December 11, 2014, by Guest blog

Race and Rights: Ferguson Part 1

Post by Hannah-Rose Murray

Below is the first of a multi-part series responding to events in Ferguson – the protests and civil disorder that began the day after the fatal shooting of an African American man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, and continued after the decision on November 24, 2014 by a grand jury not to indict the police officer. Nottingham’s Race and Rights cluster and postgraduate reading group, based in the Department of American and Canadian Studies, examine Ferguson through the lens of their research. In this first posting, Hannah-Rose Murray looks at Ferguson alongside the long history of race, protest and black leadership, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Living outside of America, it is perhaps easy to forget how race and racism is deeply embedded in American society. Indeed, there are some people within America who refuse to accept this stark reality, despite the fact it is impossible to have a conversation about American history without discussing the importance of race. Thus, it is unsurprising that I can see parallels between the events of Ferguson and my own research, which focuses on the impact of African American fugitive slaves (particularly Frederick Douglass) on British society in the 19th century. Douglass was born enslaved and became one of the most important civil rights activists in American history, fighting for abolition, equality, suffrage and social justice. His activism is still a source of inspiration today, with many of the protestors in Ferguson carrying placards with one of his famous quotes, “without struggle, there is no progress.” Douglass is a good starting point to explain how the roots of Ferguson were planted long before the twentieth century.

In October 2014, I visited West Chester University in Philadelphia for a conference organised by the Frederick Douglass Institute. It was a day dedicated to the legacy of Douglass and one panel focused on the relationship between Douglass and the modern day. So, if he were alive in this moment, what would he make of the police brutality against unarmed African Americans? It was argued that Douglass would see these tragedies as part of the long and bloody history of racism in American society, and he would interpret it as the ‘modern lynching movement.’ From the aftermath of the Civil War to the Second World War, thousands of African American men across the United States were lynched under the pretence of rape, sexual aggression and violence towards white men and women. Activists such as Douglass and Ida B. Wells campaigned for Congress to pass an Anti-Lynching Law. The comparison between this and Ferguson might seem like a long shot for some, but at the heart of both is deeply entrenched racism and violence towards young African American men.

Transatlantic reform and protest are central to my research and this legacy has continued in the modern age. After the protest in Ferguson, men and women took to the streets in London and marched to the U.S. Embassy holding placards reading “Black Lives Matter” and chanting, “we stand with Ferguson.” There is a tendency to see racism as an ‘American’ problem, which of course is far from the truth. The relatives of Mark Duggan and Sean Riggs, two black men who were killed by police brutality in the UK, joined the protest and spoke of the “solidarity” with Ferguson and how we must all work together for “justice for all victims of police violence.” Many social commentators are focusing on the rioters and destruction of Ferguson (as they did with the London riots of 2011) and choosing to ignore peaceful protesters. What is missing from their analyses however is why these men and women are looting in the first place, why is there such a strong sense of anger and despair? Dismissing them as thugs betrays the underlying social issues at work.

Frederick Douglass represented himself as the leading African American in the 19th century, and it is interesting to read some of the social commentary online that bemoans the lack of a national black figure to unite people in America. Perhaps the success of the Civil Rights movement, with prominent figures such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, created large boots to fill. One man who is attempting to do this however, is Al Sharpton, active in the cause of civil rights for many years. In the wake of court decisions with Travvyon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner, to name a few, Sharpton strives for justice for the immediate families and African American communities, and argues for a “new level of accountability for [the] police force.”

Finally, this interesting article fromthe Huffington Post argues black men don’t need a guardian angel, they need “a guardian slave.” Harking back to the survivalist impulse of enslaved people, Trey Ellis believes that those men and women knew when to keep their heads down because they were aware of how the oppressive system worked: don’t cause trouble and you’ll get by. I have mixed feelings about this article because Ellis neglects to mention the strength of resistance from enslaved people – from running away or attempting to revolt, to daily forms of defiance like breaking tools or refusing to work for a day, these men and women knew how to challenge the system from within. This is something we have to bear in mind: how to challenge racism in American society from within.

A powerful illustration of the injustice towards young African American men is Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)”. This was written in memory of an unarmed African American named Amadau Diallo who was shot 41 times by white police officers. We have to remember that Ferguson is not an isolated incident, and these tragedies will continue if America does not face her ugly past.

Hannah-Rose Murray is a PhD student in the American and Canadian Studies department, where she is writing a dissertation on The Legacy of Frederick Douglass in Britain. She is a member of the Race and Rights research cluster and PG reading group.

Image: Hannah-Rose Murray delivers an address at the unveiling of a blue plaque marking the site of a house in London where leading black abolitionist Frederick Douglass stayed in 1846.

Posted in American and Canadian Studies