Robert C. Koehler: Racism: It’s the law

Smoke and fire, sirens blaring, horns honking, a sudden hail of bullets. This is what passes for the American dialogue on race and justice.

It’s hidden until it explodes.

“By 10 p.m.,” the Wall Street Journal informed us, “a St. Louis County Police squad car burned just down the street from the Ferguson Police Department, with spare ammunition ‘cooking off’ or exploding in the car.”

Those who want to shake their heads in disgust can do so. American institutional racism conceals itself so neatly from those who prefer not to see it and, of course, aren’t victimized by it. And then every so often something sets off the public trigger — an 18-year-old young man is shot and killed by a police officer, for instance — and the reality TV that is our mainstream news brings us the angry, “violent” response, live. And it’s always one side against another; us vs. them. It’s always war.

“But what is justice in a nation built on white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies?” Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation the day after the grand jury announced that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted. “That’s the question we have yet to answer. It’s the question that shakes us up and makes our insides uncomfortable. It’s the question that causes great unrest.”

What is justice, indeed? And beyond that question are the real questions, perhaps unanswerable. What is healing? What is peace?

If an officer had been indicted in Michael Brown’s killing, and then convicted on one charge or another, maybe that would have been justice, in a “case closed” sort of way. In our limited legal bureaucracy, justice means nothing more than punishment. Even when such justice is done, it changes nothing. The state’s “interest” has been satisfied and that’s all that matters. The terrible loss suffered by parents, friends and community would remain a gaping wound. And beyond that, the social brokenness and racism that caused the tragedy in the first place would remain unaddressed, unhealed.

But not even that minimal justice was in the cards for the loved ones of Michael Brown, or the occupied community in which he lived — because that’s not how it works. Officer Wilson, whatever he did inside or outside the state’s rules on the use of lethal force when he confronted Brown on the afternoon of Aug. 9, was just doing his job, which was controlling and intimidating the black population of Ferguson. He was on the front line of a racist and exploitative system — an occupying bureaucracy.

The New York Times, in its story about the grand jury verdict, began thus: “Michael Brown became so angry when he was stopped by Officer Darren Wilson on Canfield Drive here on Aug. 9, his face looked ‘like a demon,’ the officer would later tell a grand jury.”

This sort of detail is, of course, of immense value to those who sympathize with the police shooting and accuse the black community of endemic lawlessness. See! Michael Brown wasn’t just a nice, innocent boy minding his own business. He and his companion were trouble incarnate, walking down the middle of the street spoiling for a fight. He was Hulk Hogan. The cop had no choice but to shoot, and shoot again. This was a demonic confrontation. Politeness wouldn’t have worked.

If nothing else, such testimony shows the stark limits of our “who’s at fault?” legal system, which addresses every incident in pristine, absurd isolation and has no interest beyond establishing blame — that is to say, officially stamping the participants as either villains, heroes or victims. Certainly it has no interest in holistic understanding of social problems.

Taking Wilson’s testimony at face value, one could choose to ask: Why was Michael Brown so angry?

Many commentators have talked about the “anger” of Ferguson’s black community in the wake of the shooting, but there hasn’t been much examination of the anger that was simmering beforehand, which may have seized hold of Brown the instant the police officer stopped him.

However, an excellent piece of investigative journalism by Radley Balko of the Washington Post, which ran in September — “How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty” — addresses the issue head on. He makes the point that local municipal governments, through an endless array of penny-ante citations and fines — “poverty violations” — torment the locals for the primary, or perhaps sole, purpose of keeping their bureaucracies funded.

“Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts,” Balko writes. The fines are mostly for traffic offenses, but they also include fines for loud music, unmown lawns, “wearing saggy pants” and “vague infractions such as ‘disturbing the peace,'” among many others, and if the person fined, because he or she is poor, can’t pay up, a further fine is added to the original, and on and on it goes.

“There’s also a widely held sentiment that the police spend far more time looking for petty offenses that produce fines than they do keeping these communities safe,” Balko writes. “If you were tasked with designing a regional system of government guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment, you’d be hard pressed to do better than St. Louis County.”

Regarding the anger and resentment in communities like Ferguson, he quotes a longtime racial justice activist, Jack Kirkland, who says: “I liken it to a flow of hot magma just below the surface. It’s always there, building, pushing up against the earth. It’s just a matter of time. When it finds a weak point, it’s going to blow.”

And when it blows, we get to watch it on TV: the flames, the smoke, the rage, the ammo “cooking off.” This is what institutional racism looks like when we finally notice it.


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