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(photo: Getty Images)
(photo: Getty Images)

Ferguson: The Limits of Everything

By Charles Pierce


“The use of excessive force by the police underscored the determination to remind blacks at every opportunity of their vulnerability and helplessness. If the police sometimes singled out young blacks for punishment, it was a way to check their tendency toward ‘impudence,” to restrain their restlessness and keep them in their place…The violence meted out by the police and sheriffs was no aberration but stemmed from ideological conviction — the still commonly held…belief that blacks understood only force, that they worked and behaved best under the threat of the lash and that their uncontrolled impulses required a special quality of discipline…A Richmond, Virginia black newspaper suggested that blacks regarded the local police ‘with a distrust bordering on hatred,’ and that police officers reciprocated such feelings ‘with compound interest.'”

Because of the priceless witness of reporters like Ryan Reilly and Wesley Lowery — and, most recently, Chris Hayes — one comments warily about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, especially if one is commenting from a distance. Enough agendas have already collided on the ground there. We will have one, two, three, many investigations, and now the various police agencies, up to and including the Department of Justice, seem to be going to war with each other.

(Even at a distance, however, it is plainly time for Chief Thomas Jackson to go to the dogtrack with his name pinned to his sweater. If there’s something else he could have done to inflame an already volatile situation, I can’t think of what it is. And now Sean Hannity is giving him the big microphone. This follows the pattern Hannity set for himself when he worked tirelessly to exacerbate the tensions surrounding the Terri Schiavo situation. This is not a job for grown-up people, but it’s made Hannity rich.)

We will have one, two, three, many autopsies — we’ve already had one released today — so people will be able to believe the one that most closely confirms what they already believe. There has been enough loose talk about how and why, and who deserved what, and there have already been enough people riding their own personal hobby-horses through the smoke-choked streets where Michael Brown, an American child, was shot and killed and left in the street like a dog. From a distance this seems like the most inhumane part of a toweringly inhumane act. You shoot an unarmed child and you leave him there as a grim public spectacle. You will have to forgive any of the older folks who see leaving the body on display and hear, faintly in the distance, Billie Holliday singing,

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

But you won’t forgive those older folks because this is now. This is not then. We have come such a long, long way, we have. We have elected a black man president of the United States, and forget that the political opposition has treated him like an unruly footman despite his best efforts to be a conciliator, a living witness to a country absolved. But, from a distance, that is not the conclusion the honest person can draw from what is going on in Missouri now. The honest conclusion to be drawn from what is going on in Missouri now is that we may have reached the limits of the American idea, of the American dream, of the American experiment. This country, it is fair to conclude, cannot exist without some manifestation of its fundamental racial divide. Slavery, followed by Reconstruction, followed by American apartheid, followed by the Civil Rights movement, followed by Wallace and white backlash, followed by the election of Barack Obama followed by the shooting of Trayvon Martin, followed by the acquittal of George Zimmerman, followed by the strangulation of Eric Garner — where’d he go, by the way? — and the shooting of Michael Brown. Maybe we should admit it to ourselves, we of the dwindling white majority, that the racial divide is something essential to holding our idea of the country together. It may be that we cannot unify ourselves without fashioning every 50 years or so, a new suit of clothes for old Jim Crow. White people will be a minority in this country, and very soon. Maybe the racial divide is all we have left.

The quote at the top of this post is not from any recent dispatch from Ferguson. It comes from Leon Litwack’s Trouble In Mind, his essential history of life under the legal segregation in the American South. Only the available law-enforcement technology makes what’s happening in Ferguson different from the days and nights, and the years and decades, that Litwack so carefully describes. It gives the lie to the anodyne treatment in the accepted — and acceptable — history of this country of the struggle that black citizens have had to become fully part of it. The American idea, the American dream, and the American experiment — all of these things had limits, and the people who set those limits, as well as the people penned in by them, have always been fully aware of them. They cannot be wished away. They cannot be legislated away. And, increasingly, it appears that they cannot be swept away, either, not without a substantial portion of the country’s feeling as though it has been disenfranchised itself by the enfranchisement of other people. The American dream, the American idea, the American experiment, all of these, it turns out, may have been zero-sum games pretending to be limitless.

It is a capital mistake of theology to describe slavery — and, then, “race” — as America’s Original Sin. As any good Catholic will tell you, this brutal and retrograde doctrine asserts that our original sin is washed away forever at baptism. In other words, most Catholics have been forgiven their original sin long before they are aware of their own toes. Race is not Original Sin because it has never been truly absolved, most recently because we have convinced ourselves that it has been. Then Ferguson happens, and we realize, for a moment, that we have set the limits for the American dream, the American idea, and the American experiment within the confines of that unabsolved sin. There are certain things that we will not allow democracy. And there is a boy dead in the street, a strange and bitter crop indeed. Old songs in different times, but the same blood on the same leaves.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.