Henry Rollins: American Bigotry Is Alive in Ferguson
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]
While most of America gets on with its business, Ferguson, Missouri, burns in archaic flames of exasperating, unresolved anger, for all to see. Once again, the world watches America roil in the mortifying echo of Jim Crow law brutality. Meanwhile, U.S. firepower explodes bodies of ISIS militia thousands of miles away. They and Boko Haram are seen as primitive, extremist scum that should be eradicated. Even the new liberal, socialist pope wants to see the American Shock ’n’ Awe Fire Revue focused on ISIS. Yet there’s Missouri, showing everyone where America’s at.Missouri has a history of despicable conduct. Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address in January 1838 was in response to the hangings and burnings of humans there.
From 1861 to 1865, the United States ripped its sutures apart and drowned its soil in blood. In that final year of carnage, a president was assassinated and the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery. Had more citizens been of the same mind, things would have gone forward in this Reconstruction period differently than they did.
The fairness of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, did nothing to stop bigotry or cultural dislocation. Jim Crow laws appeared in many states, California having the most on the books, and America set up its own apartheid environment. You might not know it from American history textbooks coming out of Texas, but that’s what happened.
America missed a perfect opportunity to wipe the gore and misery off the chalkboard. Unfortunately, some people liked things the way they were and dug in their heels.
Over the decades, battles were won and lost. Take the integration of schools. Imagine Eisenhower’s frustration in 1957, having to straighten out Arkansas governor Orval Faubus by sending in members of the 101st Airborne Division — and federalizing the state’s National Guard and ordering it to stand down — to allow nine African-American students to enter Little Rock Central High School.
President Lyndon B. Johnson cussed up a storm at Georgia senator Richard Russell when Russell stood in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bigotry and racial prejudice in America will not die.
The line drawn in the sand between Ferguson’s protestors and law enforcement is about much more than the shooting death of an African-American teenager by a police officer. It is about Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Clyde Kennard, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education and Browder v. Gayle as much as it’s about Michael Brown.
It very well could be that some of the people in the streets of Ferguson don’t know all of the aforementioned references. This does not matter. At this point, decades of injustice, real or imagined, are ingrained in the psyche of millions of African-Americans. You can argue the legitimacy of it all you want, but it is real and it is based in reality.
Over and over again, decade after decade, it has been proven to African-Americans that their lives are not worth as much as other people’s. From false arrests and other acts of brutality to unfair practices at election time, one does not need a weathervane to know which way the wind blows.
The Ferguson Police Department could have done itself a lot of favors if it had not withheld the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown for as long as it did. The idea of not having to account to the people was perhaps almost as egregious as the shooting itself.
Everyone wants to assign blame and, again, there is a line drawn. Let’s be clear: Any shooting by a police officer that kills or wounds anyone needs to be fully, quickly and vigorously investigated. Law enforcement should obey the rules when dealing with protesters and media members alike. Protesters should not engage in any acts of violence or aggression toward law enforcement. Unlawful conduct from either side is not to be tolerated.
Now that we have that established, what to do going forward?
There is at least one key to make things better: the desire to make things better. It will not be easy to confront the well-oiled machine of American bigotry, to neutralize a thing so powerful and deeply woven into the very fabric of the country. It will take every single person old enough to understand what is at stake to have the same opinion — that without equality, any notion of freedom is tainted. At present, this is not achievable. To ask people who have been treated so poorly for so long to forgive, forget and, most importantly, trust, would be a tall order. Convincing those with opposing, closely held beliefs to change their point of view also is not going to fly. With either group, what logic do you think would work?
It is this problem that can be evidenced in Ferguson at the time of this writing. Law enforcement loses credibility by bringing in SWAT, the protestors do the same by throwing objects at law enforcement or looting.
This is not a black/white problem. As much as some people don’t want to admit it, the truth isthat it’s an American problem. Right-wing news outlets are attempting to deflect what’s happening in Ferguson with statistics about black-on-black crime, but lack the guts to tackle the bigger issue. For them, it is a simple problem — the African-American community.
If that’s how it’s going to be played in the media, then it is logical to expect more Fergusons. What is happening there is seen by many as a nuisance, the inevitable conduct of people who have been palsied by government handouts, sloth, an undying sense of entitlement and a stubborn unwillingness to get up off their lazy asses and get to work.
The protestors in Ferguson eventually will go home. Their emotions will fester. What happens to the cop who shot the kid? Justice? What is that, exactb>
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