Are the Ferguson protests a first death knell of modern American liberalism?
The protesters are deploying systemic critiques rather than arguments based on individual incidences.
The message of the Ferguson protesters and of Ferguson solidarity protesters is simple: Black lives matter. Not “Michael Brown mattered”. Not “arrest Darren Wilson”. Black lives matter. Hands up; don’t shoot. Michael Brown and the lack of indictment of Darren Wilson are simply the vessels through which activism has been allowed to happen. A clear injustice occurred. An individual instance in which a white police officer murdered a Black teenager. The Black teenager’s cadaver lay in the sweltering summer street for four and a half hours. And yet, the message of the protesters is not “right this one wrong”—the message is, “the system is unjust. This does not begin nor end with Michael Brown.
The nationwide protests have illuminated a stark rift between protesters seeking justice and an increasingly neoliberal President Obama, who today criticized protesters for being “violent”. President Obama has been focused on fixing the system where it’s broken, without realizing that 1) the system is not broken, and 2) Ferguson is not an isolated incident of police brutality. What President Obama doesn’t realize that is being made increasingly clear in Ferguson is that the United States collectively has a systemic issue with state-sponsored violence. Solidarity protests have included Indigenous people whose land was taken by the United States and whose ancestors faced widespread death at the hand of European colonizers; Palestinian activists, who have had extensive experience with displacement, tear gas, and violent weaponry deployed by the U.S.-supported IDF; and even Asian American organizations such as CAAAV and RaceFiles, whose work explicitly rejects the model minority trope fashioned by white America.
Liberals such as President Obama still subscribe to the notion that the police exists to serve and protect their communities. They have ignored the gradual but undeniable militarization of municipal police. The actions of Democratic governor Jay Nixon resemble those of a police-state governor from a dystopian novel more than that of a leftist governor. Modern American liberalism—or what’s left of it—has moved slowly to the center-right since the rise of Reaganist neoliberal conservatism. The Democratic Party has slowly adopted more policies that reinforce free market dogma rather than challenge it. After all, it was under a Democratic president that the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed. And after all, it was under a Democratic president that the boards of the major banks who caused the global recession of 2008 walked free, unscathed.
At the turn of the decade, the left has risen outside of the political leviathan. Rooted in radically democratic principles (Occupy Wall Street) and systemic critiques of social issues (Ferguson), radical voices on the left have boiled over after decades (or centuries, depending on how far you’d like to go) of political suppression. And those voices are loudly rejecting moderate liberal dogma that racism is largely individualized and that, by and large, the U.S. has entered some mythical post-racial era, complete with its first Black president.
And unlike modern liberals and neoliberals, the leftists taking to the streets and to the Internet today are widely disinterested in reforming an unjust system that is working as it was designed. Leftists of today are calling for something larger than an investigation and a guilty verdict—they are calling for a radical change of how we think about Black lives, policing, and militarization in American society. At its core, the radical voices of today are calling for the deconstruction or destruction of the state that flexes its arms of imperialism both domestically (the police and the National Guard) and abroad (the military). It is the liberals who have joined the conservatives in subscribing to the dogmatic narrative that the police and the military exist to protect our rights and our freedoms. If anything, the happenings in Ferguson (and Palestine abroad) have been clear signs that modern neoliberalism is an unsustainable path for American leftism. What this new uprising symbolizes is a new beginning for a newly energized American left, like a phoenix rising from its ashes.