Ferguson and America's Hatred of Democracy

Law enforcement officers watch on during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri on August 18, 2014. Police
Law enforcement officers watch on during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri on August 18, 2014. Police fired tear gas in another night of unrest in a Missouri town where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, just hours after President Barack Obama called for calm. AFP PHOTO / Michael B. Thomas (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

Scholars of protest movements often explain the kind of civil unrest we are seeing in Ferguson, Missouri, as "politics by non-institutional means." Protest, they argue, is not irrational and aberrant, as previously thought, but an important means through which people can realize political goals when official channels and elected representatives have failed them. In this way, protest can be see as a result of a weakness in our democracy, but also as a sign of its strength.

Academics tend to diverge, however, on questions regarding the effectiveness of different modes of protest. Some assert that movements work best when they align themselves with institutional power and leadership, like when environmental organizations lobbied for the Clean Air Act, or when community groups, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, tackled specific issues. Others argue that disobedience and rule breaking are crucial means of contesting power and undoing dysfunctional systems, citing historical greats like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom spoke of citizenship as an active duty in which people confer legitimacy to laws that safeguard freedom and disobey those that violate it.

Similar divergences mark the discourse on Ferguson, where "good" protesters are those who march in line and start community groups, and "bad" ones are those who engage in confrontational street actions, throw Molotovs, and remain leaderless and unpredictable. Such false distinctions began to surface after Ferguson police occupied the town and needed a justification for having turned it into a war zone. Public officials affirmed citizens' right to protest but still blamed "bad protesters" for threatening the social order and necessitating blanket police violence.

It's not the first time that "social order" has been invoked to justify the silencing of dissent. Social control is the opposite of social change. And it is the opposite of democratic freedom. Yet the contradictory idea that we must impose controls on ourselves and each other as a requisite for freedom remains a primary force in America -- and, not incidentally, a key to maintaining our woefully inegalitarian order.

Most often, social control is achieved through self-regulation, in which people buy into false narratives about themselves and their powerlessness. Our entire system of gender, race, and class inequality is propped up by these wrongful ideologies of personal culpability and self-help, in which people are led to believe that women are overly emotional, black men are dangerous, and poor people are just lazy, and that we are all personally responsible for our place in society, with history and biography playing no role.

But sometimes these narratives fail, and when they do, police brutality and threats of incarceration serve as backups. The truth is that police militarized Ferguson not because of "bad protesters" but because people in the town were outraged enough to contest the narrative of black men as thugs who get shot by police because they somehow deserve it. In doing so, the people of Ferguson challenged something even larger: the fairytale of American democracy, which says that our country is better run by elites than by everyday people acting their conscience.

The history of movements in the U.S. is rife with tensions over these dynamics. Protest movements are indeterminate by nature -- organic expressions of the desires of everyday people that manifest in various forms. The town of Ferguson has undergone significant demographic shifts over the last two decades, and its social institutions bear the mark of severe racial inequality and disempowerment. Expressions of anger and frustration are rational responses to such power inequality, not to mention to the cold-blooded killing of a member of their community and the heinous treatment of his body.

They are also rational means through which publics engage in political life. Ferguson was not just an event in which police overreacted to heated demonstrations; it's a symptom of a generalized hatred of democracy in this country -- the hatred of the truly bold idea that politics should be the work of everyday people and that power should not be concentrated in the hands of a few.

Franz Fanon, a trained psychiatrist and prominent revolutionary, theorized that political violence is a life-affirming force in anti-colonial struggles -- an expression of counterviolence that constitutes a therapeutic moment in the cleansing of the psyche of the oppressed. Colonized people exist within structures of power that condition their behavior, their psychology, and the content of their struggle. Fanon believed that the profound rage and resentment that infuse the daily existence of oppressed people could be channeled into a collective, liberating force. 

Hannah Arendt disagreed with this view. A renowned political theorist in her own right, she argued that violence is strictly a means to an end -- not a source of power but a marker of its absence. Real power is its own end and is the basis of political life: "Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together, rather than from any action that then may follow," she wrote. Violence, on the other hand, is never an instrument of freedom, since violent means tend to overwhelm their ends and just unleash more violence into the world.

The same year that Arendt's On Violence was published, protests against Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam War into neutral Cambodia erupted on college campuses, reaching a fever pitch in Ohio when National Guard troops fired on protesters at Kent State, killing four of them. Hundreds of colleges and universities closed for a general student strike, and out the window of a building at NYU, students hung a provocative sign: "They Can't Kill Us All."

Today that statement appears in the minds of people in Ferguson and other communities of color as more of a question than a statement of fact. If Arendt is right that American democracy is predicated on a relationship of legitimacy in which state power is ultimately accountable to the people, where is the possibility for social change in contexts of extreme oppression and disenfranchisement, in which violence is immanent to the dominant power structures and the politics they engender?

It's a monstrous thought, but perhaps the very root of American political power is violence, and not us, the people. We'll certainly know more when Michael Brown's case is decided in October. But for now, the verdict's still out.