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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.