|Gordon Lightfoot's autograph on a picture of my father's |
store taken in Detroit on THE "Black Day In July," 1967.
While I'm not an authority on riots, I did write The Detroit Riots ► Unpacking My Detroit ► Part Five, an investigative look at Motown's several Race Riots, beginning with the first in 1863. The other reasons I get asked such a question is because of my studying of Race Relations and writing about same in Coconut Grove, Florida.
I was 15 years old when Detroit exploded in riot. Back then I wasn't as educated about the deep history of race relations in 'Merka as I am now. I remember asking over and over again why people would burn down their own neighbourhood, a sentiment I've seen several times concerning Ferguson since Monday night.
Now, older and wiser, I understand that rage often has no direction. Rage follows no logic.
I have often said that if I were a Black man in this country, I'd be an angry Black man. Long ago I recognized the playing field between the races was not level. I recognized the playing field has never been level. I recognize that the playing field is still not level. Sure, it's more level than it's ever been. BUT, IT'S NOT LEVEL. That's the only point that really matters. Despite 238 years of living under "all men are created equal," IT'S STILL NOT LEVEL! If it pisses me off as a privileged White man, imagine how Black folks feel to be living it.
My father had skin in the game. His furniture store on 12th Street, now Rosa Parks Blvd., was looted from top to bottom. Not a single piece of furniture was left when he was allowed to return by the National Guard to pick up the pieces and start all over again in the same location. Was his store targeted because he was a White store owner in a Black neighbourhood? That's certainly within the realm of possibility. It's also possible that by the time the unrest traveled the 4 blocks from Clairmount to Blaine, nothing but rage mattered anymore.
In my look at the Detroit Riots I mention over and over again that riots and flames cannot erupt in a vacuum. Ferguson didn't just happen. There's a history there. The rage in Ferguson had a very long fuse. And, while I don't condone the rioting, I can understand the sentiment.
I have no skin in the game. I don't live in Ferguson. I'm not Black. For that matter, I don't live in Coconut Grove either. However, I'm a historian and this history touches me deeply. For the past several years I have been telling people that I'm not really writing about Black History, I'm merely writing about the history they didn't teach us in school, our shared history.
The more this history is relegated to the margins, the less we can understand incidents like Ferguson. Ferguson is best understood in context, not as an isolated incident. In my research of Ferguson during the last 100 days, I've learned it shares a lot of history with Detroit. While Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis and Detroit is a city, that's about the only major difference. In both places:
- Black folk were pushed into certain neighbourhoods due to discriminatory covenants in deeds;
- The same redlining affected both communities;
- The same Blockbusting tactics turned stable neighbourhoods from White to Black in a matter of a few years;
- The same official federal housing policies kept the Black and White communities from integrating decades ago;
- The same White Flight acerbated the divide;
- The same inadequate school systems when compared to White neighbourhoods;
- The lack of jobs and opportunity in the affected neighbourhoods;
- The same systemic racism, which suppressed incomes in certain neighbourhoods, led to urban blight;
- The same absentee landlords who cared little about upkeep;
- The same "blame the victim" attitude from those who only see the symptoms and not the disease of systemic racism.
It's easy to blame the rioters for the riot. It's illegal to riot. Rioting breaks every social contract needed in order keep our streets safe from anarchy.
See? It's just that easy.
I place far more blame for the riot on Prosecutor Bob McCulloch than anyone on the streets of Ferguson.
In a world where everyone agrees a ham sandwich can be indicted by a Grand Jury, McCullough failed to bring it home and get a trial for the killing of Michael Brown. He's either incompetent or this was done deliberately and he's been in the job to long to be considered incompetent. McCullough got what he wanted.
With the gaggle of international media present in Ferguson, McCullough could have given everybody a much shorter heads-up and then read his statement. Why did he choose to wait so long? It gave everyone many hours to gather. Furthermore, after announcing the time he would give his statement, McCullough inexplicably delayed it by another hour, when it would be that much darker.
Try and wrap your brain around this: During all the previous Ferguson protests police attempted to clear the streets as soon as it became dark. Now suddenly on Monday evening a crowd was encouraged to gather after dark.
Darkness also provides cover for other nefarious things. The KKK promised violence. So did Anonymous. In fact, those two groups promised violence on each other. Furthermore, there's nothing to dismiss the possibility of agent provacateurs, as has happened during other protests in other locations. So many people wanted a riot -- so many people predicted a riot -- that it became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Welcome to Ferguson. Here's your rock.
However, I would be remiss if I didn't also proportion some of the blame on Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, who failed his citizens miserably. Long before there was even a hint of a verdict, Nixon decided to deploy the National Guard, in effect telling the neighbourhood that they couldn't be trusted. Then, prior to being deployed and in answer to reporter's questions, Nixon refused to say -- or couldn't say -- who would be in charge of the National Guard.
Apparently nobody, as it turned out. While the vast majority of protestors were only there to express their First Amendment Right to protest, shortly after McCullough made his announcement a very small contingent of protestors started smashing windows. Where were the police and National Guard as things started to go sideways? Why was there a police car just left parked where the protestors could attack it? There's no way to prove this, but I feel it was left as a provocation, the same way a police car was just waiting for protestors to attack it in Toronto during the G20. It justified the crackdown that followed.
As it turned out, the National Guard was off protecting infrastructure. Were they fearing a terrorist attack? The St. Louis Police, or so it appears, were protecting their own asses. Why weren't they protecting people and property? Oh, that's right. It was only Black people and Black property. No biggie. Move along. Nothing to see here.
Consider this: Those who are constantly trying to make it seem that the Black community is scary and monolithic got what they needed in Ferguson. Was that accidental? We may never know.
The only people who didn't get what they needed are the people who live in Ferguson and, trust me, we all have skin in that game. As no less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”