“Intolerable Conditions”: Justice, Peace, History, and Context

I’ll be back to regularly scheduled programing next week, but I can’t ignore what’s happening in and radiating out of Ferguson, Missouri after the state grand jury decided that Mike Brown’s life wasn’t even worth a trial. Across the country, protesters are staging demonstrations in solidarity, blocking freeways, and otherwise trying desperately to signal that we simply cannot, if we have any conscience whatsoever, proceed with business as usual, because that business has been revealed to be corrupt and inequitable.  Its hard to get any kind of actual picture of this from any news aggregator as it rolls out, but I’d recommend Alderman Antonio French’s Twitter feed, and Twitter (#ferguson) in general as the best place to pick up news on the ground.

I don’t have the time or the means or the insight to offer any other overarching point, but I do have a few thoughts:

If you want a local connection to Iowa City and its surrounding areas, think about this: two decades ago, Iowa City didn’t have a large enough African American community to even have a “black part of town.” It clearly does now.  In his new book A Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place, and the Press in Iowa City, Robert Gutsche Jr. examines both the demographics that changed, and the role that the press played in assigning public meaning to that ongoing change. Understanding that we’re in the midst of this change is crucial I think for understanding the urgency of desegregating the ICCSD schools by both race and class.  Left unaddressed, our schools and our neighborhoods will only become more segregated, and these problems that the district has decided can’t be fixed without changes that are too disruptive will only become more and more acute. They’re going to be harder to fix later, not easier.

But, as this editorial reminds us, segregation isn’t the only issue at play, and in fact isn’t exactly  the main issue in Ferguson. Ferguson is 60% black and is in many ways less racially homogenous than some surrounding areas.  Instead, its disproportionate representation. Mother Jones runs down the appalling disparities between the governors and the governed in Ferguson.  Locally, Kingsley Botchway’s election to the Iowa City City Council last year is a hopeful step, as his appointment as ICCSD equity director may also turn out to be, but we have a long way to go in integrating our teachers and administrators as well as our police force, and the history of police violence that still echoes through Iowa City should help us see how urgent this is.

The history that leads us to Ferguson and so many other places is complex, and ongoing.  This summer, Ta Nehisi Coates, who might be our most important and accessible public intellectual took a deep dive into that history.  Go read it if you haven’t.  Much more recently, in the pages of Counterpunch, Robin D. G. Kelley, who might deserve the same title, frames the events in Ferguson and a multitude of other tragedies as part of an ongoing low-level war between the state and black and brown communities.  Its harsh, but its real. go read it.

Last, there is and has been a great amount of finger-wagging at the destruction of property last night in Ferguson.  I’m not here to minimize that, as I think its both morally wrong and tactically wrong.  But I understand it, and I think that understanding is aided with some context.  Some of the context for the violence is provided in the links above, but the moralizing deserves its own context.  Why do we decry  irrational destruction in response to a legitimate community tragedy, but turn a blind eye to it when its a response to winning or losing a football game?  Could it be because one affirms and the other threatens our racially lopsided social order? And, why do people continue to try to invoke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in their finger wagging when he said this:

“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced 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. 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. 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. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. 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.”