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The Rage in Ferguson Resists Containment — And Deserves to Spread

Unrest in Ferguson has defied attempts to quell it, but we must not view the suburb as the only stage on which to fight police violence.

by Natasha Lennard
Aug 19 2014, 11:04pm

Photo by Claire Ward/VICE News

For days now, I have wrongly predicted events in Ferguson. In the middle of last week, I said with unfounded surety that the nightly stand-offs between cops and demonstrators in the St. Louis suburb would die down imminently. Then I was wrongly certain that, following national censure over street scenes of thick tear gas and warrior cops pointing rifles at unarmed crowds, the promise of an "operational shift" in policing would see careful crowd control and a de-escalation of tensions.

I thought the tireless metabolism of Twitter feeds would grow sated with #Ferguson and move on to other outrages. I thought, with resignation, that Michael Brown would become just the latest in the annals of young black men killed by our impunity-soaked police state.

Yet, 10 days after Michael Brown's death, inept and aggressive policing continues, fueling the fires — literally — in an already enraged town, and adding nightly accelerants to the spectacle of a US suburb under military siege. The refusal of Ferguson protestors to quiet their fury or submit to draconian impositions like curfews has been remarkable. One clear lesson: Do not underestimate either the extent of police repression nor the strength of people's resistance.

Another young black man has been killed by police in St. Louis. Read more here.

The question of "What's next?" looms large. In a poor, predominantly black suburb, rebellion has emerged, repeating some historic patterns of racist police violence met with counter-violence, as well as victim-blaming and demonizing of looters and alleged outside agitators. But, to be sure, there is no blueprint here.

Ferguson, with a population of 21,000, is dwarfed by South Central Los Angeles (now South Los Angeles), where the 1992 Los Angeles riots began before spreading to other parts of the city. That historic explosion of racial tensions, following the videotaped police beating of Rodney King, lasted six days — four fewer than the unrest in Ferguson has lasted thus far. The LA riots resulted in 53 deaths and thousands of damaged businesses before order was enforced by the National Guard, Army, and Marines. There were more than 11,000 arrests. In 10 days of unrest in Ferguson, the most arrests in one night — Monday night — has been 78.

Even as the intensity of street clashes has heightened in the Missouri suburb, the chaos has been geographically contained. Protests in St. Louis have been small and tepid in tone — though some St. Louis residents have traveled to nearby Ferguson to join protests there. Tuesday afternoon, news emerged that police in St. Louis shot a young black man — a 23 year old suffering from mental illness, according to reports. Who knows whether this will change the shape of unrest in that city, or further bolster the fight in Ferguson.

Ferguson's rage is resonant. What shape that resonance will take remains unclear.

Despite the recognition that Michael Brown's death and its local aftermath has drawn attention to the national disgrace of police violence, racism and impunity, Ferguson has remained a concentrated area of unrest. My colleague Alice Speri, on the ground in Ferguson, has met protestors there from Minnesota and California. Solidarity rallies in other cities and towns have thus far been of little note in terms of size or intensity. Outrage over NYPD and LAPD killings of unarmed black men in the last month has not manifested into riotous rage on those city streets. Partly, of course, because the vast police forces there are chillingly adept at controlling dissent. As I have noted, the wealthy police armies of, say, New York or Chicago know better than to make a spectacle of their violence with the ruinous optics of tear gas.

We are seeing a strange lesson in social media resonance play out over Ferguson. With unprecedented scope and speed, a little-known suburb has become the most important place in America. The Los Angeles riots 22 years ago burned a place in history with more than 7,000 reported fires; today, one burned-out QuikTrip store in Ferguson is now recognized around the country.

Possessing military-grade weaponry isn't the only reason police wage war. Read more here.

Ferguson's rage is resonant. What shape that resonance will take remains unclear. I hope it does not find its resting place on the Twitter feeds of outraged online denizens, sweatily clutching smartphones to retweet images of tear gas. In focusing, quite literally minute by minute, on the streets of Ferguson, we risk a form of solidarity sullied with cognitive dissonance: We treat the situation there as unique (the sole focus of attention) and also as some sort of avatar for collective anger.

This coming Wednesday in New York's Lower East Side, another demonstration has been called in solidarity with Ferguson and "for every black body in America robbed of its right to live." The flyer for the event states, "We are sick with anger. It is too late for containing it." I worry that this in not true — that this anger can be contained. Then again, I have assumed that the rage in Ferguson would be suppressed or contained for days. And I have been wrong. As such, I will be there at the action in New York — in solidarity, in rage, and in profound hope that predictions of containment are wrong once again.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

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