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Podcast: Ferguson, Class Divisions & Why Community May Reject Voting as Key Answer to Injustice

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

The stark reality is police in America have gunned down black youth in the streets many, many times prior to Michael Brown’s death. Why did this act of police brutality lead to such a show of incredible rage and protest from a community?

Moreover, as the community fights to win justice, what are the problems the community will face? How might issues of class, in addition to race, factor into the struggle? And why might many residents have a deep sense of cynicism when told voting can or will solve systemic problems they face?

This week’s guest on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Taylor is an associate professor at Princeton University and works in the Center for African-American Studies. She wrote a piece for Socialist Worker, “What Divides Black America?” on how the “eruption of outrage and protest in Ferguson has shown a spotlight on the out-of-touch attitudes and policies of black political leaders.” She talks to us about issues of class and class position in black communities and how these issues factor into efforts to win justice.

During the discussion portion, the show stays on this topic and highlights an array of examples of police crimes that seem to have occurred or earned attention in the past week. The demands for justice from organizers in Ferguson are highlighted as well.  I also spend a bit of time toward the end of the show talking about what I learned and saw while in Ferguson.

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a direct link (and direct download), go here. Click on “go here” and a page will load with the audio file of the podcast that will automatically start playing.

Also, below is a player for listening to the podcast. You can listen to the podcast this way or you can go to iTunes and find the podcast listed there.

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One factor that may have contributed to the level of protest is that it “happened in broad daylight,” Taylor suggests. There was a “something to the brutality of the way in which Mike Brown was executed” that may have influenced the reaction.

“What black life is like in Ferguson may have contributed to this,” she adds. Warrants and traffic citations are a second leading source of revenue for the Ferguson city government. So, one could say “for the police their income is contingent on citations and a close monitoring of the black community as a way to generate revenue for the town,” which leads to this built-in antagonism in the community.

There is “hyper-vigilance from police in the black community,” racist hysteria within the Ferguson police force, and then, furthermore, there was the “display of military artillery” during the police response to the first protests. A K-9 unit also reportedly allowed a dog to urinate on Mike Brown’s memorial.

“Over the course of August, there’ve been a number of police shooting of unarmed black men that got national attention,” Taylor additionally explains. “Social media has a way of giving people an immediate way to generalize and talk about these cases. Some of these cases, particularly Eric Garner, had gotten national press attention.

“This is part of the external pressure. There’s a feeling of enough is enough. The normal sort of channels by which people are supposed to be able to be able to respond to abuses by public servants are not really available to us so we need to do something else.”

As Taylor puts it, “You get a picture of what life must be like for working class black people in Ferguson who are hemmed in by what seems to be a racist police force whose livelihood and payments are contingent on their ability to issue as many citations as possible to the population.”

She rejects discussions, which focus on what happened by talking about a “generational divide” between older people who favor “nonviolence” versus those younger people who supposedly advocate for “violence.”

The real reason there is division over tactics for winning justice in Ferguson is because of class divisions. A divide plays out between “those who believe the United States is capable of producing a fair and equitable life for black people versus those whose cynicism about racism and inequality in the United States deepens over time because of their own lived situation.”

When comparing this growing movement to the civil rights movement, one must recognize that “not only is there a black president and a black attorney general but there are more black elected officials than at any point in time in this nation’s history and yet, when you look at the lives of ordinary black men and women, very little, if [anything], has substantively changed for them,” according to Taylor.

She breaks it down further:

For the black political class and the economic elite, there is a myopic focus on elections and electoral kinds of voter registration, get this or that person into office. You have to believe for African Americans who came out in record numbers on two occasions, in 2008 and 2012, to elect Barack Obama and the net result of that has been a foreclosure crisis, has been a crisis in evictions, has been a crisis of police brutality, has been unemployment, has been under employment, have been all of these attacks on people’s basic abilities to maintain a standard of living—That there is a deep cynicism about whether or not the electoral system is capable of delivering the changes that can substantively impact black people’s lives.

If that’s not the alternative, then it inevitably raises questions about how do we get these things that can improve our lives and the lives of our children. And that is where that clash comes from.

It is easily “papered over” by making the conversation about “youth rebellion versus the established civil rights movement,” but that does not necessarily get to the core of the issues affecting struggles for justice.

And it is class position that enables civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton, who inevitably chastise people who engage in tactics, which he and those surrounding him cannot control. This is why he was so quick to chastise militant acts of protest that were witnessed in the streets.

“It undermines his credibility as a White House operative to be in demonstrations that are not completely controlled from the top down,” Taylor argues. “So, young men and women, who are willing to fight back against the police, who are willing to lob tear gas canisters back at the police, disrupts this kind of picture of Al Sharpton, as the kind of person who can arrive on the scene, immediately assess the situation and take control of the situation and direct events in a way that he, the White House [and] other establishment leaders within the black political class would like for things to go.

She asserts that the focus on looting and “being violent” adopted a “police narrative” and obscured who was really perpetuating the violence—the police.

Many of the people, who were fighting back, were really fighting more in a mode of “self-defense” and showing a willingness to challenge the “unchecked authority of police.” They were defending their right to protest in the streets at any time of night and not face the kind of show of force being brought to bear on a community in order to suppress a response to police crimes.

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

Podcast: Ferguson, Class Divisions & Why Community May Reject Voting as Key Answer to Injustice

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

The stark reality is police in America have gunned down black youth in the streets many, many times prior to Michael Brown’s death. Why did this act of police brutality lead to such a show of incredible rage and protest from a community?

Moreover, as the community fights to win justice, what are the problems the community will face? How might issues of class, in addition to race, factor into the struggle? And why might many residents have a deep sense of cynicism when told voting can or will solve systemic problems they face?

This week’s guest on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Taylor is an associate professor at Princeton University and works in the Center for African-American Studies. She wrote a piece for Socialist Worker, “What Divides Black America?” on how the “eruption of outrage and protest in Ferguson has shown a spotlight on the out-of-touch attitudes and policies of black political leaders.” She talks to us about issues of class and class position in black communities and how these issues factor into efforts to win justice.

During the discussion portion, the show stays on this topic and highlights an array of examples of police crimes that seem to have occurred or earned attention in the past week. The demands for justice from organizers in Ferguson are highlighted as well.  I also spend a bit of time toward the end of the show talking about what I learned and saw while in Ferguson.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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