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Ferguson: A Long Time Coming

Last Saturday Elli and I marched with two close friends and 50,000 others in New York City to protest police killings of unarmed African-Americans. Elli pointed out that the crowd, predominantly people of color in their teens and twenties, carried her back to the civil rights marches of five decades ago.

The march also got me thinking about when I attended the founding conference of Critical Resistance, an organization formed in 1998 to fight mass incarceration. That year, our prison population had skyrocketed to 1.5 million, and a wildly disproportionate number of those incarcerated were people of color, eviscerating entire communities. At the time, I felt that by locking up that many people the forces of repression were unwittingly sowing the seeds of a mass response.

That response did not materialize immediately. Years passed, and the prison population grew; it now approaches 3 million. The “war on drugs” continued unabated, with a big assist from the draconian post 9/11 laws. In the last decade, police departments stepped up their “zero tolerance” policies in minority neighborhoods, “stop and frisk” harassment exploded in New York City, and the court system gutted the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. New disenfranchisement laws prevented those convicted from voting; Harper’s Index just estimated that 1 out of 8 black men in this country are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction. The police are increasingly militarized; SWAT teams armed with automatic weapons, dressed like Darth Vader’s soldiers and backed by armored vehicles, smash down doors. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, a growing number of new police recruits are veterans of those wars who treat the people they are supposed to protect as their enemy.

Last summer we all saw the images of the Ferguson police department’s excessive and brutal use of their weaponry and equipment against protesters. The Eric Garner video confirmed the views of millions of New Yorkers that when dealing with minorities the NYPD is a gang of armed thugs.

I’m surprised by two things about the wave of protests that have swept the nation in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The first is that they didn’t happen sooner. This explosion has been brewing for over twenty years. The second is the restraint exercised by the protesters. Listening to Eric Garner say “I can’t breathe” thirteen times and learning that Michael Brown was left lying in the street dead for over four hours is unspeakably infuriating. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up as a person of color under the constant threat of police mistreatment and have no outlet for the rage. That rage has finally found an organized outlet, and in the words of the Sam Cooke song:

“It's been a long, long time coming
but I know a change gonna come
Oh yes it will”

The massive resistance we’ve seen is just a first step. I eagerly await the next. Read More 
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