By Josh Tikka
Major broadcast networks are blaming Michael Brown’s death and the Ferguson protests on poor voter turnout within the black community.
They argue that law enforcement officers are not at fault for their heavy-handed, militaristic response. Instead they place the blame for this tragedy and chaos on the black community, essentially accusing them of failing the democratic process.
The Democratic process is meant to represent the majority interest by electing representatives who advocate on behalf of citizens concerning issues pertaining to said citizens.
This tabula rasa image of democracy is absolutely naive (as proven by Ferguson’s mostly black community under a mostly white government) for a handful of reasons. Before listing them, it is important to note that voting can be helpful in social change. America is a more tolerable and inclusive place for millions of citizens and residents due to Democratic evolution. Even now, there are noble efforts in Ferguson to register voters for positive change.
That being said, there are some problematic themes with the “”if you don’t see yourself well represented in an election, then change the ballot!” rhetoric worth exploring. The five concepts I will explore below are: (1) political corruption, (2) the troubled history of black voting, (3) confusing “freedom” with justice and equality, (4) not voting as an excuse for violence, (5) and finally I will briefly discuss how every aspect of American society is premised on racism.
- First, blaming the Ferguson tragedy on poor voter turn out assumes the “inexistence” of political corruption. Political corruption, much like racism, is not always obvious or overt. It has a subtle nuance to absolve its practitioners of guilt, while still rendering its victims harmed. For example, in many small suburban counties and towns racial and class demographics have rapidly shifted, while municipal governments have remained unchanged. That is because much of a community’s “new” population are less affluent (as with Ferguson) and lack the resources to run a winning election. Moreover, they are not networked well enough to find the appropriate endorsements or contributors, especially if the town’s political “elite” insist on maintaining itscurrent power dynamics.
“In low turnout affairs, allies of the incumbent power structure have an inherent edge because they have a vested interest (and financial resources, courtesy of those patronage jobs and city contracts) in preserving the community political hierarchy. Therefore, they can swamp any upstart candidates financially, leaving the existing structure in place.”
This becomes increasingly problematic when you hold elections during odd years, when turnouts are historically low. There is no state or federal elections to participate in, and it is more difficult to justify carving out time in ones work day for a small local election, than for larger national or state wide elections.
This may not seem like corruption in the conventionally understood sense, but it does corrupt and inhibit the political process nonetheless. The perpetrators of corruption are not always intentionally ill-willed, but it is not about them, it is about their effect on society.
Thus while suspicious redistricting and rezoning, voter suppression, faulty voter booths, etc are all aspects of political corruption, incidental nepotism seems to be the integral cause of corruption for Ferguson and other small suburban towns like it.
The community in Ferguson is demanding those who are responsible for the killing of Michael Brown, covering it up, and militantly cracking down on the (largely) peaceful protesters be held accountable in a court of law, and expunged from all public office, if not imprisoned. The problem is all of those responsible culprits are likely friends and colleagues, thus co-conspirators.
- Second, it does not capture the contextual history of voter issues the black community in America has faced. Many of the Civil rights era-struggles in the early 1960’s had to do with voting booth accessibility. This was due to three major deterrents to black voters at the time. First there was a poll tax, which was institutionally a part of Jim Crow, and would essentially restrict voters incapable of paying for their vote. Second was a literacy test. Of course most of the black south at that time did not have adequate schooling and were illiterate. Consequently, under this law, many black people were barred from voting. Finally there was serious voter intimidation and violence towards black voters and registrars. These acts of voter intimidation and aggression were rarely rectified in the courts, as many judges of the era were conservative racists themselves.
The ’60’s Civil Rights era did not remedy these issues, and in ways they still plague predominantly black communities. There is a list of troubles American democracy faces that is clearly race and class based. For instance, Tuesday election days are exclusionary to those who hold multiple jobs and consequently must chose between work and voting. Weekend or week long voting would be more conducive for fairer elections. Many other forms of racially motivated voter suppression and intimidation can be found detailed here or for more historical context please see here.
But for now, it seems to be easier for a white man to buy a gun,
than it is for a black man to vote.
Alabama’s Attorney General recently expressed his approval for carrying guns into polling places. This is a tacit endorsement of voter intimidation and suppression of black communities, who are often criminalized for carrying weapons when it is otherwise legal to do so.
Voter rights in America haven’t been updated since 1965. Much more work needs to be done for free, fair and educated voters to have the right and ability to vote. Moreover, Ferguson is clearly not at fault, it is (conservative) America’s intolerance to fairer and freer voting that is at fault.
Of course, there are modern movements and proposed amendments to federal and state laws would open voting up to more of the populace. As mentioned above, activists are registering voters at Ferguson regularly. And of course, Missouri GOP are furious about these voter registration booths at Ferguson, claiming it is “liberals” profiteering off of the chaos.
The Missouri GOP are also the ones standing with the police, and vilifying the clearly oppressed majority…
- Third, there is an assumption that freedom is the same as equality, safety, and right to justice. W.E.B. DuBouis wrote after the Civil War,
“One fact and one alone explains the attitude of most recent writers towards Reconstruction; they cannot conceive the Negroes as men.”
DuBouis argued that while African-Americans gained freedom following the Civil War, Reconstruction failed in bringing equality (read: justice) to them. This lack of equality and justice undermined the very freedom fought for by those waging the anti-slavery struggle, especially the black people of the US whose very lives it directly impacted.
Of course DuBouis’ arguments contributed to the genesis of the Civil Rights movement. Albeit, the Civil Rights movement was marred as nearly every notable leader was incarcerated, defamed, and/ or assassinated.
All this brings into question how free can someone be if they are not equal or safe in society? Black men earn just $.74 for every $1 a white man earns, and black women earn just $.69 for every $1 a white man earns.
Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated as white men, and according to the NAACP, 59% of those incarcerated are on drug offenses, even though statistically whites are 5 times more likely than African-Americans to use drugs.
These incarceration rates have lasting effects on communities as the workforce age is often incarcerated. This creates a large number of unemployed and unskilled middle-aged and elderly with no work experience.
There is not an exact figure of how many people or black people are killed by police every year. That being said, extensive research by various organizations and civil rights groups have concluded that black deaths at the hands of police are “disproportionately high.”
The black community in America has faced continuous turmoil since slavery; there is not a golden era of civil equity- there is only Ferguson.
- Fourth, it does nothing to excuse the excessive use of force, or unwarranted shooting of an unarmed teenager. Conservative pundits are rallying to blame the individual Michael Brown, while defending the individual Darren Wilson- “it was just an accident!”- they want to build an isolated narrative of two individuals in a race-less vacuum. But at the end of the day a white cop can kill a black boy without fear of punishment.
To quote this recent and poignant article,
“…we see the deaths of unarmed black men as ‘accidents’. And until the day we all recognize them as casualties of something much bigger, we will continue to see black men dead on the news.”
This is a civil rights issue because it is a racial problem concerning government institutions and mainstream culture on a massive scale. The murder of black teens is the ugliest side of it, but unequal pay, voter suppression, school closures, the war on drugs, and misrepresentation in the media all play apart in this deeply racially divided and racist society.
A broken democratic system with a legacy of voter suppression, intimidation, nepotism, and overt racism is in part what killed Mike Brown. But it was not his communities fault- it was Darren Wilson’s fault for pulling the trigger on an unarmed teenager. Moreover, it is this nation’s fault for nearly 400 years of unchecked racism, subjugation, and slavery.
NPR recently quoted a man saying, “There are so many people here that don’t vote, but they think they have the rights to everything in the world.” That sentiment means Michael Brown’s life was not valuable because he did not vote, and the mourning of the community is not justified because they do not vote. This man values a vote over a life.
American democracy should not be prioritized over American lives.
- Fifth and finally, every political and social issue in America is intrinsically about race. This includes American democracy. Ferguson protests and the shooting of Michael Brown are racial issues through and through.
How was this nation economically formed? Through slavery. Thus every aspect of this nation’s foundation is tainted from racism. The end of slavery was a huge blow to the economy then, and the ends of Jim Crow and segregation were a huge blow to “traditional American values” and “culture”, and now ending new Jim Crow and white privilege is an end to American “comfortism” and easy, responsibility-free morality.
All of these come with added political and economic costs to white America, that ought to have been addressed during Reconstruction and must be addressed now.
In every instance of every political issue, all institutionalized discrimination must be rooted out, all bigotry must be defeated, and all racism rendered void from the Confederacy, to the Klan, to the Ferguson PD and your FOX News anchors.
We can see back 40 years into racial issues and understand both white ignorance and the clear racial divides which laid the sociological backdrop for 21st century US.
When we are able to understand ourselves in this sociological/ racial context that will be used to judge us in 40 years we will know that the people of Ferguson were rightfully furious over the senseless killing of an unarmed teenager. We must educate ourselves about the events that shaped our present context.
For America to be a free nation, it must be a just, equal, and safe nation- white cops with big guns don’t make us free…