Ferguson is breaking my heart. I’m not talking about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. I pretty much expected that.
What’s breaking my heart is the magnitude of the destruction going on during the protests. I paid pretty close attention to the earlier batch of protests, right after Brown was shot, and there was sporadic property damage, some of it severe, but for the most part, the protesters were peaceful. It was neighborhood people out late, milling around, making noise, and occasionally blocking traffic. As a middle-aged white guy, I didn’t see much that would make me feel unsafe to be there.
None of that stopped the racist fuckwads who continued to paint the largely peaceful protesters as looters and and wild animals. And tonight, unfortunately, some of the protesters are doing everything they can to give the racists an “I told you so.”
This time around, the looters are out in force, and a lot of stuff seems to be burning. Just a brief Twitter scan finds mention of a Metro PCS phone store, a Beauty Town beauty supply store, and the outreach office of Alderman Antonio French. Also a New York Grill, a Little Ceasar’s, a Walgreens, a car dealership, an Enterprise car rental, several auto parts stores, a public storage facility, and a church van.
All burning away.
I am reminded of an old joke:
Late at night, a drunk was on his knees beneath a street-light, evidently looking for something. A passer-by, being a good Samaritan, offered to help. “What is it you have lost?” he asked.
”My watch,” replied the drunk. “It fell off when I tripped over the pavement.”
The passer-by joined in the search but after a quarter of an hour, there was still no sign of the watch.
“Where exactly did you trip?” asked the passer-by.
“About half a block up the street,” replied the drunk.
“Then why are you looking for your watch here if you lost it half a block up the street?”
The drunk said: “Because the light’s a lot better here. ”
What we’re seeing in Ferguson is the because-the-light’s-better-here version of sticking-it-to-the-man. The jerks setting fires are angry at the cops and the political institutions they protect, but they know that attacking the establishment is hard. Assaulting the cops and burning down the police station would be one hell of a statement, but the cops are armed and prepared for a fight. Attacking them would require skill and audacity and a willingness to risk getting arrested.
On the other hand, burning down private businesses is much easier. The vandals can tell themselves they’re fighting capitalist oppression or hitting the establishment in pocketbook or whatever, but the truth is that small shops and fast food joints are much softer targets. The light’s a lot better there.
The political leadership of Ferguson, on the other hand, remind me of a (possibly untrue) story I once heard about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from the first Gulf War. His forces had invaded Kuwait, and a few months later a coalition lead by the United States counterattacked into eastern Iraq. They moved with breathtaking speed and routed the Iraqi army. Saddam watched the defeat unfold from one of his bunkers, as the coalition forces advanced to a point where they had a clear path to capture Baghdad and Saddam himself.
Before that could happen, however, with Kuwait being freed from Iraqi control, the U.S. declared a unilateral cease-fire. Saddam’s reaction was supposedly a jubilant “We’ve won!” Although twenty thousand Iraqi soldiers had died in the battle, Saddam considered it a victory because he was still standing, and that’s what mattered most.
The police presence available to keep the peace in Ferguson consisted of hundreds of officers, perhaps as many as a thousand according to some sources. The Governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and dispatched National Guard troops. And yet looters controlled the streets, and a dozen businesses burned out of control for hours. But all the cops are safe and the police station is intact, so I’m guessing they feel they’ve won. Because to the powers-that-be in Ferguson, their safety is what mattered most.
Ah, fuckit. I’m running out of steam here. Maybe it all won’t seem so bad when I wake up in the morning.
Update: Reading back over this, I should point out that even if every fire was started by a different person, which seems unlikely, that’s only a dozen or so arsonists among all those protesters.
I should also add that I’m not saying cops should have taken insane risks with their lives to stop the looting and support a fire suppression effort. On the other hand, police have been comparing themselves to soldiers and saying police work is a battlefield for years, and in response we’ve been equipping them with shields and body armor and armored vehicles. Well, last night the battle came to Ferguson. Did they use all that fine equipment the way we wanted them to?
Finally, as to the grand jury’s decision, a cop shooting an unarmed black man sounds damned suspicious, but these sorts of incidents are always very fact sensitive, and based on the bits and pieces I’ve heard, I can imagine ways in which the shooting of Mike Brown might have been justified. And that’s true for most of these cop-shoots-unarmed-person shootings: Any one of them might be justified. But they can’t all be justified. There are some cops getting away with some shit.