Michael Brown, Ferguson and Tanks
Years ago I thought about writing a paper I would call “The Violence of the Status Quo.” I never wrote that paper. Perhaps now is the time—although it would have been appropriate any time in the last 500 years of US history. Michael Brown, yes, and as of August 19 four other young Black men, all unarmed, perhaps not perfectly behaved, but killed in the last month by White police under circumstances in which Whites are almost never killed by police. And a bit earlier Trayvon Martin…the list goes on.
The people of Ferguson have made it impossible for the rest of the country to do the usual: a bit of hand-wringing, a bit of a mea culpa moment on the part of liberals, a bit of celebration on the part of White supremacists, a profound (apparent) disinterest on the part of most everyone else except those who well know the daily-ness of such acts, those who have to live their lives in the consciousness of them—and then attention shifts, often to focus on fields where men play with balls, for circuses do work even when the bread is unevenly distributed.
Or it can be the latest celebrity scandal, anything so profoundly unimportant to anyone but the individuals involved that no questions will arise whose answers would show the status quo for what it is. Violent. The violence of Ferguson—the murder and the tanks is not new. It is the status quo, unmasked.
We all know the obvious acts of violence backing injustice and inequality in US history. But we know them as isolated factoids, not as part of a larger pattern, a pattern of continuous violence that continues today: the forced dispossession of the Native Peoples of this land, the enslavement of Africans, the lynching and executions of Jim Crow. Some of us know about the enforced servitude of encomienda, the confinement and dispossession of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in California, the near enslavement of Chinese railroad workers, and some of us see the violence involved in mass incarceration and immigrant deportation. But there is also a masked violence, a daily violence that accompanies the status quo, a violence that is critical in maintaining the privilege that accompanies whiteness, a privilege that only partially coincides with middle class status. It is the violence created by inequality itself—structural violence—and of the continuous low-level violence required to maintain that inequality: incarceration, social service confiscation of children and the lack of resources needed to prevent it, deaths from poverty and discrimination, the maintenance of a school to prison pipeline: the daily struggle to survive without attracting the dangerous attention of the state.
But it is hidden violence. Hidden, that is, from those with a bit of privilege. We are supposed to see this as law and order, or as the unfortunate collateral damage that accompanies a benevolent, or at least inevitable, capitalism, or as the fault of the individuals involved. We don’t see it as part and parcel of the Trail of Tears and the Middle Passage. We don’t see it as the violence required to provide elites with cheap labor and cheap resources, and the somewhat privileged with some degree of comfort—all without provoking revolt. It is when this daily violence fails, when the ideology that masks it looses legitimacy in the eyes of the more privileged, that the tanks begin to roll. The violence in Ferguson is not new.
The people of Ferguson, in their refusal to accept either yet another death or the viciously militarized response of the police, have torn off the mask that hides these truths. It could have been torn off over other deaths, and certainly emerged tattered after Trayvon Martin’s murder. Militarized violence itself could have been unmasked in the wake of the attack on the Boston Marathon, when tanks rolled through the streets of Watertown in a massive display of the militarization of policing, accepted as protection against the foreign Other. We should have remembered that they come first for the other, and if we let them do that, they will eventually come for us. As indeed they have.
But the militarization of the police is merely the latest twist in the punishing deployment of force on which all states are, at root, dependent.
States are, among other things, the mechanism by which an elite gains the power to systematically transfer the wealth produced by the labor of people and the resources of the land into their own hands. Doing so requires the use of force, and that force is deployed by the state. People don’t choose to be exploited. They don’t choose to watch children starve. They don’t choose to die of Black Lung; they don’t choose the Trail of Tears, or slavery, or debt peonage, or segregation or encomienda; they don’t choose near slavery as immigrant contract labor nor to die crossing the border to enter the US as did the grandparents or great-grandparents of those trying to keep them out, or to live in fear of Homeland Security in their homes and workplaces if they survive. They don’t choose terrible schools for their children, despite their high taxes, nor spotty health care. Neither do they choose to watch their daughters and sons struggle with minimum wage jobs, assuming they are available, or with discrimination even with a college degree. And they do not choose to see their sons incarcerated or shot dead by the very people deployed by the state to serve and protect.
Maintaining such conditions is never easy; protest and resistance, as well as acting out, is nearly continuous. Even people suffering through the confines of slavery managed, as Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776 makes clear, to keep Whites in a state of terror with arson, poisoning, murders and plots—sometimes successful, and sometimes timed to coincide with Spanish or French attacks—to rise up, kill Whites, and take control or flee. Punishments were delivered with horrifying public spectacles of pain—sending a message to other would-be rebels. One has to wonder about the bleeding body of Michael Brown, left in what amounts to public display for hours. The perhaps escalating pattern of police killings of young Black men, along with mass incarceration, is part of the ongoing state terrorism that has kept voting down and those most likely to turn to the use of force in response to inequality off the streets.
Maintaining such conditions now and the ideology needed to mask them is particularly difficult in times of increasing misery for people used to a little privilege.
There is the danger that those who develop a bit of class consciousness as a result may join with those who have been suffering all along; they may infect those who might otherwise turn to racist backlash and victim blaming, the ideologies that are so powerful in masking the injustice of the status quo.
That danger has arisen now, with a greater questioning of the hegemonic narrative than has been seen in years. It has arisen with the present massive transfer of wealth to the 1% in the face of the misery of structural adjustment and its destruction of the social safety net, the faltering of US global dominance accompanied by continuous war and the misery it brings—financial, emotional, physical—to soldiers, their families, and to the community at large. When legitimacy is questioned and the usual ideological tactics haven’t worked, the tanks roll. But they have rolled in Ferguson not so much to terrorize the people of Ferguson—although they are the target—as to display the punishing power available for all of us, should we be sufficiently recalcitrant as to threaten the ability of the few to control the transfer of wealth into their own hands.
Those tanks send a message: The state will protect its own—as it has done throughout US history, to the detriment most dramatically of people of color, but also to the detriment of all but the elite. Unless we stop them.
And we can’t stop them if we don’t see through the masks to the underlying quotidian nature of the violence of the status quo. This is where anthropology can step in. Progressive journalists and commentators have quite rightly focused their explanations of the events in Ferguson on such issues as the long history of inequality there and in the US, on the long history of violence against Blacks, on the racial disparities of the justice system, deindustrialization and financial meltdown, and sometimes on White privilege. They have also blasted the militarization of the police and the outrageously disproportionate response of the police which they feel sparked greater protests and perhaps the violence of a few of the people of Ferguson.
But there is a deeper level of explanation that is needed, and it is here that we anthropologists have a part to play. Anthropology can furnish analysis of the state, of the use of force, of whiteness, of structural inequality, segmented labor forces, and structural violence. We can connect the dots between past violence and present violence—we can show that the violences we have been taught to dismiss as isolated are in fact part and parcel of the same thing. And in so doing—in straight-forward, readable language—we can help move us all toward a more just future.
This article was first published at Anthropology News.
About the Author
Pem Davidson Buck the author of Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power, and Privilege in Kentucky and of In/Equality: An Alternative Anthropology. Her recent work has focused on mass incarceration and on the role of punishment in state formation. She teaches at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College in Kentucky.