December 23, 2014, by Guest blog

Race and Rights: Ferguson Part 7

Post by Andrea Nicholson

Below is the seventh 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 seventh posting, Andrea Nicholson sets Ferguson in the context of 19th-century uprisings, the death penalty and the American legal system.

It would be easy to reduce the Ferguson riots to a fleeting episode of violence – a reaction to one man, one decision. But the riots expose the persistence of racial tension that underpins American life. They immediately brought to mind the Christiana Riot of 1851 during a period of America’s history where the nation was increasingly divided over the issue of slavery. The riots occurred following the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 after four men escaped slavery, eventually reaching a black community in Pennsylvania which had large numbers of fugitive slaves. When an attempt was made to ‘reclaim’ the escapees, a large mob gathered to defend them. In the ensuing conflict, the plantation owner pursuing them was killed, together with a number of African Americans. As a result, unrest, racial tension and violence erupted in the state. The subsequent trial in which the defendants were acquitted led to further acts of retribution by slave hunters.

There are parallels between the Ferguson and Christiana riots. In accounts of each, the community feels the need to engage in some form of collective self-defence, whether against slave catchers or persistent racism. There is also an element in both events of defence against illegitimate authority: laws, enforcement, and state processes ostensibly built to protect but which are perceived as failing to recognise rights applicable to all, and which call into question the legitimacy of the law in a democratic society. Ultimately, at the core of these riots is something continually reflected in historical and contemporary slave narratives, and in the treatment of certain individuals or groups as ‘other’. The riots are therefore indicative of more than a moment of time. They express a collective degradation that has given rise to a crisis of confidence in the state’s ability to ensure equal rights.

The fact of this in the U.S. is well documented by the data on existing policy and enforcement mechanisms, for example in immigration policy, detention, and in the death penalty. Where murders are committed in equal numbers by both black and white individuals, black Americans are three times more likely to be given the death penalty and the data shows a marked difference in treatment where imposing a penalty for the same level of culpability as white defendants. In the words of Justice William Brennan (1987): “It is tempting to pretend that minorities on death row share a fate in no way connected to our own, that our treatment of them sounds no echoes beyond the chambers in which they die. Such an illusion is ultimately corrosive, for the reverberations of injustice are not so easily confined.”At the core of the Ferguson riots is the frustration of a historical and persistent injustice that ultimately undermines the organs and processes that are held up as the source of restoration.

Andrea Nicholson is a PhD student in the American and Canadian Studies department, where she is writing a dissertation on historic and contemporary slave narratives. She is also principal lecturer and Head of academic postgraduate and practitioner portfolios in the Law School at Nottingham Trent University. She is a member of the Race and Rights research cluster and PG reading group.

Photo: Theodor Kaufmann, “Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law,” lithograph, published by Hoff & Bloede, 1850.

Posted in American and Canadian Studies