It is a balmy evening, the 14th of March 1968 and a capacity crowd of 2,700 people assemble at the Grosse Pointe High School gymnasium in suburban Michigan. The occasion, to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King deliver his now iconic speech, ‘The Other America’. Three weeks later, Dr. King would be assassinated.  ‘It’s not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots’ Dr. King explained, his voice clean his delivery poised. ‘It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our societies… and I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard’.  Four and a half decades later, these words still ring prophetic. The language of the unheard, Dr. King said.

On August 9, 2014 an unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown, was gun downed by police officer Darren Wilson on the streets of Ferguson Missouri. Following months of protests over the innocent death of a young man, news came of another injustice. A Federal Grand Jury would not indict Officer Wilson for his use of lethal force. There would be no prosecution, indeed there would be no trial. The death of another young man of colour would go unpunished, the cries of a community unheard.

To those who say that the democratic and legal process worked in Ferguson, there are substantial concerns surrounding the circumstances of Officer Wilson’s acquittal. Put into context, the decision not to indict him is statistically anomalous in a system where out of 162,000 Federal Grand Jury investigations in 2010, only 11 declined to go to trial. Revelations of the Grand Jury proceedings tell how St. Louis county prosecutor Bob McCulloch acted more like a defense advocate than a prosecuting attorney. McCulloch personally ensured that all the defence material was available, without embargo to the jury. This strong deference to the defense is dramatically inconsistent with special prosecutorial procedure. In a country that incarcerates 2.2 million of its own citizens, McCulloch’s reference to ‘conflicting evidence’ would surely have been appreciated by the other 7 million Americans currently going through some stage of the criminal justice system. If the same assiduous attention was paid to their circumstances of ‘conflicting evidence’, perhaps they too would be set free.

The truth is that the prosecution simply did not want to prosecute. When Mr McCulloch was 12, his father a police officer was tragically shot dead while on duty. The assailant was black. Mr McCulloch’s personal tragedy is indicative of a complex web of acrimony and racial violence. The danger is that the acrimony and the divisions have become institutionalized.  The statistics of race in America are all too familiar and serve as much a eulogy to American democracy as Michael Brown’s funeral program was to his many mourners. One in three African Americans can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their life, 42 per cent of death row inmates are black, and between 1980 and 2000, African-American arrest rates for non-violent drug crimes rose five times over, with no comparable change in white demographic statistics.

It must be stated incontrovertibly, racial injustice permeates every level of American society. Indeed, the American narrative is stained by the historic, economic, and physically coercive power imbalances of institutionalized racism. There exist today concentration camps for the poor, an assortment of derelict public institutions and low-income communities conveniently concealed between the pervasive strip-malls and Mini-marts of every American city, where men and women mostly of colour are kept out of mind and out of sight.

With the announcement that charges would not be brought against Officer Wilson, riots broke out.  Dr. King was right to call riots what they are, not a perversion of law and order, but the language of the unheard. People from the Ferguson community, and from communities like Ferguson all around the United States, have been betrayed by a system which does not care for them. Their schools are chronically underfunded, their social provisions woefully inadequate, their opportunities stunted. A telling sign of the mood in communities like Ferguson can be gleaned from the oft quoted phrase ‘I have nothing to live for anyways’. People are desperate to be heard, they are desperate for justice. This is no longer only about the killing of an unarmed boy in a historically black town. This is about human dignity, it is about living out the aspirational claims of the United States.

When politicians cast aspersions on protesters for their manifest rage, they are horribly missing the point. These protests are an exercise in democracy in its most essential form. The people are demanding to be heard. Communities are drowning: sorrow, rage, disbelief. What these protests need is not restraint, but massive civil disobedience to fight against the arbitrary imposition of state power, the corroded nature of our communities, and most poignantly our dying young. These grievances are legitimate, the struggle night in and night out is legitimate. There no longer can be a choice, citizens must be heard by their governments. To echo the anthem of the Ferguson protests, hands up, don’t shoot!



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