On the Riots in Ferguson
Some Thoughts from Detroit
Rising Up and Rising Down
The National Guard had been called out to Missouri well before the announcement Monday night that Darren Wilson would not stand trial for killing Michael Brown. The nation knew, before any stone was cast, that in Ferguson there would be tear gas and fire.
Because we knew already exactly what was going to happen, we’d had our opinions readied, formed in August but augmented and loosed with our own supportive readings of the just-released grand jury documents. These readings fell along familiar lines.
I am no exception. Wilson’s face looks clear of bruises to me. I am troubled by the way the crime scene was recorded and the indictment was handled. I’ve repeatedly failed to count the number of shots and reach a sum that seems in any way equivalent to self defense. The demon description makes me bristle.
So then, there are my politics.
I heard someone say that they couldn’t understand why these “animals” would destroy their own neighbrhood. That’s what they said: “animals.” Fuck that guy.
But there is another, broad swath of friends posting to Facebook these days with deeply earnest and good-hearted naiveté about their bewilderment at the state of things. They can’t understand either. They hope, without a single political thought in their head, for peace and love and rainbows, and urge “all races to rise above.” These are, by any measure, very good people.
But understanding is a separate act from condoning, and attempting it is always a worthwhile exercise.
Let’s put aside that we wish the burning and looting had never happened. Let’s put aside also that it only happened among a very small proportion of the many outraged Americans, in Ferguson and elsewhere. Let’s remember that we are not talking about animals; we are talking about a fundamentally human reaction to an overwhelming circumstance. Let’s be aware that language which dehumanizes severs all routes to understanding.
A Brief History of the American Ghetto
It’s impossible to disentangle racism and white supremacy from the founding and thriving of this country. For anyone at all familiar with American history, this is uncontroversial.
Given this, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the processes codified in the 1930s by two key bodies: the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). These federal programs do, however, provide a neatly unified point of culpability, at the federal level, for the creation and persistence of the black urban ghetto in America.
In the post-Civil War nineteenth century, dense, urban city centers were still the province of the gentry. Blacks were either country tenant farmers or urban servants, if not in the homes of those they served then cast out to the far fringes of the city. Rails and roads and the cheap “balloon-frame” housing then coming out of Chicago — and later the personal automobile out of Detroit — all had their part in reversing this dynamic. But it was a few New Deal programs begun in the 1930s that largely established the parameters of urban and suburban living which persist today.
Through the Depression, construction virtually stopped, and countless white Americans were losing homes to foreclosure. The federal government stepped in, and after a couple false starts had a viable system by 1934, when the FHA created the modern home loan. The new, federally-backed loans dropped down payments from north of 30 percent of the cost of a home to less than ten, and amortized payments over the life of a 25- to 30-year loan, rather than the previous five to ten year loan life. Interest rates dropped dramatically. This opened home ownership for broad swaths of Americans with modest means, and it boomed mid-century in tandem with the G.I. Bill, from just after World War II through the 1960s.
The HOLC, trying to predict the viability of the housing it would finance, created maps in every major American city, splitting them into neighborhoods ranked from one to four and color coded, respectively, green, blue, yellow, and red. Factors included things like the structural soundness and desirability of homes, the incomes and occupations of residents, and the proportion of owners to renters. But overwhelmingly, the determining factor was race and ethnicity. Green designations required homogeneity, strictly “American business and professional men.” Areas with even the slightest “infiltration of Jews” could not qualify any more as green “than a Jew could qualify as ‘American,’” writes historian Kenneth Jackson.
While a Jew might still make blue or yellow, however, it perhaps goes without saying that black neighborhoods, neighborhoods containing a single black family, and all-white neighborhoods adjacent to black neighborhoods (see: Birwood Wall) were automatically coded red. They were flagged as unsuitable for federal loans and subsidies. This included enclaves of middle-class Black doctors and lawyers and clergymen — in Detroit, Conant Gardens on the East Side and the Entre Nous Club area, at Tireman Ave. and W. Grand Blvd., on the West — devaluing those otherwise desirable homes too. The HOLC maps were circulated among real estate agents and kept in secret boxes at local HOLC offices, guarded surreptitiously. Yeah, that last sentence is true.
This red coding of Black neighborhoods is where the term redlining comes from. Later, it included not just the legal barring of Blacks from anything but urban slums and a few self-contained middle class enclaves, but also, through the rest of the twentieth century, to the extra-legal subversions of open housing laws through the use of “block improvement associations” and homeowners’ clubs; restrictive covenants; the “home owner’s rights movement” (led in Detroit by Common Councilman Thomas Poindexter in the 1960s but fought in other cities by other white populists); and through flat-out mob violence any time an ascendent, aspirational black family tried to break the neighborhood color line. Thus barred from buying in most sections of cities and suburbs, and denied access to most universities (fought bitterly until the end, even if it meant literally blocking the doorway entrance), historians now consider describing the G.I. Bill as simply not having applied to African Americans.
Whites were afraid of plummeting home values, and because of the HOLC appraisal maps, they were right; every neighborhood that became mixed first spiked in price — blacks were charged a premium to buy, sometimes paying twice as much for the same house as whites — then dropped in value, became majority black, and bottomed out. Because federal subsidies encouraged building new homes rather than restoring old ones, and because whites wanted to get the hell away from blacks, the federal government subsidized the removal of virtually every white middle class family from American cities throughout the last century to the suburbs. This extraction of wealth created desperately poor, all-black central cities, without a tax base to support schools, fire or police departments — basically all essential services.
Winters of Delay
When Blacks first began streaming north in the Great Migration, about 1916, they were corralled into racial slums — Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit. Nineteenth century gentry homes were split and subdivided into increasingly smaller apartments, split among increasingly more families at increasingly exploitative prices (artificially contained, demand grew and supply did not). The attendant, inevitable problems of overcrowding and concentrated poverty — disease, crime, vermin, arson, dilapidation — reinforced white stereotypes of black inferiority. Seeing the neighborhood deteriorate, they assumed the same would happen if blacks moved to other neighborhoods. Standardizing a system of home appraisal that davalued property anywhere near a black family, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Homes in redlined neighborhoods, with essential city services cut, lost more value throughout the twentieth century, barring those homeowners from home improvement loans, which let structures deteriorate further, losing still more value. White suspicions that blacks could not or would not care for their homes seemed to be reinforced. The suburbs walled themselves off, throuh a variety of legal and extralegal means. The city-suburban divide widened along racial lines, and poverty grew increasingly and desperately more concentrated in urban city centers across the country.
The most characteristic trait of city-suburb, white-black interaction for the last 40 years has been white fear.
When I was born, in the 1980s, these patterns had entrenched themselves more thoroughly, and no interventions were made. Crack hit, and whites in the suburbs grew even more fearful of blacks in the city.
By the time Michael Brown was born, in the 1990s, these patterns had entrenched themselves more thoroughly still, with no intervention. Newt Gingrich hit, and whites grew even more disgusted with inner-city blacks. Bill Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, considered in hindsight to have been destructively biased against African Americans.
Shortly after noon, on August 9, Darren Wilson pulled up to Michael Brown and a friend on Florissant Ave. and said to them, either, “Come on guys, get out of the street,” or, “Get the fuck out of the street,” depending on differing testimonies.
A century ago George Orwell stood trembling in the uniform of a British Imperial Officer, a rifle in his hand, in sweltering Burma, when he “first grasped the hollowness, the futility” of the Imperialist relationship. There he stood, “the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece.” In reality, he realized, “he was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by” by the dynamics of power.
Trayvon Martin dies and George Zimmerman — who says he saw unarmed Martin’s hand in his waistband and feared there was a gun — walks free. Ramarley Graham dies and Richard Haste — who says he saw unarmed Graham adjusting his waistband and feared he had a gun — walks free. Kendrec McDade dies, and Jeffrey Newlen and Mathew Griffin — who told prosecutors the unarmed McDade had his right hand near his waist and feared he was reaching for a gun—are cleared of all wrongdoing, and walk free. Orlando Barlow dies and Brian Hartman — who says he saw unarmed Barlow reach for his waistband and who, it is later revealed, had made a t-shirt with other officers that reads “BDRT,” for “Baby Daddy Removal Team,” — walks free.
Orwell was an exceedingly poor shot. He fired off a number of them, none swift or effective, and watched the painfully slow, grueling death of an elephant.
“The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing,” he wrote. “Beside, legally I had done the right thing.”
Timothy Stansbury Jr. dies and Sean Bell dies and Akai Gurley dies and Aaron Campbell dies and Steven Eugene Washington dies.
Years later, Orwell couldn’t quite quell his guilt over killing a literal animal. Darren Wilson says after killing Michael Brown that his conscience is clean. “I don’t think it’s haunting,” he admits. “I know I did my job right.”
“When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys,” wrote Orwell. “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”
A police officer’s first act of courage is to accept a job knowing its ultimate price might be death. It doesn’t seem to you, watching your neighbors gather on Florissant Ave., that black kids — your neighbors and nephews and sons and brothers — get to make those decisions. When they die, their families seem always to be denied the closure of justice, openly pursued.
Perhaps you don’t know about the FHA and redlining and the way ghettos were created in American cities by racist policies and funding decisions, but you can still sense at some level being trapped in a cycle in which the ghettoizing of a people has a self-reinforcing mechanism built into it — the more one confines a group to poverty the more that group will display the symptoms of poverty, which makes one feel justified in confining them further, which deepens that poverty and exacerbates those symptoms, which continues this cycle to the point that your own country is terrified of you—to the point that police officers are afraid of your children—so of course a white cop in a black neighborhood is nervous, can actually quite credibly say that he feared for his life, that after shooting a big black kid once at close range and then again at a distance, that big black kid turned around, began making “like a grunting, like aggravated sound,” like a bull, like an animal, and started “bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” Truly credible — one believes, without too much difficulty, that a white cop in a black neighborhood believes himself to have seen this, even though it is patently absurd — what human reacts to being shot that many times this way?! It’s seems more than passingly reminiscent of old Southern reports of “Cocaine-Crazed Negros” raping white women. And it feels, sometimes, the ways these actions and perceptions whorl in on themselves, so inexorable, so deeply entrenched and difficult to disentangle that you don’t know what to do, and when you start to speak about it people actually say “hush that negativity,” or just to “pray for peace and love.”
You get to feeling like your country doesn’t want to hear you. Suddenly something as trite as some well-intentioned person saying that people of “all races need to rise above” this anger starts to sound to you a little like “get over it black people.” And so, feeling unheard, you are reminded of King, who said: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Grosse Pointe, 1968
King held to nonviolence until the end. The line that everyone is quoting now was never meant as a charge or provocation; it was a grudging acknowledgement. It described the inevitable, human reaction to prolonged injustice. He said it on March 14, 1968, at Grosse Pointe High School, in a city where “Negroes” and “Orientals” had then been barred explicity from homeownership until very recently.
“I’m absolutely convinced,” King prefaced himself:
“that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results [i.e. nonviolence]. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.”
That same year, Larman Williams became one of the first African Americans to buy a house in Ferguson, Missouri. The real estate agent would not at first show the house to Williams, who had to appeal to a white pastor for help.
Williams was the Assistant Principal of a school, but lived in the ghetto and, with a middle class income, had sought to shield his three daughters from violence. In a familiar pattern, as more black families moved in more white families moved out.
“Such population shifts in St. Louis and in other metropolitan areas maintain segregation rules established a century ago,” writes Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute.
Today, a black family earning a yearly income of $100,000 typically lives in a neighborhood roughly equivalent in value to that of a White family earning $30,000 a year. With higher incomes but fewer assets—a result of the history of homeownership in America—wealth does not accrue generationally, and the threat of tumbling back into the ghetto by a medical emergency or bankruptcy or foreclosure often remains ever present for middle class Blacks.
“I tell this story with some hesitation,” Rothstein writes:
“I don’t mean to imply that there is anything special about racial history in Ferguson, St. Louis, or the St. Louis metropolitan area. Every policy and practice segregating St. Louis was duplicated in almost every metropolis nationwide. Yet this story of racial isolation and disadvantage, enforced by federal, state, and local policies, many of which are no longer practiced, is central to an appreciation of what occurred in Ferguson this past summer, many decades later. Policies that are no longer in effect and seemingly have been reformed still cast a long shadow.”
After the Civil War, Reconstruction crumbled into Jim Crow. After the Civil Rights Movement, integrated schools and open housing initiatives crumbled into today’s increasingly pernicious hyper-segregation and concentration of black poverty.
This is why things like stop-and-frisk become civil rights issues, and why racial profiling among urban police departments is near ubiquitous. Our entire society operates now a more subtle racism—the racism of dealing with the present as if the past did not exist. For much of the last forty years we’ve steadily rolled back civil rights legislation.
Here’s how Lee Atwater, Republican political consultant and advisor to Reagan and H.W. Bush, described the process:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
What is it that the nation cannot hear but with a riot?
“It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years,” King said in 1968. “It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” What has changed since is that this failure to hear has now let 40 years of injustice compound on itself. “These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.”
King called for “massive acts of concern.” I‘m not certain of the solution. The willingness to understand seems like a good first step.
What’s more certain is this: the longer we ignore the problem of race in America, the more deaths we’ll see, the more fire and tear gas and shattered glass on our streets. “As long as justice is postponed we always stand on the verge of these darker nights of social disruption,” King said. “Our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”