The Myth of Plausible Deniability for Anti-Black Violence & How Ferguson Birthed a Movement

feature image via Antonio Scorza / Shutterstock.com

The city of Ferguson has been protesting steadily since the night Mike Brown was murdered. 107 straight days of protest in one form or another. The non indictment of Darren Wilson brought protesters from LA to Palestine into the streets of their cities to voice their anger over this questionable verdict. Many people across all walks of American life are coming together and saying that this isn’t OK and things need to change. But amidst the tears, arrests and solidarity, the question of why this particular murder has set off what seems to be the entire globe keeps popping up in interviews. What makes this case motivate people to get out and come together to not just talk about racism, but put their bodies on the line to make it stop? To answer that you need to look at what prevented White Americans from seeing Mike Brown in Renisha McBride and Ezell Ford: plausible deniability.

In the case of every murder or assault of a young Black person in the past 10 years there has been, for some people and to some degree, plausible deniability. There were no witnesses when Trayvon Martin was murdered; “anything could have happened out there.” The cops didn’t have the whole story when Kendrec McDade was murdered, “they were just doing their job.” It was late, people were drunk and the cell phone video “wasn’t the whole story” of Oscar Grant’s murder. There has always been a reason that made it easy for White Americans and non-Black POC to claim to be unsure if it was really about race. They could deny that (specifically anti-Black) racism is in fact a thing here in the US because they didn’t have all of the facts. People outside the US were left with mainstream media tidbits and the occasional celebrity commenting on the inequality of America as their lens through which to view these murders. This left many Black Americans with 1) the hope that one day they would have a case with all the facts to give and 2) slow-simmering rage.

Mike Brown’s murder and the subsequent events were, and are, about race. A White cop shooting an unarmed Black boy is a situation that, in America, is almost always going to be about race. Our history is steeped in racialized violence.But for a generation of White Americans who have been raised to be “colorblind” and who have only come into contact with racism in the form of textbook photos of lynching and Bill O’Reilly sound bites, this idea can be hard to swallow. Ferguson, or more accurately the social media timeline of Ferguson, blew apart the idea of living in a “post racial” America. Before the police could even send out a coroner, the residents of Mike’s neighborhood were posting to Twitter and Vine what they were seeing and hearing. When the cops showed up and started firing tear gas into peaceful crowds, the protesters were streaming video to YouTube. For maybe the first time in the history of racial violence, the victims could speak their truth without words and in real-time. They gave America, but specifically White America, the chance to bear witness to the reality of being Black and not dying silently. Within 24 hours the story had gone viral and mainstream news crews made plans to head out if the violence continued, which of course it did.

And White Americans were forced to watch CNN and Fox News report the falsified information Ferguson PD was putting out, even as they scrolled through their Twitter feed and saw the truth. Amnesty International sent in observers, who are usually sent into war zones, to investigate the militarization of the Black part of the city. Observers were investigating how the police were dealing with US citizens on American soil. There was no way to deny that Ferguson had a race problem, had a truth problem, would have its day in court.

But when that day came, despite all the evidence presented, Darren Wilson walked. A very ugly truth came to light. The bad guys weren’t Southerners that could be looked down upon and laughed at for being backwards. The bad guys were cops and soldiers who had been sworn to protect and high school friends who called Mike a thug and complained about the “race card” being played. Society at large was complicit in this situation and for many White people it was the first time they realized the bad guys looked like them. And if the facts had been ignored now, how many other times had they had the privilege of entertaining the idea that maybe it wasn’t about race? How many times had they been complicit in oppressing Black people fighting for justice? Hard questions that many have begun to find peace with in the streets.

Black people have been rising up against mistreatment at the hands of White people since the 1700s when the first documented slave rebellion took place in the colonies. We did it in the ’60s and again in the 90’s after the Rodney King verdict. We are well versed in the language of resistance. But for the most part our fight for people to stand up and recognize our humanity and suffering has been met with small gains in the wake of huge repetitive tragedies. When a Black person is gunned down we are consistently met with the plausible deniability wall when it comes to people believing us. We are also chastised or feared when we express anger and a need for justice. We are told by White people and in the years since the Civil Rights movement, Black leaders, to turn the other cheek. Violence will never make things change. Nevermind the Boston Tea Party or French Revolution. So as we watched the Mike Brown case unfold, many of us were given hope that maybe things had changed. The police couldn’t lie because the internet was on the case to debunk whatever new story they concocted, and the cameras were catching everything on the ground. We finally had a scenario that would bring justice to family and vindicate us for years of not being believed when we called out racist police tactics.

That is why it wasn’t just painful to see Mike’s mother fall apart, it was devastating. (Some) Black folks really believed that this would be that case that would hold. Someone would finally pay for murdering a Black child. Instead we were given a speech that blamed social media for making the investigation hard and in essence said that a Black boys murder wasn’t even worth looking into further. Even with evidence and public opinion on our side, we lost. What is left to do when you’ve prayed, and cried, and waited for the justice system to do its job? What do you do when Black boys know that it doesn’t matter if they’re in a gang or simply crossing the street; they can be murdered at the discretion of a police officer and there’s nothing they can do? What do you do when you’ve done everything “right” and you are still mistreated? You take it to the streets. You take your rage and pain and power you make people listen. You burn and you scream and you keep screaming until someone else shows up and offers you a hand. In this case the hands came from some of the most unlikely places.

London is standing in solidarity with Ferguson. Vancouver is standing in solidarity with Ferguson. Mexico, Hong Kong, Egypt and Palestine are all standing in solidarity. Marginalized people across the globe are banding together to support Black Americans in their fight. This is not something that happens very often, because marginalized people rarely have the chance to bring their problem to the table and find common ground. But tear gas is a uniter of people and on the first night of police violence in Ferguson, rebel fighters in Palestine shared with citizens on the ground how to treat tear gas and spray victims. People who had participated in the revolution in Egypt passed on the best ways to ensure your video equipment survived a run in with soldiers. Students fighting the government cover-up in Mexico shared their love and solidarity with the kids in Ferguson fighting for the right to live. All because social media accounts made it possible for them to see what was really going on without the lens of mainstream media clouding the goings on.

That clarity has let groups of people who are literally worlds apart step outside their preconceived notions of what it means to be an American or foreign and simply see people fighting for their lives. The world got a little smaller and agendas merged when faced with the reality of blatant and violent racism. The bonds that were forged will be hard to break and therefore will support the movement for a long time to come.

Ferguson is about Black rage in the face of systematic racism first and foremost, but it is no longer just Black rage. It’s White people’s rage at recognizing the problem in society and their place in that society. It’s the rage of the marginalized rebels across the globe who have finally found common ground with Black Americans. It’s the pain of Mike Brown’s parents on the night of the verdict and it’s the shattered hope that each march slowly begins to piece back together. This time it’s not a moment. It’s a movement.

Cleo Anderson is a glitter loving pusher of buttons, a queer woman of color, teaching artist, feminist, poet and general rabble rouser. She got her start in feminism from a book of feminist nursery rhymes when she was 6, and her start in pop culture analysis from 9 years of homeschooling (translation: 9 years of TV and movie watching). A firm believer in queering the collective consciousness, she strives to inspire people to redesign their idea of normal and step out of their comfort zone. She takes inspiration from Gertrude Stein, , Angela Davis, Faith Lehane, Audre Lorde and bell hooks. Her words to live by are: "Have no filter,give no fucks." Someone once described her as "The love child of Angela Davis and Ru-Paul." She thinks that just about sums it up.

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25 Comments

  1. Every word of this is beautiful and powerful and so very, very true. You articulated everything that has been building inside me as a silent scream for a long time, with gasoline poured on it by recent events. So thank you for this.

  2. “But tear gas is a uniter of people and on the first night of police violence in Ferguson, rebel fighters in Palestine shared with citizens on the ground how to treat tear gas and spray victims. People who had participated in the revolution in Egypt passed on the best ways to ensure your video equipment survived a run in with soldiers. ”

    wonderful article, I’ve really struggled to articulate how sad and maddening its been watching events unfold in the Brown case.

  3. Thank you for writing this. So spot on. I also appreciate the international linkages with marginalized people that you mention, esp re: Palestine (even though the tear gas tips didn’t come from “rebel fighters” per se, but mostly from ordinary ppl in Palestine…cuz we get shot with that stuff all the time unfortunately).

  4. Thank you, Cleo.

    “Our history is steeped in racialized violence.But for a generation of White Americans who have been raised to be “colorblind” and who have only come into contact with racism in the form of textbook photos of lynching and Bill O’Reilly sound bites, this idea can be hard to swallow.”

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve slowly realised how astonishingly easily a generation can lose touch with horrors of history. Especially those living with generous levels of privilege who can be happily blind to ongoing manifestations of these past horrors . Knowing about some history and living with it are very different things. Thank you again for the amazing piece.

  5. This was interesting to read. I don’t know if the reason really is the lack of plausible deniability. Because was there any with Trayvon? I don’t know. I feel like that case was even clearer. But maybe I got the facts wrong in my head.

    I don’t live in the US so it’s hard for me to say what’s the difference with this case for the US population.

    Here in Germany I think it is the footage. In every single news show during the last days you could see Ferguson burn. There were even extra news about it.
    It isn’t really discussed whether it was right or wrong that Wilson got off. It is portrayed as a clear fact, that he should have to be punished but won’t be. A newsspeaker even announced the situation as the “murder of a black young man by a police officer” It’s always a report about how racism is still so dominant in the US and also the focus is very much on the system differences that make things like this possible. They discuss the jury system, the gun laws, the fact that black boys go to jail so much more often for the same crimes than white boys.

    So I feel like the focus overseas in this topic is a little bit different. But the reason why it is big in the news are the pictures.

  6. Thanks for writing this.

    I think I’m one of those white allies who has always nodded along with the idea of racism in the justice system, but didn’t really *see* it. But then the Wilson verdict just knocked my socks off. The verdict and then the segment of my Facebook friends list that I could draw a 100-mile radius around the lily Midwestern town where I grew up. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I kinda woke up to the realization

    “for many White people it was the first time they realized the bad guys looked like them. And if the facts had been ignored now, how many other times had they had the privilege of entertaining the idea that maybe it wasn’t about race? How many times had they been complicit in oppressing Black people fighting for justice?”

    Yes. This. This. This.

    Some comments were blatantly racist or obviously favored a pack of cigarillos over a man’s life. And so it was easy to file those away as “assholes” or else maybe point out the latter to them.

    But then there were comments like,

    “Just because you don’t agree with the verdict, doesn’t mean it’s okay to burn down your city.”

    or

    “If black people want society to stop being racist, they should realize that they’re not helping the cause by fulfilling stereotypes.”

    or

    “Oh my god. I’m in [major city] tonight with MY KIDS and there are protestors right down the block from us. Dear Jesus, please keep us safe.” (response: “I’m so sorry you have to deal with that craziness tonight.”)

    or

    “How hard is it to just listen to a policeman? Seriously.”

    And that’s when I realized, like…wow…these people are so far-removed from the Black community and our country’s historical context and present injustices, that even if they have *good intentions,* they just *can’t see it.*

    So I tried to respond by saying things like, “this is the behavior of people who have absolutely no hope left. You and I have never felt this before and we probably never will.” And they responded by insisting that the “rioters and looters” were only thuggish opportunists, or continuing to insist that it was unproductive and irrational behavior.

    And so I’d challenge them to think about the last time they felt overcome with emotion and just how productive and rational were they in that circumstance?

    “Not enough to destroy property and disrespect the rule of law.”

    And I’d contemplate arguing with them that “the rule of law” is built and operates along a set of racist assumptions, but I didn’t understand this argument well enough to break it down for people starting from zero.

    So instead I’d go further out on a limb on the empathy route and ask them to try to imagine feeling THAT disenfranchised, THAT dehumanized, that, maybe in the heat of your despair, you would lower yourself to the status of the criminal animal that everyone keeps insisting you are.

    Or take a different turn and quote Black Girl Dangerous about “riots” vs. “righteous rebellion,” and that sometimes you need to break shit to get shit done.

    But everything in their response always points back to the same conclusion: I would never do this.

    And again, I’m left beating my head against the wall, saying, “Can’t you see your own position of privilege? You say you would never do this because you’ve never been put in the position where you’ve contemplated it and probably never will be! But can’t you just try to imagine, for a minute, what it must feel like to BE in that position?”

    And at some point I give up/decide Black Voices should speaking for themselves and start responding by pasting links to testimonials and analyses that they won’t read.

    And then slowly the Facebook feed started talking about turkeys and food comas and Black Friday and I breathed a huge sigh of relief because, thank god, *my 2 days of anti-racist activism were over.* And I felt so foolish and naive because after a few Facebook comments I was exhausted and numb and wanted to unfriend half of my acquaintances and felt deeply disappointed in some of the people I’d previously liked and trusted. But now we could go back to sharing baby photos and inspirational quotations and just roll around in the online extension of the Tiny White Town we all lived in where everyone (supposedly) thinks and acts and looks and believes the same things.

    I was grateful for my privilege that I could *go back to normal.* Some ally I am.

    • Jess, thanks for sharing. Do not despair. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your spirit. Backing off for a while is not reprehensible. This movement is a marathon, not a sprint. However, do realize that as a white person with white friends, you have much power and influence to change dominant attitudes in your immediate circle. Don’t let ignorant, stubborn aggressive folks exhaust you with their privileged arguments, move on to those who are willing to listen and engage thoughtfully. Know that you are not alone in wanting to do your part to help, but being unsure how to go about doing it. Seek out other trusted white allies in your community who can provide you support. Many more concrete action tips here:

      http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/08/ferguson_how_white_people_can_be_allies.html

      Keep reading, listening, starting conversations, and don’t give up!

    • When I’m exhausted from doing the same as you, I just remind myself that even if the people responding to me are stubborn assholes, there are other people who can read those conversations. Maybe someone will have a changed perspective. Maybe someone was thinking the exact same thing but was scared to say it, so they can find validation in having their ideas shared with someone.

      Our words don’t reach only those who yell back at us. And I recognize that my ability to even engage in these discussions means that my POC friends know I’m doing my best to support them, and they don’t have to be the only ones responsible in talking about racism.

    • This has been exactly me. Thank you for articulating it.

      I found myself sitting around my thanksgiving table with my lily white family, everyone sharing what their thankful for, and I’m sitting there trying to think of something, anything to say, something that I can be thankful for that isn’t rooted in my privilege. I also sat there dumbfounded that my brother and sister in law, who are in the process of adopting a son from Africa, have said absolutely nothing about ferguson, about any concerns that they might have for their future son growing up in this racist country. While I sit there on the verge of tears wondering how they can all just rest in their apathy.

  7. This was so moving, thank you. I’ve tried to make my parents understand the situation but they are unfortunately stuck in “plausible deniability” mode, especially where the protests are concerned.

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