On Saturday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson. The following day, Nixon confirmed emergency status by calling in the National Guard — the mark of a domestic crisis.
But what does it mean to declare a state of emergency? In practical terms, the invocation of "emergency" by a politician is not just a description — it does something. Specifically, emergency declarations enable the authorities to deploy extraordinary state powers and restrict ordinary rights and liberties. In Ferguson, Nixon's declaration of emergency was delivered with his (doomed) imposition of a nighttime curfew.
I see a lot of problems with what gets to be, officially, an emergency. The issue begins with unfinished sentences. We are not explicitly informed for whom, or for what, this is a state of emergency. It is not enough to answer "Ferguson." A reality in which police officers shoot dead unarmed black teens with apparent impunity is already a state of emergency — for unarmed black teens. The people of Ferguson who took to the streets in response to Michael Brown's death declared as much.
But the governor did not proclaim that an "emergency."
Indeed, the ongoing state of emergency for black youth facing police violence in this country was not declared by state heads following the deaths of Oscar Grant in Oakland, New York's Ramarley Graham and Kimani Gray, LA's Ezell Ford — a mentally ill 25 year old killed by police days after Brown's death — or so many others.
The fact that protests are met with stun grenades, lungfuls of tear gas, and M4 rifles is an emergency for constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. But this emergency likewise was not declared by Nixon.
Instead, a number of other factors have earned Ferguson its official "emergency" status. For one, the authorities in Missouri are facing a crisis of reputation, which, following the failure to quell unrest with an "operational shift" at the end of last week, reached emergency levels over the weekend. The public relations disasters of arrested journalists, warrior cops, and tear gas did not provoke an immediate declaration of emergency. Rather, the "emergency" lies, I believe, in the realization that rightful rage in Ferguson will not be contained. The curfew was ignored. People did not go home. As was the case with the Los Angeles riots in 1992, the risk of calling in the National Guard — of admitting that authorities already on the ground did not have control — was deemed worth it.
Nixon explicitly attributed the calling of the National Guard to "deliberate, coordinated, and intensifying violent attacks on lives and property in Ferguson." Pause for a moment on the immediate juxtaposition, as if of equal import, of "lives and property." Consider too, that while property has been damaged and stores have been looted, claims of civilian-on-civilian shootings have not been confirmed. And so the difference now, what gets to be an "emergency," is the intensified threat to property.
On this point, I agree with writer Raven Rakia, who noted in the New Inquiry long before the Ferguson unrest:
Nothing gets the attention of the elite like taking away or destroying what they value above all else: property. In America, property is racial. It always has been…. For 300 years, the very idea of a black person's freedom was a direct threat to white men's property…. When property is destroyed by black protesters, it must always be understood in the context of the historical racialization of property. When the same system that refuses to protect black children comes out to protect windows, what is valued over black people in America becomes very clear.
It seems relevant here that the word "emergency" derives from the Latin, emergere, to arise or bring to light. In fealty to original meaning, we can see that to talk about a state of emergency is to recognize an incontrovertible bringing to light in Ferguson. The underlying situation — the racism, the police violence and militarization, the fierce response to dissent, the government's treatment of black youth as threats, the government's fear of black anger — is not new. For those of us whose daily existence does not include reminders of these facts, attention on the streets of Ferguson over the passed week has brought them to them to light.
While Nixon's declared state of emergency has, I believe, to do with order and property, a more general state of emergency is worth more attention. Namely, that the worst violence we're seeing in Ferguson is not emergent, but constant.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard