thinking and acting from the perspective of those with nothing to lose, because they see the system better for what it is, and you can only change – or defeat – what you understand and take for what it is.
Subsequent events – in addition to the burning courage of these mostly young, black and disillusioned activists – have also given new reasons to hope for change. St. Louis city and county did elect young, black prosecutors who campaigned with the pledge to make progressive reforms and are following through on their pledges. The electoral majorities of the victories of Kimberly Gardner and Wesley Bell made it clear that not only young, poor and black people voted for them. Clearly, many white people in this region want to work past white supremacy and systematic corruption to establish criminal justice standards that are more fair and equitable. Clearly, black lives also matter to more people than just black people in our region. We believe this shows that many people here – including many powerful people with everything to lose – realize that our region (and state and nation) will not prosper, but rather, continue to falter if the system is not reformed radically. The criminal justice system must be reformed radically to stop dehumanizing, massively incarcerating and even killing black people if this region, state and country are going to maintain our competitiveness in the changing global and regional economy.
Moreover, we now see Trump enablers who deny the obvious about the current divisive president who they seek to excuse or largely ignore his hateful, racist tropes and language of white resentment. Trump is a leader whose regressive, racist positions are opening historic wounds and represent an existential threat to the future of an already increasingly multiethnic and multiracial nation.
Indeed, looking at the thoroughly corrupt white supremacist wielding power in the White House now, no truth shouted on the streets of Ferguson seems overstated or non-strategic at this point. It now seems reasonable and accurate to conclude that if we do not heed the calls for change from these courageous, even prophetic, young people who stood up to the police in Ferguson five years ago and proclaimed “black lives matter,” this nation will not survive long as a democratic nation.