Forward from Ferguson? How Do We Change the Future?

  Rabbis are among those praying at the Ferguson police station for justice in the Michael Brown case. Rabbi Talve is on the right, in front of the person in the St. Louis Blues shirt; Rabbi Randy Fleisher is on the far left, in blue, with long hair.

Just a few weeks ago, we sent you an essay called “Find YOUR Ferguson — and Heal It,” by Rabbi Susan Talve. As the spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, for 30 years she has led efforts to dismantle racism in the city and its suburbs.

She joined in the prayerful protests against racial oppression in Ferguson that galvanized people around the country. And she reminded us that most of us have a “Ferguson” in or near our own home towns. See the photo of one of the protests in which she joined. To expand it, click on the title of this article.

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For me, Ferguson echoes a long personal history of my own study and action in regard to ”power racism” among  police forces. I’ll explain below what I mean by “power racism” as distinct from “personal racism.”)

Almost 50 years ago, in 1965,  my book From Race Riot to Sit-in, 1919 and the 1960s: A Study in the Relations between Conflict and Violence was published.

Here we are, fifty years later – and the subject of the first half of the book, a series of race riots in 1919 – was almost a century ago. What has changed?

Half of the book was based on my doctoral dissertation. On the very day in 1963 when I finished writing it, I actually experienced the racism of police. I took part in a walk-in for racial integration at an amusement park where I had grown up, in Baltimore. A mob gathered around us throwing rocks and threatening beatings. One of us was bloodied by a thrown rock. So — the police arrested us, for interracial trespass. They did not even pause to ask themselves whether to arrest the stone-throwers for assault.

In one moment!  —  studying the past and living the present were fused into one.

And that fusion of past with present continues — and unless we act, will burn its way into our future. The patterns of violence I discerned in the race riots of 1919 and in the Watts uprising of 1965 are still scarring America.  Chicago and Washington DC and Longview TX and more in 1919; Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992; Ferguson this year – these are the patterns:

1. Built-in institutions of racial injustice and oppression in many spheres: far higher disemployment and poverty among Blacks, far less effective schools, far higher rates of imprisonment,  far worse exposure to lead poisoning, to asthma-causing coal dust, to  disasters like Katrina and Sandy; far smaller representation in governmental leadership; on and on.

All this is social gasoline sloshing through every Black neighborhood.

2.  The spark that flares this gasoline into explosive  violence: Injustice and oppression by the police.

Our society agrees to make the police public carriers of weaponry and when necessary, users of legitimate violence —  on condition that they must therefore be utterly neutral about race, class, religion, and every other social category when they face what may or may not be criminal behavior.

But the police are not neutral. They are infected with the same “power racism” that is endemic in all the other structures of American society. Not only what might be called “personal racism”  — using obnoxious language toward or about Blacks, for example  — but, far more destructive, using their power to reinforce the disempowerment of Blacks.

When push comes to shove, they sometimes use their guns – and now, their tanks, hand grenades, pepper gas, taser-stunners, and other such war-fighting equipment — to threaten, frighten, shame, wound, and kill Black people.

So ingrained institutional “power racism” throughout our society is the gasoline, and “power racism” by the police is often the spark, that together produce explosions of violence.

I can’t help grieving, and feeling disheartened, that our actual experience of this pattern goes back at least a century, and my own small contribution to thinking about it goes back half a century.  So as you can imagine,  I feel  discouraged to see the police still acting now as they have for at least a century –— with the permission and often celebration of the American public.

 Just a tiny symbolic example: In 1965, when the Watts uprising exploded, the Los Angeles police under the command of Chief William Parker acted in clearly racist ways to crush the uprising. In 1992, after the acquittal of the police officer who mercilessly beat Rodney King without realizing he was on camera, Los Angeles erupted again – and the first protests were aimed at police headquarters. It was called the Parker Center – named to honor the Chief who had been so oppressive a generation before. Small wonder that the LAPD was still acting out “power racism”!

So that kind of continuity in police behavior is discouraging.  But there is another side to the story, which we also need to know:

In 1999, in New York City, Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was shot and killed by four New York City policmen.  There was massive protest, and a gathering of Rabbis (of whom I was one) were arrested protesting.

And today, Rabbi Talve is not alone. All across America, citizens and clergy of every cloth and color have responded to Ferguson – the first such national outpouring of demand to end “power racism” in the police:  that police forces be denied warmaking weaponry, that they carry cameras to photograph their own behavior, that they be prohibited from using “stop-and-frisk” powers that they have widely directed against Blacks.

The institutional power of police forces to act as they please will not be easy to end, just as all the rest of institutional racism will not be easy to defang and dismantle.

It is all part of the same over-all Domineering, Dominating pattern of our society. Suffocate the Earth by burning fossil fuels;  deny jobs and decent wages to Blacks and Hispanics; treat Muslims as traitors; impose voter suppression on the poor, the young, and the old while encouraging corporations and Big Money to buy election campaigns; break labor unions and pour contempt on teachers, social workers, artists; turn jails and prisons into dens of rape and torture; deny medical care to the poor and decent public transportation to us all; conquer countries and destroy their lives with no knowledge or concern for who they are:

All aspects of the same impulse to Control, itself racing out of control, becoming Domination.

We need to carry always two different aspects of these truths:

We need to understand the over-all pattern.
We need to understand that transforming that pattern works in smaller doses: transforming the Police, or the Carbon economy, or the Prison system, or the Food system, OR ————.  

Transforming how? In From Race Riot to Sit-in I identified three versions of the politics of change: The politics of order, begging legislatures to change the laws; the politics of violence, attacking those in power; and the politics of “creative disorder,” like the sit-ins — embodying in present reality the vision of a changed future. (“We want integrated restaurants. So we will just integrate them ourselves, and you will have to figure out what to do next.”) The third approach is usually the most ethical and the most powerful. It fuses the “ends” and the “means” into one.

And today, in facing the climate crisis, or power-racist police forces, or elections that are really auctions — those are perhaps the best ways to transform the world, from Domination to Community.  Creating neighborly guardians to peacefully patrol our neighborhoods; doing our work in co-ops; founding “Freedom Schools”; connecting our kitchens with community farms; uniting congregational prayer with communal protest  ——- all these can be steps in “creative disorder” toward transformation.  

The Shalom Center has chosen to focus on the way the Carbon Pharaohs are bringing Plagues upon us, and how to replace them with local sources of renewable energy.

Martin Luther King warned us of three deadly triplets: racism, militarism, materialism. Materialism run amok, in both consumers and corporations, fuels our climate crisis. That is the triplet The Shalom Center has chosen as our focus.  And we will continue to make clearly visible the connections among all three.

For Rabbi Talve’s report from Ferguson, click to https://theshalomcenter.org/find-your-ferguson-and-heal-it

For the intensified effects of  Carbon Plagues on  communities of color, see https://theshalomcenter.org/global-scorching-climate-justice by Jacqueline Patterson of the NAACP staff.)

To help us keep doing the work of dismantling Domination and creating Community, please click on the “Donate” button on the left-hand margin. Thanks!

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