Many reports out this week warn that if the grand jury sitting in the Darren Wilson case decides not to indict, there will likely be violence in Ferguson, Missouri. This, the media explains, is why Governor Jay Nixon has already declared a state of emergency. This is also, the FBI maintains, why local, state and federal law enforcement must be at the ready. Should Wilson not be facing a trial, all hell is likely to break loose.
All are absolutely correct about one thing -- the residents of Ferguson better start bracing themselves for violence. This ugliness, though, will not happen because local residents have vowed to protest should Wilson not be indicted. It is assured because even though this nation, publicly and most vociferously, defends the right of its citizenry to protest -- and routinely pats itself on the back for being one the world's most ardent defenders of free speech -- when those protests are unapologetically critical of racial injustice, or of racialized law enforcement practices, or of broader unjust policies to which state officials are deeply wedded, tolerance seems to wear thin.
In fact, by vowing to take to the streets should Michael Brown's killer face no legal rebuke, the men, women and children of Ferguson's mostly black neighborhoods are merely following in the footsteps of countless generations of Americans before them who have felt similarly unheard and unrepresented. Like those previous marginalized citizens, should the legal system fail them, all that is left to residents of Ferguson is their right to express their dismay via signs, slogans, and impassioned speeches.
And yet, as they light their vigil candles and bundle up to head out into frigid temperatures on the day that the verdict is finally announced, there is another aspect of America's protest history of which they, and we all, must also be most mindful.
Consider some of our country's most famous protests.
Notably, when the black residents of Birmingham, Alabama felt compelled to express their dismay with the ugly policies of segregation they endured in 1963 by taking to the streets, in turn, city leaders chose to surround them with scores of angry, gun-toting sheriffs and deputies who were more interested in assaulting these protesters than in letting them march.
And, in 1968, when young people from cities across the country felt compelled to express their dismay with the deeply racialized war in Vietnam by taking to the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, in turn, elected officials chose to surround them with machine-gun tanks and countless battalions of heavily-armed policemen in full riot gear.
Then, in 1970, when students at Kent State University felt compelled to take to the lawn of their campus in order to express their dismay with the escalation of fighting in Southeast Asia, in turn, the mayor chose to call out the National Guard.
And, but a year later in 1971, when overwhelmingly black prisoners took over the Attica State Correctional Facility so that they, finally, could express their dismay that they didn't have even basic human rights, in turn, the governor allowed nearly 1,000 furious and heavily-armed harmed troopers and correction officers to surround that institution.
And, notably, every one of these now-iconic protests ended most violently.
Indeed the number of people hurt by local members of law enforcement in Birmingham in 1963 caused international outrage. Then, so many people suffered bloodied heads, concussions and broken limbs at the hands of local police in Chicago in 1968 that even local hospitals and medical workers were stunned. The Kent State University protest ended even more violently still. Four students were literally shot to death by National Guardsmen while several other young protestors were seriously wounded by guard gunfire -- one paralyzed for life. And Attica too ended in unimaginable bloodshed in 1971. After being allowed to storm the prison, almost 600 state troopers proceeded to shoot more than three dozen men to death -- prisoners and prison employees alike. Their bullets then caused so many traumatic gunshot wounds to so many others that triage units could barely cope with the disaster before them.
Ironically, these are the very examples of past popular protests that so many Americans today think of when they express serious doubts that any civil rights or government-critical gathering could ever, really, be peaceful. And, yet, the public has totally misunderstood what lessons these iconic events in fact teach us.
So, let us now be crystal clear: In none of these now-infamous protests were the protestors responsible for the extraordinary pain and injury that so many people suffered in them. In fact, in every one of these iconic protests, violence was caused by, and was in fact guaranteed by, local, state and federal officials who made the disastrous decision to prepare for, and then respond to, these episodes of popular sovereignty with ugly force.
To see how this next sure-to-be historic protest will play out, though, we just have to wait. We must first wait to see if the grand jury is going to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. We must then wait to see whether the people of Ferguson do in fact turn out in large numbers to express their dismay should he not be indicted. And, if they do, we will then wait for the injury reports. Why? Because local, state and federal officials, as well as so many of the white residents who live in communities nearby to Ferguson, are already making such reports likely if not inevitable.
State officials have already called up the National Guard, they have already decided to send armed tanks to Ferguson, they have already decided to call armed officers into the protest area, and they have already decided that paddy wagons will be at the ready. Meanwhile, and most alarmingly, countless of Missouri's white residents have spent the last few weeks arming themselves to the teeth. As one local gun store owner recently explained their actions, "Police aren't going to be able to protect every single individual. If you don't prepare yourself and get ready for the worst, you have no one to blame but yourself." In fact, so determined have whites been to arm themselves against black protesters in Missouri that suburban gun shops have literally sold "everything that's not nailed down."
These are the decisions and actions -- historically and today -- that turn otherwise peaceful protests volatile, dangerous and violent.
Although another round of violence in Ferguson may well be inevitable, how we understand what happens there is not. It is our obligation to question why it is that every time ordinary people, particularly ordinary poor people of color, want to march and to express their dismay at an injustice, state officials decide to surround them with enormous tanks and to arm themselves with canisters of tear gas as well as bullets -- both real and rubber. It is our responsibility to ask, particularly when things get violent, who it is that has the guns, the tanks, the tear gas, and the batons -- and who does not. Indeed, if things get violent in the next weeks in Ferguson, let's at least be clear about why that happened. Let us not get our history of protest in America wrong one more time.