‘A Nation of Cowards’ in Post-Ferguson America

| August 26, 2014
Ferguson

A looter departs a QuikTrip store in Ferguson, amidst widespread rioting. Source: Time.

EDITORIAL – “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a 2009 speech during Black History Month, “in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

In the past two weeks, Michael Brown has emerged as a household name.  Around noon on Saturday, August 9, 18 year old Brown lied dead in the middle of a road in Ferguson, Missouri.  The recent high school graduate was shot six times by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.  More details are emerging each day with much information yet to be released by police.  The media has continued to receive often conflicting information from Missouri law enforcement, thus I’ll say little in concrete terms of what happened on that fateful August afternoon in Ferguson which has sparked nearly two weeks of riots, protests, and, in some cases, excessive force on the part of Ferguson and St. Louis County police.  Even after the Ferguson police released the Michael Brown shooting incident report: it contained little information, leaving more questions than answers regarding what actually prompted Officer Wilson to withdraw his firearm and fire six rounds into the unarmed Brown, two of which were in the head.

In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, violence has enveloped the city of Ferguson.  Looters have ransacked local businesses, and violence has terrorized the community.  Admittedly, there has been a long, sordid history of police mistrust in this two-thirds African American suburb of St. Louis.  Further, many of the town’s residents feel the police act aggressively and conduct themselves as though they are on a “power trip”—to employ the well understood colloquialism.

I will preface my remarks by noting that among political scientists, rioting is a type of political violence.  Rioting is “spontaneous and relatively disorganized group violence against property, agents of the political system, perceived opponents in the society, or random targets” (Danziger 2011, 342).  Citizens act violently when political leaders fail, or have failed, to remedy the needs and desires of the body politic, or a significant subset of the polity.  Interestingly, in the last Ferguson municipal election, voter turnout was at a disparagingly low 12 percent.  Many of the residents in Ferguson have previously been non-participants in the political process.  Often in a community marred with low levels of socioeconomic mobility (poverty), racial strife, low political participation, and a subsequent catalyst prompting widespread frustration and anger, the residents respond violently—such is the case of Ferguson.  A powder keg, exploding into a flashpoint highlighting deep racial tensions not only in Ferguson, but across the entire nation.

In fact, the Ferguson riots were quelled only following two-term Missouri Democratic Governor Jay Nixon dispatching the National Guard to restore law and order.  Brilliant Washington Post opinion writer Eugene Robinson said it best when he noted that “our society expects the police to keep unemployed, poorly educated African American men out of sight and out of mind.  When they suddenly take center stage, illuminated by the flash and flicker of Molotov cocktails, we feign surprise.”

To Robinson, the Ferguson riots appeared to be unending because those at the center, the most violent looters and criminals, are those we’ve, collectively, “left behind.”  Those who, following the riots, have nothing to return to or live for.  Robinson double-downed on his remarks with sobering truths and simple eloquence: “This story line is unassailable.  Anyone who thinks race is not a factor in these fatal encounters should have to cite examples of unarmed, young, white men being killed by trigger-happy police or self-appointed vigilantes.  Names and dates, please.”

Robinson is right.  Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and now Michael Brown; this new strand of racially charged violence isn’t going anywhere.  And it’s because of, as Attorney General Holder pointed out, our cowardice.  It’s because of our cowardice to confront the constituent antecedents which devalue the lives of so many ‘down and out’ African Americans—notably, our young black men.  Until our society begins to address the structural causes of poverty, the criminalization of being poor, and the militarization of municipal constabularies, this narrative will continue.

This new generation of young black protestors exhibited on the streets of Ferguson is unlike their counterparts a half-century ago.  Gone is the age of peaceful demonstrations for positive change.  To this new generation, the struggle for African American civil rights in America is beyond their years, as foreign as anything else consigned to a musty history textbook.  This new generation of poor and marginalized black men acts out their frustrations to the dominant society the only way they know how: through violence and crime.  In that way, the violence in the streets of Ferguson, the ransacking of local shops and the dismantling of a community on the brink is a fitting reminder for a nation which has suppressed these men into the shadows for so long.

This could’ve happened anywhere.  This could’ve happened right here in Valdosta.  The narrative of Ferguson: a disproportionately white, overly aggressive police force; a racially fractured community; and a city grounded in nothing but poverty and a sense of inadequacy; Ferguson could’ve been us.  Michael Brown could’ve been one of our young black men gunned down long before his time.  It still could be.

Ferguson should be a teachable moment, and not a reason for more racial division and divisive rhetoric.  Images splashed across the TV of Molotov cocktails burning down the town square, disorder and chaos, and violence galore is something we should become more content with if we refuse to correct the determinants which prompted the Ferguson riots.  Make no mistake; Ferguson was a full blown race riot, reminiscent of the Los Angeles Watts riots of 1965, the unrest following the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations of 1968, and the Rodney King riots of 1991.

To those who fail to see the parallels, who fail to look beyond the implicit bigotry which discounts the lives of so many young minority men—lives relegated to silence, crime, and poverty—and to those who refuse to accept the reality that we’ll have to solve these problems or continue to confront them in senselessly violent ways: shame on you.  We need to come together, not buy into the ignorance and cheap discordant ‘dog whistles’ which will only exacerbate the problem exhibited in Ferguson, Missouri.  And to those who wish to marginalize Michael Brown and those like him and call them criminals in the making, thugs, or hoodlums, and who wish to sweep these problems manifested in the August 2014 Ferguson riots under the rug, you are the cowards Eric Holder speaks of.  So what’s next in the post-Ferguson national racial discourse?  Courage or cowardice, the choice is our own.  Though in Ferguson and in our community, as it has been so many times in the past, I can sadly say, it will almost certainly be the latter.  But nevertheless, this author will still hope and pray for the former.

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22 Comments on "‘A Nation of Cowards’ in Post-Ferguson America"

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  1. Papi says:

    Nicky, Please stop taking STUPID pills every morning. Those you call citizens are merely THUGS seizing the opportunity to do what they love to do, rob, kill and maim. These THUGS all they want and prey is for their opportunity to do what is normal to THEM. We have such a weak government that we are afraid of protecting the law abiding citizen and their property.

    LIBERALS like you so consume with socialist theories that instill a justifiable state of mind on the THUG community.

    Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Rodney King and many others like them are just plain THUGS. To compare Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations to this current incidents is a disrespect to those men in your attempt to legitimized the THUG community.

    I hope and pray Valdosta Today is not paying you a plug nickel for writing the communist, socialist trash that comes out of your mind. If this web site wasn’t free I would not be reading your trash.

    I’ll close by saying that it is obvious you have never been in the middle of riot with THUGS shooting at you, well Nicky that’s one up I have on you, my writing skills might not be the best yet my thoughts are sincere for the benefit of the nation.

    Yours truly Vietnam Veteran & retire Law Enforcement Officer,

    Papi

    P.S. Waiting on your take on the Perdue & Nunn forum:-)

  2. Greg says:

    Agree with Papi…but needs spell check.

  3. winston smith says:

    When is everyone going to realize that we are human beings and bleed the same? Such savage acts happen all around the world. There is no excuse for evil, regardless of the color of your skin or faith. Ethnocentric Americans tend to think their rights are constantly being infringed upon, or that we have a biased judicial system. Maybe so……but, think about those living in Syria. They have been taken over by the Islamic State. Forced to conform to certain standards. Punishment for stealing is having a hand cut off. If you are found doing drugs, you could be subjected to execution. Christians have to pay a tax to keep their faith. This stuff is fueled by individuals who believe so strongly in their “faith”. Americans are so busy trying to stir up conflict by means of media and manifested race issues. Can we not as humans, realize that we all bleed the same? Knowledge is power. Love is universal.

    • Blake says:

      Winston, to answer the question in the first sentence I will offer an answer. WHEN WE START TO HONOR GOD, we learn how to love. If we take God out of everything, CHAOS ensues

  4. Don Thieme says:

    I agree with most of this except for when you state that bringing in the National Guard “quelled” the riot. I watched every night and the worst violence occurred on the first night that the county police came out with their “riot control” equipment. Turning it over to the state police and trooper Ron Johnson was what quieted the violence down. The National Guard was never really needed. They were never federalized and could not have done much in terms of arrests or detentions if they had been needed.

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Don,
      Yes. I’d have to agree with you, to a large extent. Soon after the National Guard was dispatched to Ferguson, the rioting ceased. More analysis should be done to determine whether or not the National Guard’s presence in Ferguson and the cessation of rioting was causal or mutually exclusive, yet happening at the same time. Nevertheless, not long after the National Guard came on the scene, the rioting did, in fact, stop—that’s why I wrote it the way I did. But I think you’re absolutely right, Missouri state law enforcement and, particularly, Capt. Ron Johnson was instrumental in ending the violence.

      Thanks,
      -Nick

  5. Something to ponder.... says:

    While I agree with the devastating effects poverty has on families, coupled with the marginalization of certain ethnicities, has created an environment devoid of hope, one cannot continue to stereotype and marginalize young black men as being only able to “act(s) out their frustrations to the dominant society the only way they know how: through violence and crime.”
    Unbelievable, that in a column meant to condemn racial tension, the author resorts to racial bigotry in making his point.
    The truth is all humanity regardless of ethnicity is responsible for his or her actions. The resulting violence and rioting is not excusable. As free men and women we have the right to pursue happiness and create a better life for ourselves and our children. True poverty is the lack of Hope and in this community or ones such as Ferguson, restoring hope to our young black men is paramount. They can be better men, fathers and leaders in their community overcoming the current place they find themselves. This pursuit requires morality, hard work, humility and determination to keep pressing toward greatness. It is not easy, nor will it be given and often one may be met with discrimination and oppression but to give in to anger,frustration and to lose hope is a decision.
    So with all due respect to celebrities such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others please bring hope and encouragement not more racial rhetoric to the conversation.
    Dr. Martin Luther King once said in an interview with Chris Wallace ,” a riot is the language of the unheard” but clarified his position by stating “I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.” Dr. King goes on to say “I will never change in my basic idea that non-violence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. I think for the Negro to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral.”

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Well I appreciate the “pursuit of happiness” shameless plug, and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps rhetoric—but it bears little substance. I agree that peaceful demonstration is always favorable over violence, but the point of my piece, in part, was to explain the motivation of those who chose to riot. Many in Ferguson were, and are, angry. I don’t think that’s controversial. And yes, community leaders, particularly the clergy, need to play an instrumental role in shaping policies in this post-Ferguson era.
      Though, I will ask you re-read my section where you claim I ‘marginalize’ all black men. I’m not indicting the entire African American community, but: “This new generation of young black protesters exhibited on the streets of Ferguson.” I bring concern for the violent criminal element on the streets of Ferguson destroying property, not all African Americans. If you’re insinuating that I’m a bigot by trying to call for action to mediate the crisis in Ferguson, you’re way out of line. If you think shedding a light on structural and societal iniquity faced by a significant subset of the population is racism, then you wouldn’t know racism if it knocked on your door and introduced itself. Give me a break. As a member of the NAACP, I take deep offense to that comment. But this is the new trend among American conservative extremists, if someone wants to address issues of race—call him a racist. And that’s not something I can tolerate on my column, period.

      -Nick

      • Something to ponder.... says:

        Your tone regarding “the pursuit of happiness” illuminates your belief that this is not achievable for these young men and once again illuminates your position that those who choose violence are somehow incapable of any other response. I applaud you for being a member of the NAACP but find that an odd defense of your implied marginalization of these young men in Ferguson. Are you somehow equating that because of your support with this organization this somehow makes you more intuitive to issues affecting African Americans?
        It is also interesting that you assume that I am a conservative and imply that my argument is to call you a racist and that there is no substantive argument. First, your position was indeed to make the comparison of these young men in Ferguson to an “entire generation” and also emphasized this could happen in Valdosta. So please disperse with the condescension in your implication that one should “re-read that section”. Secondly, there is indeed inequality, anger, discrimination and a long standing and growing frustration but this does not excuse the actions of those involved in looting and destruction.
        Racism is defined as the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race.
        So please tell me how making a statement like “the only way they know how” is not implicitly racist? I do agree with Eric Holder that cowardice occurs in not addressing these issues but the point to which you completely dismissed is that this generation is capable of change by doing just that (addressing the issues). It does not mean that social change must also occur, it must! Attention to these issues such as militarization of the police as well as mistreatment of citizens is absolutely necessary, but to relegate a demographic to the clutches of poverty and defend violent actions as an appropriate response is irresponsible.

  6. Mary says:

    It seems our young writer has bought completely into the ” white guilt ” thing. You quote Eugene Robinson as saying these young black men have been ” left behind ” but I say they have had an opportunity to go to school, get educated and make something of themselves. Anyone growing up today in the US has that same opportunity. Oh, but they’re poor, no solid family to encourage and support them. Likely, there is no father in the home. Why is this ??? Obviously, many reasons, but a huge one is the welfare state. Makes subsistence possible but provides little else and encourages and rewards bad choices and poor behavior.
    Note that I wrote the words ” same opportunity ” but didn’t mention results. That’s because your opportunities are what you make them. No one can guarantee equal outcomes no matter how unfair/fair it seems.

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      If you’re asking if I feel bad for the structural inequalities which inhibit certain, historically disenfranchised groups from climbing up the socioeconomic ladder—then I’d say so, I hope you’d be more conscientious of structural inequality in society, as well. I’d refer you to this New York Times piece, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-lower-rungs.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. In it you’ll find that researchers have concluded the U.S. has less socioeconomic mobility than Canada and most Western European nations. What that means is today, statistically, if you live in France, Germany, UK, etc., you’re more likely to climb from the lowest rungs of society to the highest, than if live in the U.S. That’s scary. I also find your welfare state argument to be rather reductionist and, frankly, specious. Those depending on housing assistance, food stamps, and the like aren’t living like Warren Buffett. They aren’t going sailing on Nantucket every other weekend, nor are they chartering private jets on a whim. They live in subsistence poverty. Most don’t have healthcare, college funds for their children, a retirement plan or pension, etc. They scrape by. Yes, personally responsibility is important. But, it’s not a cure all, end all.

      Cheers,
      -Nick

  7. Larry says:

    Shop owner should have shot him for stealing the cigars.
    Just one business owners opinion

  8. Tom says:

    Well put, papi. I didn’t see anything new happen in Ferguson. Some thug broke the law and assaulted a police officer.
    Racists promoted rioting, looting, violence, and instigated confrontation with law enforcement. The military was called to restore order.

  9. Jamie says:

    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/58313255-78/burbank-police-taylor-officer.html.csp

    White kid shot by black cop. White people get shot by cops all the time as well as harassed by the cops, it just isn’t front page news every time it happens. We are not cowards we are just civilized enough not to tear up our own cities and communities because for starters we know our tax money goes to fixing what we tear up.

    • Papi says:

      Well said Jamie,

      Cultures that live thinking they are owed something and don’t work because the government by trying to appease them has become their enabler of WORTHLESS THUG behavior, those cultures have no respect for anything whether is authority, property, life or GOD!!!

  10. . From the time a black baby is born it is reared to believe it is a victim, he cannot get a fair shake because he is black, his ancestors were slaves , 150 years ago , so, whites owe him. If he tries to rise above it, he is criticized by his peers for “trying to be white” . So, a large proportion , either turn to crime , and/or become lifetime welfare recipients , as a way to get “what’s owed them”, like that excuses them. Michael Brown, as the video shows, had that attitude, he thought he had a right to take something just because he wanted it and assaulted the owner. If he had had respect for authority,and just moved to the sidewalk, none of his would’ve happened. Civil Rights gave Black Americans jobs, education and opportunities . Until young black people take responsibility for their own success , respect authority and make education a priority, until the “owe me” attitude changes, there is nothing anyone can do to make it better.

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Here’s the problem with your argument and many like it on this comment stream: among experts who study society (e.g., sociologists), there’s not really disagreement that certain subsets of the population are, statistically, more disadvantaged than others. This goes by a rather ubiquitous term: social stratification. All societies (past and present) distribute resources unequally. Government policies often have a precipitating, generational impact. To suggest that black society is a culture of “takers” is not only flat out wrong—but very bigoted. When we hear the rhetoric that blacks need to “respect authority,” the debate absconds back to the same argument employed during the civil rights movement, to opponents of equal rights. Sure, we all want peace, stability, and public safety—but on the flipside it’s interesting to see the same arguments recycled (i.e., the similarities between Ferguson’s police chief and now-infamous, pro-segregation Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor; http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/08/why_ferguson_missouri_police_c.html).

      Best,
      -Nick

  11. Ahmad Al-Bahri says:

    The problem has been the focus on irrelevant arguments – some of which are actually unsupported by the evidence.

    1. ‘George Zimmerman (GZ) racially profiled Trayvon Martin (TM)’ There is no evidence of this.

    2. ‘GZ disobeyed an order by the police’ * The civilian dispatcher, Sean Noffke, testified that he did not give GZ an order and, in fact, he, like his fellow dispatchers, are trained not make comments that sound like commands. * Noffke also testified under cross that, as a result of his asking GZ which way TM was going, GZ could have reasonably interpreted this as being asked to follow Martin. * It is also not a crime in Florida to disregard a comment made by a civilian dispatcher.

    3. ‘GZ got out of his car’ Not a crime on public property and not negligent either.

    4. ‘GZ followed TM’ Again, anyone can follow anyone on a public street unless the followee has obtained a restraining order against the follower and even there, the RS only places time, place, and manner restrictions on the person enjoined.

    5. ‘GZ wasn’t really injured’ * Under Florida’s self-defense laws, one doesn’t have to be injured AT ALL to use deadly force * No one is required to refrain from defending himself while another is engaged in or attempting to commit a felony.

    6. ‘TM is dead through no fault of his own’ * If you believe that TM assaulted GZ, then he IS dead as a result of his own actions.

    7. ‘GZ could have left’ * Under Florida law, there is not a duty to withdraw rather than use deadly force * TM was straddling GZ so how the latter was supposed to leave the scene is unanswered.

    8. ‘GZ was armed and TM wasn’t’ * One’s fists can be considered weapons and can result in severe bodily harm or death. * GZ was legally carrying a weapon * There is no requirement under the law that the same weapon be used by the assailant * A homeowner can kill an intruder whether or not he has been threatened * Those that attack cannot feign surprise if they are met with superior firepower.

    9. ‘Stand Your Ground!’ * SYG is NOT at issue in this trial. * The defense is a classic self-defense case.

    10. ‘Black men NEVER get to use SYG!’ * Wrong http://tinyurl.com/nboht35

    11. ‘GZ is a man and TM was a boy!’ * As if ‘boys’ don’t commit murder, rape, and assault everyday in this country.

  12. D. Miballzich says:

    Blame Whitey!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Black Girl says:

    I find it sad that some people think he deserved to get killed. The owners of the store never reported a robbery, and the video of “mike Brown” allegedly robbing the store was from June 6th. The date of the video was cropped out. Even if he did rob the store? There have been multiple cases of white men shooting up multiple people, and they had a chance to go to court at least! Say the guy that shot up the theater? To say it’s not about race is to be ignorant. Notice you’re white supremacy and be informed. Race is a white problem and most of you all don’t give a fuck about us. Thank you for writing this article, but I can see most of your facts came from the news. I’ve followed the people actually in Ferguson, on twitter and tumblr. Very few rioted. Not many at all. The ones that did riot were from out of town. I wish news articles would stop painting us as thugs and savages. That only stands to perpetrate the stereotype. Mike Brown did not deserve to get shot. The people of Ferguson do not deserve to get arrested, tear gassed, and shot at.

    THIS IS THE PICTURE THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN USED AS THE HEADLINE
    https://33.media.tumblr.com/2c62cf7d3a451169898180b369cd70e8/tumblr_naj6bdHXC01tt7cvko1_500.jpg

    https://38.media.tumblr.com/067b1c1911f8dff5a070237ea97a11d9/tumblr_naf28o2CMH1s4iiz1o8_500.png

    https://38.media.tumblr.com/00b03de7a28a3064f31f88266a6049a5/tumblr_naf28o2CMH1s4iiz1o9_500.png

    https://33.media.tumblr.com/184d610b4c902f9e3a86afe7172bad4c/tumblr_nafehogrGg1qkoj3co1_500.jpg

    CLICK ALL OF THESE LINKS. STOP THE IGNORANCE

    “Ferguson protesters pulled nearly two city blocks back from police as they demonstrated in song last night. They held their empty hands high, an action symbolic of the “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” chant which has come to embody the circumstances of Mike Brown’s unarmed death at the hands of Ferguson, MO police. Yet, despite the peacefulness of the crowd, in an episode of déjà vu reminiscent of the crackdown on the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement, Ferguson police closed-in on protesters in military fashion, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed civilians.”

    I’ve saw so many comments of people not caring or making fun of the events going on. It hurts my soul to know that white people literally don’t care about us. If you applaud the police or Darren Wilson. You are a racist piece of shit. I want you to know that

  14. Faith Acts says:

    If you are trying to do the right thing, the police officer does not shoot you. If the officer shot you because you came at him, you still are not doing the right thing by continuing/ to charging toward him and the officer shoots you again, the officer has acted in response to your actions. Fuzzy words such as the above (Nick) do not make police officers shoot people, the person’s actions were what made the officer shoot him. If Michael Brown stopped coming at him, the officer would also have stopped shooting.