A Cross-Examination of the Lies About Ferguson
By Will Falk
Mainstream media and white privilege have put the Ferguson riots on trial. Accusations range from claims that rioting is counterproductive at best to downright morally reprehensible for refusing to adhere to principles of dogmatic non-violence at worst.
I practiced as a public defender in Kenosha, WI and came to understand through experience that Michelle Alexander is correct in characterizing America’s so-called criminal justice system “the new Jim Crow.” As a public defender, I saw how those confronted with criminal conviction are overwhelmingly poor and overwhelmingly people of color. I came to see my role as a bandaid over a gunshot wound. I was just trying to slow the system as it bled lives away and ruined poor communities.
The public defender’s stock and trade is cross-examination. When a police officer or adverse witness lies in court, the public defender uses questions in her cross-examination to undermine the lies. In the court of public opinion, we are being lied to. I want to use cross-examination to illustrate these lies.
We’ve all heard that rioting doesn’t work, right? We’ve heard violence gets you nowhere, that the rioters are destroying their own communities, and that all the rioters are doing is repulsing fence sitters.
I wonder who pays the salaries of the police officers in Ferguson? Probably the business and property owners, right? Businesses like Little Caesar’s and Walgreens, businesses like the ones targeted by the Ferguson rioters, correct?
Let me take another route. Do you know the name Michael E. Bell? Do you know the name D’Andre Berghardt? What about Ezell Ford or Aiyanna Jones?
I’m guessing you don’t.
Bell was a 21 year-old young white man killed in his front yard in Kenosha, WI in front of his mother and sister after being stopped by the police for no reason that anyone has articulated. Bell was unarmed.
Berghardt was a 20 year-old young black man gunned down by police near Red Rock Canyon State Park outside of Las Vegas for having the audacity to walk down the highway and ask cyclists for water. Berghardt was unarmed too.
Ezell Ford was a 25 year-old young black man with a history of mental illness shot and killed by two LAPD officers for “making suspicious movements.” And, you got it, Ford was unarmed too.
Finally, little Aiyanna Jones was a 7-year old black girl who was shot and killed by police during a mishandled raid. Jones was asleep when it happened.
But, you do know the name Michael Brown, Jr., don’t you? Why?
Apart from Bell, Berghardt, Ford, and Jones all being unarmed when they were killed by police officers, what else do they have in common? Despite, each one of them having, perhaps, an even more outrageous story than Michael Brown’s, no one rioted for them. My point is that we’re still talking about Brown’s murder because the black community in Ferguson is rioting.
We’ve also heard that there are other ways the Ferguson rioters could get their point across, haven’t we?
Well, consider the mainstream approach Bell’s father, Michael M. Bell, is taking to beg the State of Wisconsin to change their process for reviewing police misconduct. The Kenosha County District Attorney at the time, Robert Jambois, took all of two days to investigate the incident, review KPD internal documents, and clear the police of any wrongdoing. Before I go any further, I would like to point out that the Bell family isn’t asking for the police officer who killed their unarmed son and brother to be criminally convicted.
You would agree that the Bell family seeks the type of institutional checks and balances we’ve all been told democracy operates on, wouldn’t you? And they’re doing it through what we are told are legitimate avenues, right?
Bell Jr. was killed on November 9, 2004, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the Bell family was awarded a $1.75 million settlement from the City of Kenosha which admitted no liability or wrongdoing. Bell Sr. used most of that money to lease every billboard in the Milwaukee area displaying the question, “When police kill, should they judge themselves?” Consider, too, the privileges the Bell family is blessed with. First, they are white. Second, Bell Sr. is a respected member of the Kenosha community as a retired Air Force pilot.
Did you know that in 129 years no Wisconsin review board has ever faulted a police officer for killing someone?
The Bells have been struggling to using the so-called legitimate approach, haven’t they? And, it has failed miserably, hasn’t it? Considering all this, tell me again that the “proper avenues for political change” work.
Riots are undemocratic and unamerican, right?
If you answered yes to that question, I’m guessing you forgot about classic formative American moments like the Boston Tea Party and Shays’ Rebellion. The Boston Tea Party represented an escalation in revolutionary tactics ultimately leading to the American Revolution when the Sons of Liberty dumped the private property (an entire shipment of tea) of the East India Company into Boston Harbor.
Do you think there were members of the Boston community who made a living selling that tea? Do you think the Sons of Liberty were met with accusations that they were destroying their own community?
Shays’ Rebellion involved poor Massachusetts farmers who were sick of having their lands and possessions stolen to pay off America’s debts incurred during the American Revolution. Shays’ Rebellion ultimately led to a limit of federal powers through the Constitution.
Compare a quote from a farmer involved in the Rebellion named Plough Jogger to the words of a young black man on the streets of Ferguson. Howard Zinn quotes Jogger in A People History of the United States as saying, “I have been greatly abused…been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth … The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it.”
Robert Stephens II, on the ground for the Ferguson riots writing for Jacobin Magazine, quotes a young black male as saying, “We keep giving these crackers our money, staying in they complexes, and we can’t get no justice. No respect. They ready to put you out [if you] miss a bill … You got to be fed up.”
Will you deny the role riots have played in the formation of America or will you see that riots are as American as apple pie?
I’ll drop the cross-examination as a rhetorical device.
No conversation about the Ferguson riots is complete without an honest assessment of white privilege and there is no room for sarcasm, here. I refuse to criticize tactics used by oppressed communities. I have not been to Ferguson. I am not on the ground. I simply do not know what it feels like to feel the terror of police violence, to know friends or family who have been violently abused by the police, to live under centuries of racist hatred.
On top of this, I understand that riots can be and are effective political tools. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the voice of the unheard.” His words contemplate the fact that sometimes communities who do not have the means to affect political change in other ways must resort to rioting. And, as I alluded to earlier, attacks on private property are often more than just the expression of pure anger. They are often targeted at the very economic system perpetuating oppression.
I am not saying that riots are always and everywhere the best tactic. Indeed, I am staunchly against the riots dominated by whites like the recent riots in San Francisco after the Giants won the World Series or the riots in Vancouver after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. But, I do not think those of us blessed with white privilege should be engaged in taking tool off the table for oppressed communities.
It simply is not true that rioting does not work. It simply is not true that black communities have the same avenues for political expression that white communities do. It is also simply not true that riots have not affected change in America.
The Ferguson riots are not guilty of the accusations being hurled against them. I refuse to condemn the Ferguson community for using the tactics they deem necessary.