Hands Up Turn Up: Ferguson Jailbreaks out of History

Let the economists fret over the $27 million lost, and the city planners sigh over one of their most beautiful supermarkets gone up in smoke, and McIntyre blubber over his slain deputy sheriff. Let the sociologists bemoan the absurdity and intoxication of this rebellion. The role of a revolutionary publication is not only to justify the Los Angeles insurgents, but to help elucidate their perspectives, to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search.

– The Situationist International, on the 1965 Watts Rebellion

Things have unfolded rapidly in Ferguson, Missouri. On Thursday and Friday, we have seen reports of “festive” conditions, as locals hug the state highway patrol officers tapped by the Governor to replace the St. Louis County police force, and Captain Ronald Johnson marching alongside protesters.

Yet the mood changed Friday and Saturday night, as some protesters returned to the militancy we saw Mon-Wed nights, facing off with the cops, sporadically blockading the street, occasionally looting, and defying the state of emergency and curfew that followed. The situation on the ground, as the pundits say, is “fluid.”

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U&S members and other comrades have engaged our respective communities with flyering, solidarity protests, and participation in larger, nationally coordinated demonstrations. In between, we have put our heads together to draft some notes analyzing what is happening in Ferguson and nationally, since we see this moment as a qualitative leap forward for the U.S. proletariat and black politics. It is an exciting moment. We are all stretched to the max so please excuse the sparseness, partially thought, scattered nature of the notes below, which were thrown together by many different people as events unfolded over the week. We wanted to have a place holder on the blog where we can discuss what has been unfolding in Ferguson and have place to link to updates, report backs, etc., to draw out clearer, more substantive ideas, and help accomplish the task the Situationists laid out fifty years ago.

Ferguson’s Racial Dynamics

We don’t have a ton of knowledge about Ferguson in particular. Nationally, bloggers and activists have released information about racial profiling practices in Ferguson (apparently the NAACP had already been asking for a federal investigation in this regard):

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Beyond these numbers, some of us feel Ferguson represents a kind of “perfect storm” of racialized social relations. St. Louis, like Louisville and Cincinnati, are long-time deindustrialized cities, which are very segregated, with a large black population and vastly white local government and police department. These cities, historically, have witnessed some of the worst “race riots” in US history, and today the police and other public officials in Ferguson are upholding this tradition of white supremacy in overt ways, in supposedly “post-racial” America: harsh repression of protests, leaving Mike Brown’s body in the street for 4 hours, refusing to release the cop’s name for several days, etc.

Further, some media coverage is portraying Ferguson as anachronistic, a place where “civil rights and black power never happened,” while at the same time, we’ve seen other coverage saying “this could happen in any number of similar suburbs.” Could both be true? We wonder, in this regard, whether the Ferguson rebellion is a reflection of the gentrification patterns of recent decades. After 1973ish, most big U.S. cities hired and elected blacks–but we are not sure the same can be said of outlying suburban areas, like Ferguson. And now, with gentrification pushing black and brown people out of urban cores, the latter are moving into suburban areas, which may display a more classically white supremacist state formation. As this process continues, might we see similar clashes in White Plains, New Rochelle, Worcester, New Bedford, and the like?

Many of us also believe the particularities of Ferguson has intersected with the militarized approach typical of contemporary capitalism. In “The Historical Production of the Revolution in Our Current Period,” Blaumachen argues that all aspects of Keynesian social reproduction today are delegitimized, save for repression. Repression is necessary for capitalist accumulation to manage the crisis of contracted social reproduction, and this repression manifests in racialized ways–in many cases, it is the process of racialization. Youth are largely locked out of the workforce, and work itself is restructured as increasingly atomized and precarious, contributing to a growing surplus population that is potentially dangerous for capitalism (while also serving as a replaceable and competitive labor pool, thus necessary for capitalist accumulation as well). To manage these populations, youth of color must be increasingly policed and incarcerated, migrants must be hunted down and detained at the border, women’s and queers’ bodies and sexualities must be disciplined and controlled, etc. In other words, the bourgeoisie must more and more rely on repression as the primary motivating factor of working class life.

In Ferguson, this dynamic is very clear. Although initially taken aback by demonstrations, the police came out in unprecedented force and an escalated response, including repression of the media, militarized state-interventions (local police have been sent home and replaced by outside state-police), no-fly zones, SWAT raids, and other new forms of repression, as well as new expressions of resistance.

The Lineage of Grant, Martin and Brown

As mentioned above, we believe what is happening in Ferguson, and the reverberation felt across the country (and globally) is qualitatively different from what we’ve seen over the last several years. Here are some notes on the phenomenon. We have been drawing again from Blaumachen (see, for example, “The Era of Riots”) to understand what qualitative leaps, or rifts, like this represent.

This is the first time a police murder has reverberated so visibly on a national scale since Rodney King (which of course was much bigger), and it reflects a process of critical reflection on struggles that has been underway for several years. The responses to Oscar Grant were largely localized; the Trayvon Martin protests signaled something was shifting on a national level; and now the Ferguson rebellion marks a further advance. We cannot underestimate the effect of Trayvon’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal on the events in Ferguson. This experience rippled through every facet of black social life, as well as beyond black communities, and helped to make self-aware the social upheavals which had struggled to articulate themselves up until then.

There are a lot of contributing factors to this process, including: (1) the proliferation of black middle class views in the mainstream and new media outlets, and (2) the proliferation of social media, especially twitter and instagram, which allows for a diffusion of meaning that 5 years earlier wouldn’t have been possible among black (and other) working class people. You even see the same effect in professional sports today, where, for the first time in decades, owners and corporate sports media are growing concerned about the political expression of a new generation of athletes.

In Ferguson itself, we think it’s fair to say people understood Mike Brown’s murder in the context of Trayvon Martin. On the first night of riots (Sunday 8/10), young people confronting the cops were saying “this ain’t Florida, this is St. Louis” (captured in a Vine from the local Alderman who was later arrested). Later that night, one young guy looted the QT while sporting an “RIP Trayvon” t-shirt. Ferguson has raised the Trayvon moment to another level: with direct and sustained confrontation with the police, property, and the state (objectively, the whole system) in the streets, Ferguson makes explicit what the Trayvon protests only approached implicitly. Now the connection is clear.

The historical trajectory of uprisings in response to police brutality has allowed Ferguson to escalate more quickly, and politically develop quicker and deeper, than similar protests in the past. The Rodney King riots popped off only after the cops were acquitted. The Oscar Grant riots toed the line between large, rowdy and very well coordinated protests on the one hand, and small, isolated riots, on the other. People didn’t take to the streets for Trayvon Martin until the Zimmerman verdict was delivered, allowing the issue to be absorbed into the “untouchability” of the State. We are indeed dealing with something different in Ferguson. We saw an immediate, extremely militant, informally organized and articulated response mushroom into a national wave of activity.

“Rioting Doesn’t Work,” and the Unquestioned Use of “Violence.”

There is a sentiment in many working class black and brown communities, going back for years, that “rioting doesn’t work.” It seems to us that this feeling is based on a collective reflection on past struggles and their limits. There is also an element of earnest cynicism and self-negation that leads to that sentiment: why give up or seriously mess up your life for a lost cause? But this “good sense” has also regularly fallen into self-defeatism. In our experience, many people respond to incidents of police brutality with the adage that “rioting doesn’t work,” and then advocate some other “positive” strategy–usually premised on respectability and appeals to the liberal state. Not everyone says this, but a majority. In the case of Ferguson, something shifted.

The shift was foreshadowed in Ferguson in the sense of desperation that followed Mike Brown’s murder, and which was captured, in many cases, on video. We could guess that after Trayvon, the Sharpton wait-and-see model has been proven ineffective in many people’s eyes–while, nonetheless, after a murder as brutal as Mike Brown’s, people feel they have to do something. This doesn’t necessarily mean people suddenly believe rioting will work. Only that, in the absence of any proven course of action, more people feel rioting is morally justified. And some are even open to testing its effectiveness, because fuck, it’s as good as anything else right now. This sentiment is apparent in this excellent commentary on the first night of rioting.

At the same time, some of us question whether “the riot” is the defining feature of Ferguson after all. In reality, a mini-riot occurred for one night, focused on a couple of stores, and a smaller spate of looting occurred on 8/15. In both cases, stores were looted and burned because people believed their owners had “snitched,” whether by calling the cops on Mike Brown, or releasing surveillance video to the cops to sully his name. Regardless, the “riot” was never used again as a tactic, although there was one more attempt Friday to tear up a store again. However, this tactic was fiercely debated among the militants, some of whom stood guard to prevent it. Instead, people have employed something more like a blockade or a tactic of “the squares,” characterized by continual marches, driving caravans (including, at one point, Thomas the Train Engine), and parade-like crowds along major streets. This activity recalls the dynamics of the Squares, in which people take over public space, and proclaim their “citizenship” (for more on this, see Endnotes, “The Holding Pattern”). However, given the particular place of black people in U.S, this tactic contains a more immediately radical content.

From what we can tell, the leading elements of the protests are a small minority, but they have crossed an existential threshold. A common sentiment is “we aren’t afraid anymore,” “we aren’t afraid to die,” and for those coming in from outside the area, “we are bringing this back to our neighborhood.” Walking up to police tactical units with one’s hands up, or simply refusing to leave the street with red laser sights tagging one’s head and chest, captures this complex, moving and contradictory content. A militant statement on civic belonging, and simultaneously, a threat that can’t be contained by the system. This experience is reverberating far beyond the left, for example in the photo below from East St. Louis, and in a near-riot that unfolded this week in Detroit.

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Then there is the question of “violence” itself. The mainstream media’s use of the word “violence” is hegemonic. It is obviously dependent on a bourgeois definition of violence, in which property becomes an extension of one’s true and existing self. The same script is parroted on CNN and MSNBC, repackaging Obama’s statement that the sentiment is justified, but there is no need for the people to intervene. “No violence in Michael’s name”, however, has fallen on deaf ears among the protesters. Perhaps it was in seeing how non-violent looting and rioting can actually be, that there occurred some sort of leap in consciousness. Blaumachen discusses the historic “irreconcilability of the activist’s “radical democratism” with the interests of rioters, who are tactically ahead of activists and therefore represent a rift in a single encounter. We can’t know what kinds of conversations rioters are having among themselves, but we can still get a feel for where they are at by an analysis of their activity.

Liberalism and its Cracks

The leaps in practical activity in Ferguson have, in turn, opened fissures in liberal public opinion. On the first night of rioting, the twitterverse included a mix of first-person accounts, media decrying the events, and “progressive” types justifying the riot, often along identity-politics lines (posts that opened “dear other white people,” insisting the anger in Ferguson was totally understandable, etc.)

A similar sentiment was echoed in the blog posts that followed the riots: Albert Butler at The Root declared “There are no good cops. Yes, you read that right. …in the wake of tragic incidents that have transpired over the last few weeks, there are no good cops in this country.” On Salon, Brittney Cooper insisted “I don’t support the looting in Ferguson,” but went on to argue in defense of “black rage,” before quoting Claude McKay and offering “no answers…only grief and rage and hope.” Mychal Denzel Smith at The Nation did basically the same thing, but with a more despondent tone. All three articles took this stance because the authors can’t plausibly denounce the riots and advocate liberal solutions with any degree of self-honesty, and thus found themselves caught between anger and despair.

We also see a parallel fissure in the struggle over “innocence”: in one moment, Mike Brown is being defended for being innocent; at another moment, the very notion of innocence in a bourgeois state is drawn into question. In the interview with Mike brown’s friend, he says that while they didn’t attack the cops, they did refuse to obey their orders to disperse from the street. And while they did not attack the cop, they didn’t surrender to him either. On the one hand, one of the most powerful acts for many watching the protests has been people raising their hands and saying “hands up, don’t shoot.” On the other hand, when NYC’s Mayor Bill De Blasio implores the public not to resist arrest, he looks ridiculous and out of touch in the face of racist police murders which most consider unjust.

We view these ideological cracks as the fruit of broader shifts in public consciousness, which have been pushed forward by struggles: the mainstreaming of critiques of solitary confinement; public debate over mass incarceration; a growing liberal sense that cops aren’t fair to black people and it’s endemic (including the stat that a black person is killed in the U.S. every 28 hours); legit disappointment over the Trayvon verdict, a constant stream of police brutality stories on social media, etc. Other indications that ideological fissures are opening include a recent flashmob piece by black Broadway performers, outside the NYPD station in Times Square after Eric Garner’s murder. And of course, the recent #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag.

The Possibility of Recuperation

The classical relation (or what has now become a tension) of reform and revolution–that the development of labor power and citizenship (and its attending political forms) can be incorporated into the capital’s accumulation, so as to gradually strengthen labor’s ability to seize control of society–is probably broken. But even if capital today shows an inability to incorporate reforms as it did in earlier periods, it clearly still has the ability to adapt, and play upon real unevenness in development and the political order. Capital has an insidious pattern of trying to absorb and reconcile it’s conflicts, and Ferguson is no different here. A range of mediations remain viable, including what we would think of as a “rainbow coalition” of political organizers and rioters. Beyond that, the trajectories of reform are not being explicitly drawn here, leaving different paths for this struggle to take.

In Ferguson as elsewhere, local politicians speak with a militant voice among the younger crowd–but also, at the same time, speak ‘for’ them–while the national black establishment scrambles furiously to sew the whole thing up. The NAACP spokespeople (which has a well-established presence in St. Louis), and much of the black political establishment, has spoken as much about “nonviolence” as they have about killer cops. Yet the local class dynamics complicate the early picture of the St. Louis and national leadership coming in and trying to overlay itself on the militant protest. Calls for black political representation in Ferguson and among the cops, calls for jobs, etc. intermingle with radical tactics, while at the same time the content of the confrontation with the police contains within a whole questioning of the system itself. This moving against limits, and testing the meaning of these protests, expresses the complicated nature of ‘reform’ versus ‘revolution’ in real time. As shown by the contested terrain of the riot tactic and ‘looting’, the calls for ‘reform’ are not simply an imposition by the old guard, but also represent a searching for a new way forward, a strategy, a semi-permanence in coordination and organization.

This process is opening up cracks in the state. On Wednesday night, media reports of a mass incendiary gassing and flash banging the protests exploded. Journalists were roughed up and arrested. Antonio French, a local alderman and one of the most consistent documenters of the on-the-ground situation, was arrested. While the national media coverage was already shifting by Tuesday, after Wednesday night Obama seems to have felt he had to act. The feds had already been in motion, but passively and in the traditional manner.

We can speculate that Governor Jay Nixon wouldn’t have acted if Obama and Holder didn’t basically forced him to do so. Nixon, a Democrat in a closely divided state, was already facing impeachment maneuvers in the state legislature at the hands of the Republican Right. This means that Nixon, and centrist Senator Claire McCaskill, had little room to move against the local white establishment in Ferguson, even if they had suddenly felt an inclination to do so (they probably didn’t feel much). They are constrained by the white vote at the state level. Obama and the Justice Department may well have forced Nixon to carry out something of coup, removing the local and county police, and replacing them with state police.

The police reshuffling immediately altered the character of the protests. A Highway Patrol captain, Ron Johnson (who was probably chosen because he grew up in the area) spoke to the crowd, telling them they could protest all night, take to the streets, etc., as long as some traffic moved, however slowly. He told them the whole neighborhood would be heard, they could blast horns. He even walked in front of one of the marches, hugged and spoke to protesters. Last night, some protesters protected local businesses from looting, while members of the New Black Panther Party appeared to marshall marches, direct traffic, and discourage confrontations with cops. Liberals, and even some leftists, celebrate these shifts a moment of liberatory “community policing.” But they actually herald a retreat into respectability politics, and signal a phase of recuperation in Ferguson. At the same time, as the concrete, tenuous, feeling a way forward strategically by the militants indicates, such impositions are being generated from within the protests as a pushing against limits and not a simple external overlaying by middle class forces and ideologies. The problem of strategy and semi-permanent organization/coordination is pressing in as a concrete necessity. Only then will the ideological hegemony of the middle class be consistently contested.

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Nevertheless, young people in Ferguson have continued to press against the new, nicer limits placed upon them by the state. Just last night, demonstrators defied the midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew imposed as part of a state of emergency declared by state police, and faced down officers in the streets. The same officers who, a day before had taken selfies with protesters were now forced to tear gas them. For the New York Times, this development reflected the troubling gulf between young Fergusonites and their black establishment leaders. Yet similar gulfs are appearing beyond Ferguson: on Staten Island for example, where some residents have angrily repudiated Al Sharpton for backtracking on a proposed march over the Verrazano Bridge after pressure from authorities.

This raises the question of the historical dynamics of black movements in the U.S. in regards to the state. We see the same dynamic in the immigration struggle, which is deeply related nationally. The temptation has been to think of the relation of the state and the establishment, and struggles in somewhat linear ways. We think of the ‘impossibility of reform’, or the system being unable to appropriate struggles. Ferguson, like Fast Food Forward, and similar to immigration movement, shows that this picture is more complicated. We can’t let this become isolated from the other struggles which inevitably influenced it. Beyond that, we can’t allow ourselves to be fooled that we are any more distant in our own struggles from Ferguson. We have to bring to people the idea that they are a part of Ferguson, rather than apart from it.

Moving Forward: Hands Up, Turn Up

The situation in Ferguson has raised the question of the entire system, which bourgeois society ultimately cannot tolerate. Thus, while splits in the liberal world and state (nationally and locally) have provided breathing room for these protests, this isn’t a permanent phenomenon. When the Ferguson rebellion subsides, we are likely to continue seeing polarization in the U.S: militarization, rightwing advance, deepening attack on the working class, black people, immigrants, etc. on the one hand, and gathering militancy from below on the other. This process may force more splits in progressive/liberal society, and move a section of them onto the terrain of revolutionary thought and action.

An important lesson the far left can draw from Ferguson is the need to regularly practice coordination. We need to share resources and connect with each other much more quickly. We are getting better and better. It took until the Zimmerman verdict for people to start coordinating nationally after Trayvon’s death; this time it took only a few days after Mike Brown’s death. Among other things, this is what U&S members and comrades will be up to in the coming weeks. We encourage you to join us.

Participate in the “Hands Up, Turn Up” National Day of Action on Wednesday, August 20th, coordinated through the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee facebook page (contact us if you want editing privileges to make your own flyer).

Support the Ferguson rebellion on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Fight the memewars, and provide rearguard ideological defense for the riots.

Hold community discussions about the events in Ferguson and their significance. If events already happening, go to them. Take a general line that (a) the Sharpton method has passed its expiration date; (b) rioting, blockades, and not backing down from police is not only morally justified, but can produce tangible results and shift the political terrain, as Ferguson has demonstrated; (c) to end police murder, we need to not only resist, but take the offensive and win; and (d) we should pivot this and other riots and blockades into a general offensive against police and mass incarceration, with the aim of taking control of our communities, workplaces, and society as a whole.

Raise slogan of amnesty for all Ferguson rebels, hold fundraisers for the legal fund set up by local anarchists in St Louis.

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