When Power Speaks to Truth: The New Authoritarian State Exposed in Ferguson, Missouri

The admonition, “Speak truth to power” is heard when outrage at injustice leads folks to seek resolution by articulating righteous truth in the face of evil. It is usually an institutionalized evil against which truth is invoked. That is because the power referenced is usually that of some overbearing bureaucracy or unfair action by someone who has enough power to get away with murder.

We should not overly personalize the unjust killing of Michael Brown as an evil simply emanating from just one person, Officer Darren Wilson. That mistake would miss the much larger evil of a culture that routinely dehumanizes and demonizes young Black and Brown men. That culture tolerates and enables the mass incarceration and indiscriminant police killings of youth of color. The rest of us pay little if any attention to the massive injustices of the drug war and the militarization of police. In the U.S., police kill citizens in huge numbers compared to every other industrial nation. We must ask why.

I listened to and watching numerous news, social media, and official channels of communication related to the police killing of Michael Brown and its social and institutional aftermath. Then it dawned on me. This is all about Power speaking to Truth! I could go on extensively describing how this discourse of domination was propagated throughout the so-called “public media” as filtered by the corporatist editorial framework. But then, I wondered what a real conversation between Mr. Power and Mr. Truth might be like. Here’s what I imagined:

Truth: Shooting an unarmed teenager surrendering from a considerable distance is inexcusable and criminal.
Power: Officer Darren Wilson was doing his job, just like he described when interviewed on TV by George Stephanopoulos.
Truth: Who speaks for Michael Brown?
Power: Prosecutor Robert McCulloch followed established procedures in assigning the case to the grand jury. The grand jury reviewed all the evidence brought to it by the prosecutor and found no basis for returning an indictment.
Truth: Out of 162,000 cases brought to grand juries in recent years, the record shows that in only 11 cases did the grand jury fail to return an indictment. That is because it’s not supposed to be a trial; it’s supposed to be a presentation of the case against the accused, for the grand jury to determine if there’s enough evidence for a trial. That’s not what happened in this case.
Power: Mr. McCulloch presented all the available evidence to the grand jury; it was up to them to determine whether an indictment was warranted.
Truth: But the prosecutor acted like a defense lawyer for Officer Wilson. His job was to present the case against Wilson so the grand jury could determine if there was enough evidence to indict him; he failed to do his duty to bring a case to the grand jury; he did just the opposite. He used his considerable power over the grand jury process to assure that an indictment was not returned.
Power: From the beginning, the authorities have responded to threats to law and order with measured force, maintaining the social order and insuring safety of the citizens of Ferguson.
Truth: At every step, the “authorities” expressed and exercised deep disrespect and contempt for the lives of Black folks. First, they left Michael lying in the street for four and a half hours.
Power: The police had to do their forensic investigation and not disturb any evidence.
Truth: Then they released a video of a man shoplifting some cigars and claimed it was Michael Brown, right at the same time they announced that Officer Wilson would not be arrested for killing Brown. That’s blatant character assassination after physical murder treated as necessary force, in order to distract from the fact that the police refused to arrest one of their own.
Power: The police had to release the video; it was public information and was requested by the press.
Truth: They still haven’t been able to identify any press people who actually requested that video. The “authorities” reacted to the peaceful protests of the citizens of Ferguson with massive force, using military equipment and tactics and aggressively forcing peaceful protestors off the streets threatening to shoot them, with total disregard for their humanity and the fact that they were attempting to exercise their first amendment rights to political speech.
Power: The protesters were disrupting public order and were a threat to the peace that law enforcement is sworn to protect. Violence was committed against property. There is no need for massive mobilization of all sorts of people in the streets of Ferguson. It just draws outside agitators. The incident was being investigated and the process should have been honored.
Truth: The processes that the power elites of Ferguson, Saint Luis County, and similar “authorities” across the nation have used in suppressing the rights of citizens in the name of “order” are little more than a new version of “Jim Crow” laws that oppressed Black folks before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Power: These outbursts by political movements disrupt the economies of communities like Ferguson and damage race relations in our new “post racial” society.
Truth: Just because an African American was elected president does not erase the rampant racism that persists in America. Recoded racism takes many forms. But the worst is the widespread assault on Black populations across the country by law enforcement.  Governor Nixon’s preemptive declaration of a state of emergency and mobilization of the National Guard was essentially a degradation ritual.  Whether the degraded treatment of people of color is by “stop and frisk” or the selective targeting in the drug war, or by dozens of other techniques, makes little difference. The oppression of the sectors of the population who have been most isolated from economic and social opportunities by an extractive economy of elite privilege continues unabated.

Of course, such a conversation could go on indefinitely. But it would not be resolved. Why?  Because we live in a system of oppression and a culture of denial.  Only when the values of compassion, justice, and community are restored and the authority of the people over our institutions is reestablished, will the growing insanity of ‘the system’ be overcome.

Preemptive Response to Prejudged Emergency

Do you remember “preventive detention? It was the idea of arresting people on the assumption that they might commit some crime, even though they have not yet done so. The concept never got a lot of public support, since it was such a blatantly unconstitutional approach to law enforcement. That is not to say, however, that it has not been put into practice informally in some places.

But now we see a new twist on the underlying idea of controlling expected bad behavior in a population. Yes, it’s Ferguson, Missouri again. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency ad mobilized the National Guard, as a “precaution” in case “unrest” or violence might break out in Ferguson. One must ask, how do you respond to an emergency before it happens?

The action was taken in anticipation of public anger if the grand jury fails to indict officer Darren Wilson. Yet the governor’s precipitous act is quite consistent with previous police actions there. The entire episode over the past three plus months since Officer Wilson shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown to death, has been characterized by institutional overkill.

The initial peaceful protests in Ferguson were met with a highly militarized show of Robo-cop style brute force. The result, not surprisingly, was increased anger, resentment, and tension. Despite organizers’ efforts to keep it non-violent, some vandalism occurred. It only takes a few rocks thrown to trigger a massive police over-reaction, treating all protestors as illegitimate. But what is clear is that the white power structure in not only Ferguson but Saint Luis County is simply prejudiced. Its actions have been and are based in traditional – if publicly unspoken – racist imaginaries about a presumptive “lawlessness” of the black population. Under the circumstances, that population has remained remarkably restrained. Not so the militarized law enforcement institutions or their leadership.

The preemptive declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Nixon is, by its very presumptions, bigoted. It prejudges the character of the mostly black population of Ferguson and implicitly labels “those people” as “lawless.” The actions of the various police agencies, prosecutors, etc., from local to state, reflect a “them vs. us” mentality in which “they” have to be controlled by force. Lip service is given to the people’s right to freedom of speech while police entrap protestors in physical space where no such right can be exercised. And, of course, the old “outside agitators” meme is also invoked.

The indifference of the mostly white Ferguson police and politicians, and the county and state ‘authorities,’ to the current and historical grievances of black citizens is flagrant. Unrelenting authoritative obliviousness to the reasons for popular anger has fed the understandable public frustration with the handling of the case from the start. That indifference, glossed over with feigned respect for human rights, continues as the major factor in the approach of law enforcement to the black population of St. Louis county.

Similar attitudes among ‘authorities’ can be found all across this nation. They are expressed in different ways and cause diverse local crises when specific instances of police abuse of citizens capture sufficient media attention. Death at the hands of police is commonplace in communities of color in this country.

A complex of converging factors seems to be accelerating both the number of instances and the awareness of the public. What might have been only a story a few years ago is now captured on smart-phone video by passers by. Self-selection of violent personalities into police work and indifference or support for aggression by leadership perpetuate the hostile separation of police from citizen. Problems of community relations are seen as needing a “show of force” as in the absurd twisting of the idea of emergency by Governor Nixon.

Unfortunately, it is all part of a larger process of the pitting of the institutions that protect the interests of the power elites against the people of this country. Police are no longer there to ‘keep the peace’ or ‘serve and protect’ the people. Their mission is to control the population to insure the order imposed by a institutional power structure behind a thin veil of ‘democracy.’ If there were any sense of community or democracy in the state of Missouri, the governor would have been meeting with civic groups in and around Ferguson over the past three months seeking to reach a level of cooperation that could resolve the grievances of the citizens of that town. If “the‘authorities” were integral to communities, the gunning down of an unarmed teenager by a police officer would have triggered an immediate investigation by a civilian review body to both establish the facts and determine how such a tragedy could be prevented in the future.

Quite the opposite has happened. Police and politicians bungled and overreacted at every step. They all dodged and covered. The people were enclosed, to protest in as much isolation from media coverage as possible. Neither indictment nor its absence will have much of any bearing on the ability of the power structure to address its failed relationship to the citizenry that is its only real justification for existence.