It’s so much easier to wave a Confederate flag

Update, August 30, 2014: Unfortunately, Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson quickly reverted to his socialization with the police as violence resumed the very next night.[1] I comment further on this situation in a subsequent blog post.

This story begins—only begins—with the shooting of yet another unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, by yet another, as yet unnamed, white cop, in Ferguson, Missouri.[2] It must be a litany familiar to many Blacks in the U.S. and one I cannot even begin to do justice to:

Because, again, this is not just about Brown. It’s about Eric Garner, choked to death in a confrontation with New York City Police. It’s about Jordan Davis, shot to death in Jacksonville because he played his music too loud. It’s about Trayvon Martin, shot to death in Sanford because a self-appointed neighborhood guardian judged him a thug. It’s about Oscar Grant, shot by a police officer in an Oakland subway station as cellphone cameras watched. It’s about Amadou Diallo, executed in that vestibule and Abner Louima, sodomized with that broomstick. It’s about Rodney King.

And it is about the bitter sense of siege that lives in African-American men, a sense that it is perpetually open season on us.

And that too few people outside of African America really notice, much less care. People who look like you are everyday deprived of health, wealth, freedom, opportunity, education, the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence, life itself — and when you try to say this, even when you document it with academic studies and buttress it with witness testimony, people don’t want to hear it, people dismiss you, deny you, lecture you about white victimhood, chastise you for playing a so-called “race card.”[3]

This, of course, has race written all over it. It gives the lie to the likes of Bill Cosby and others who blame Black men for the problems of Black communities and Black families. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, reacted:

“You took my son away from me,” she told the television news station KMOV. “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway. ‘They’re going to try to take me out anyway.’”[4]

I can imagine that this is indeed an uphill struggle. Charles Blow, in the New York Times, writes:

There is an eerie echo in it all — a sense of tragedy too often repeated. And yet the sheer morbid, wrenching rhythm of it belies a larger phenomenon, one obscured by its vastness, one that can be seen only when one steps back and looks from a distance and with data: The criminalization of black and brown bodies — particularly male ones — from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact.[5]

Blow is pointing to something pervasive, that criminalizes young men even before they meet the law—the school-to-prison pipeline[6]—and then that the law makes worse, busting up families, busting up communities, depriving those same families and communities of essential economic support, creating an awful cycle that lands yet more people in prison,[7] because for all conservative superstition about human beings who, they claim, are beyond redemption,[8] a principle cause of crime is economic need, which of course directly implicates the holier-than-holy neoliberal deprivation of opportunity.[9]

That cycle is accompanied by another, as the poor, and especially people of color, are stereotyped as criminals and as undeserving, [10] therefore as morally rationalized targets for budget cuts that eviscerate the social safety net, increasing desperation further. I don’t like to think of this as a game—it’s deadly serious—but whatever we should call it, it is profoundly rigged.

But it is so much more satisfying to declare the white race’s moral superiority as we lock all those people of color away than it is to face real problems and to help people in real need. After all, in the conservative and neoliberal narrative, programs to fight poverty are a failure,[11] so we ought not even to try.

Instead, we will hide behind that myth of unlimited opportunity. “A core element of the American credo,” Thomas Shapiro explains in the introduction to his anthology on social inequality, “is that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.”[12] Just as with the Protestant work ethic, failure is the province of the damned—or the undeserving—to whom we owe no duty.

Taking note of statistics that strongly support the suspicion that people of color are racially profiled by police, especially in places like Missouri,[13] Blow writes,

And this is the reality if the child actually survives the journey. That is if he has the internal fortitude to continue to stand with the weight on his shoulders. That is if he doesn’t find himself on the wrong end of a gun barrel. That is if his parents can imbue in him a sense of value while the world endeavors to imbue in him a sense of worthlessness.[14]

Did I mention that the Ferguson Chief of Police, Thomas Jackson, reportedly displays a Confederate flag in his home?[15] Oh yes, racism is written all over this, even as the likes of Cliven Bundy and his militia buddies have yet to face what one might expect should be the consequences for training their weapons on federal agents who had come to seize Bundy’s cattle in Nevada, for threatening further violence against those agents, and for reportedly setting up armed checkpoints limiting access to the area near his ranch.[16]

Figure 1. Original caption: “An explosive device deployed by police flies in the air as police and protesters clash.” AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, via the New Republic. Fair use.
Figure 1. Original caption: “An explosive device deployed by police flies in the air as police and protesters clash.” AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, via the New Republic. Fair use.
Figure 2. Original caption:
Figure 2. Original caption: “How they’re doing police work in Ferguson, Missouri these days.” Scott Olson, Vox. Fair Use.

Why do I raise the example of Bundy? Because when the townspeople of Ferguson protested Brown’s shooting, the police turned the town into a war zone (figs. 1 and 2). The authorities seem to have seen no need to assert control in Nevada, but when Blacks demonstrated with their hands up—Brown had held his hands up in the air as he ran away from the cop who shot him down—in Ferguson, the FAA closed airspace over the city. Ferguson and Saint Louis County Police arrested two journalists in a McDonald’s restaurant, attacked and harassed other journalists, and arrested a Saint Louis city alderman for getting out of his car. The police, said to have been more heavily armed than soldiers had been when they patrolled in Iraq and Bosnia, pointed high power weapons, launched tear gas and explosives, and fired wooden and rubber bullets at protestors.[17] This went on for at least the better part of two days after the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch called on the governor to put state authorities in charge,[18] before the governor was finally shamed into doing so.[19] Ferguson Police Chief Jackson explained, “We have to respond to deadly force.”[20] I am unclear as to whether he said so before or after being relieved of crowd control responsibilities.

Figure 3, Original caption:
Figure 3, Original caption: “Officers from the Missouri state highway patrol march with demonstrators in Ferguson after taking over from the St Louis county force in policing demonstrations.” Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images, via The Guardian. Fair Use.

“Sometimes you just have to let people speak and make yourself listen. I used to tell my kids when they were small, open up your listening ears.” So said Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who took charge at the Governor’s belated order. Johnson appears in the center of figure 3, marching with demonstrators,[21] in stark contrast to figure 4.

Figure 4. Original caption:
Figure 4. Original caption: “Police advance through smoke Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Protests in the St. Louis suburb rocked by racial unrest since a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager to death turned violent Wednesday night, with people lobbing molotov cocktails at police who responded with smoke bombs and tear gas to disperse the crowd.” Associated Press/Jeff Roberson, via Talking Points Memo. Fair Use.

I’m going to hazard an admittedly sexist guess that Johnson’s Momma raised him right (I actually know nothing of his background). He seems to understand at least a beginning step to restorative justice. And the results are clear: “A carnival-like demonstration filled the centre of the city after a new police chief given control of protests over the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old implemented a dramatic shift in tactics.”[22]

But I guess it’s easier to wave that Confederate flag.


  1. Jeff Roberson, Associated Press.[23]
  2. Scott Olson.[24]
  3. Scott Olson, Getty Images.[25]
  4. Jeff Roberson, Associated Press.[26]
  1. [1]Alan Blinder and Tanzina Vega, “Missouri Governor to Deploy National Guard to Ferguson,” New York Times, August 18, 2014,; Max Fisher, “If police in Ferguson treat journalists like this, imagine how they treat residents,” Vox, August 18, 2014,; German Lopez, “CNN’s Jake Tapper on the police in Ferguson: ‘This doesn’t make any sense’,” Vox, August 18, 2014,; German Lopez, “Cop to Ferguson protesters: ‘I will fucking kill you… Go fuck yourself’,” Vox, August 20, 2014,; Catherine Thompson, “Three More Journalists Detained In Ferguson,” Talking Points Memo, August 18, 2014,; Jonathan Turley, “Ferguson Officer Suspended After Captured On Video Pointing Weapon At Protesters and Threatening To Kill Them,” August 22, 2014,; Tanzina Vega, Timothy Williams, and Erik Eckholm, “Emotions Flare in Missouri Amid Police Statements,” New York Times, August 15, 2014,; Tim Walker, “Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy report shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head,” Independent, August 18, 2014,–twice-in-the-head-9675118.html
  2. [2]Julie Bosman and Emma G. Fitzsimmons, “Grief and Protests Follow Shooting of a Teenager,” New York Times, August 10, 2014,
  3. [3]Leonard Pitts, Jr., “This is not just about Michael Brown,” Miami Herald, August 12, 2014,
  4. [4]Julie Bosman and Emma G. Fitzsimmons, “Grief and Protests Follow Shooting of a Teenager,” New York Times, August 10, 2014,
  5. [5]Charles M. Blow, “Michael Brown and Black Men,” New York Times, August 13, 2014,
  6. [6]Charles M. Blow, “Michael Brown and Black Men,” New York Times, August 13, 2014,
  7. [7]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011).
  8. [8]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  9. [9]; Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  10. [10]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995).
  11. [11]Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012).; George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  12. [12]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 3.
  13. [13]Charles M. Blow, “Michael Brown and Black Men,” New York Times, August 13, 2014,
  14. [14]Charles M. Blow, “Michael Brown and Black Men,” New York Times, August 13, 2014,
  15. [15]Sadhbh Walshe, “Ferguson is what happens when white suburban cops get weapons of war,” Guardian, August 14, 2014,
  16. [16]Associated Press, “Nevada cattle roundup halted amid safety concerns,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 12, 2014,; Travis Gettys, “Cliven Bundy threatens violence against federal agents as Sean Hannity eggs him on,” Raw Story, April 16, 2014,; Manu Raju, “Police investigating Cliven Bundy-related threats to Harry Reid,” Politico, April 28, 2014,; Southern Poverty Law Center, “SPLC report: Bundy ranch standoff was highly coordinated, reflecting threat of larger far-right militia movement,” July 10, 2014,
  17. [17]Kriston Capps, “At This Point, Ferguson Is a City Under Siege,” City Lab, August 13, 2014,; Federal Aviation Administration, “NOTAM Number: FDC 4/2599,” August 12, 2014,; Max Fisher, “Al Jazeera journalists teargassed by security forces — in Ferguson, Missouri, USA,” Vox, August 13, 2014,; Arturo Garcia, “Cops aim weapon at local official, lock media out as Ferguson protests continue,” Raw Story, August 12, 2014,; Amber Hildebrandt, “Michael Brown shooting: The police’s military-like response to Missouri riots,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, August 14, 2014,; Huffington Post, “Police In Ferguson Have Continually Attacked And Harassed Journalists,” August 13, 2014,; KMOV, “Unrest continues in aftermath of Michael Brown shooting; more arrests made,” August 13, 2014,; Keith Laing, “FAA restricts flights over Ferguson,” Hill, August 12, 2014,; Josh Marshall, “Harrowing Images Out of Ferguson,” Talking Points Memo, August 13, 2014,; Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Police in Ferguson Reportedly Arrest St. Louis Alderman for Getting Out of His Car,” Slate, August 14, 2014,; New Republic, “Scenes from a War Zone in the Middle of America Unreal photos of the chaos on the streets of Ferguson,” August 14, 2014,; Dylan Scott, “FAA Restricts Air Space Above Missouri Town During Police Standoff,” Talking Points Memo, August 12, 2014,; Dylan Scott, “Two Reporters Arrested In Ferguson During Protests After Teen Shooting,” Talking Points Memo, August 14, 2014,; Annie-Rose Strasser, “Why There’s A No-Fly Zone Over Ferguson, Missouri,” Center for American Progress, August 13, 2014,; Jon Swaine, “Michael Brown protests in Ferguson met with rubber bullets and teargas,” Guardian, August 14, 2014,; Jesse Byrnes, “Ferguson: ‘War zone or US city?’,” Hill, August 14, 2014,;
  18. [18]St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Governor must let Ferguson be where better begins,” August 12, 2014,
  19. [19]Candice Bernd, “Another Night of Police Violence in Ferguson; Governor Relieves Local Police of Protest Duty,” Truthout, August 14, 2014,; Josh Marshall, “An Important Read on Ferguson,” Talking Points Memo, August 13, 2014,; Matthew Yglesias, “Enough is enough in Ferguson,” Vox, August 14, 2014,
  20. [20]Dylan Scott, “Police Chief Defends Tactics: ‘We Have To Respond To Deadly Force’,” Talking Points Memo, August 14, 2014,
  21. [21]Jon Swaine, “Ferguson: disarming tactics of highway patrol pay dividends as calm descends,” Guardian, August 14, 2014,
  22. [22]Jon Swaine, “Ferguson: disarming tactics of highway patrol pay dividends as calm descends,” Guardian, August 14, 2014,
  23. [23]New Republic, “Scenes from a War Zone in the Middle of America Unreal photos of the chaos on the streets of Ferguson,” August 14, 2014,
  24. [24]Matthew Yglesias, “Enough is enough in Ferguson,” Vox, August 14, 2014,
  25. [25]Jon Swaine, “Ferguson: disarming tactics of highway patrol pay dividends as calm descends,” Guardian, August 14, 2014,
  26. [26]Josh Marshall, “Harrowing Images Out of Ferguson,” Talking Points Memo, August 13, 2014,

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