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Ferguson is America

Ferguson is America

August 25, 2014 12:20 pm7 comments

I apologize in advance for invoking Godwin’s Law, but as always, Nazism is such the prime historical example of snowballing fascism it’s hard not to bring it up. So I’ll get it out of the way with a brief look at Martin Niemöller’s well known and probably over-quoted poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We know the poem, and we know the message of the poem is supposed to be “speak out before it’s too late.” But I think a more important message of the poem is that fascism never announces its arrival with jackbooted stormtroopers marching down the town square. It arrives slowly, with the creeping support of legitimate and well-intentioned citizens who desire greater safety, more control and maybe more comfort. Friendly politicians with ambitious plans are far more the province of fascism than angry men with beards. There’s that old nickname the Egyptians had for their dictator of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, “La Vache Qui Rit,” The Laughing Cow. It’s easier to convince people to surrender their liberties and critical faculties with a smile on your face and a plan to eradicate undesirables in your back pocket. If these undesirables are socialists or trade unionists or Jews, all the better.

It is also a fact of fascism that ideology comes long before cults of personality dominate the scene. We are historically trained to look for dictators who seek to create fascist societies, but if you read the biographies of dictators it is as likely the dictators are created for the society they live in. They fill the power vacuum created by inept government or a weak economy, or they take advantage of scripture which demands a strongman to usher in a god-fearing society. The fascisms of the world today in full force–whether it’s the monarchical fascism in T h a i l a n d or the Islamofascism of Boko Haram or ISIS or Hamas–started as ideologies in need of leadership. We know where to look when we seek out the hot spots for burgeoning fascism: places where ideology trumps individual liberty, or threatens to do so (Zionism certainly falls into this latter category, as does Russian exceptionalism/Putinism and a host of other almost-fascisms).

Which brings me to another quote from author William Gibson:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

It is this quote that has had me thinking the most since protests and the violent police crackdown erupted in Ferguson last week, and the world has been watching images of our country the way we often look in disbelief at images from oppressive regimes all over the world.

I will for the moment suspend my judgement on what happened in the Michael Brown shooting, because we are always too quick to jump to conclusions about things we don’t know based on what the media has told us. I’m not going to participate in speculation about motives or racism. This is what I care about right now:


I am not in the out group this time. I’m not black, I’m not poor, I don’t live in a place where police suspect me and everyone around me, and I don’t think I’m likely to even commit a petty crime that would get the police called on me in the first place. But I see this picture and the first thing I think is, how hard would it be for those guns to become pointed at me? What laws have I broken that no one knows about yet? What situation in this country could lead for more security such that such scenes become commonplace?

The future is here already, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Despite the fact that most of us remain isolated from this sort of show of force, we’ve known that local police forces in small towns like Ferguson have been acquiring military grade gear for years, including tanks, grenade launchers and assault rifles. And we know that SWAT teams are becoming more and more normal as responses to small crimes, with the inevitable consequences of innocent causalities. And even agencies of our own government are stockpiling ammunition. What does the Department of Homeland Security need with its own military?

The fact that they’re coming for poor black people concerns me, not only because of the wrongness of it on its own, but because I know that somewhere down the line, I’ll be on their target list, too. There’s a long list of types of Americans that other Americans, if they had the means, would love to lock up or outright execute: everyone from petty thieves to looters to drug dealers to the homeless to Muslims to “the 1%” to meat eaters. Do you really want to sit here and take your chances that the police next week don’t have something against you? Especially if we’ve handed them all the tools they need to make your life miserable?

Most Americans are fortunate that we don’t encounter police every day, or situations don’t become tense enough to merit this sort of military presence on our own streets. But we saw during the Boston Marathon Bombing that it takes very little to panic Americans into creating a police state around themselves. And when you create a police shield for yourself, you have to find someone to shield against.

I don’t think the problem is “speaking out.” We all know it’s a problem, and the media–since we have a blissfully free press in this country–has reported constantly on overmilitarization of the police. The problem is despite the fact that we see the images on TV, and we know that one day it’s very possible that our own worlds will be turned upside down by a SWAT raid or a bad shooting in our neighborhoods that tips off a riot or police crackdown, we don’t do anything about it.

And what can we do? Knowing your rights is a good place to start. But what’s the best response as citizens to an omnipresent, obviously growing threat from the police of America to our own freedoms? Should we all buy guns, as people near Ferguson are doing right now? Other than arming and waiting patiently, how do we stop the rising tide of police violence and intimidation in America? Or do we just hope that at some point, our politicians come to their senses and limit their own power? Historically speaking, I don’t think that’s very likely.

I welcome ideas in the comments for immediate, actionable things that citizens can do right now to stop the tide of police militarization in America before we all get swallowed up by it.


  • My suggestion:

    “I’m not going to participate in speculation about motives or racism.”

    Stop pretending this is an event that can be isolated from race. Otherwise you’re just playin’ around.

    • I don’t have anything to add.. I just wanted to agree with Danilo’s comment.

    • Brian Mayer

      Straw man alert. I feel like you completely missed the point of this post, which is that what starts as state violence against one group of people inevitably turns against more groups of people. Fascism has always required and incorporated racism (or some other-ism) at the beginning, and then eventually encapsulates everyone. Not only am I not pretending this event is isolated from race, but I am incorporating racism into my fascist paradigm. I just have nothing to add to the discussion of racism specifically that qualified individuals such as yourself haven’t added already.

      • No, I got the point of the post, which was that you wanted to engage the issue in isolation of its causes, which I call bullshit upon.

        You’re centering your own needs and concerns instead of addressing a meaningful and scary problem: black Americans are fucked over to a disproportionate degree. Now, talk about how awful things are gonna be for future Brian if you want, but I think there’s a lot more to be concerned about than that.

        • Brian Mayer

          If your criticism is that I’m focusing my blog post on an issue I want to focus on instead of what you want me to focus on, then I guess I have nothing more to add.

          You’re welcome to write about racism in Ferguson in your blog and I’ll probably agree with what you write. I don’t think that racism and fascism are mutually exclusive; in fact, the case I make above is just the opposite.

          • Having a discussion about Ferguson without engaging its racism is like having a discussion about cheeseburgers without wanting to “speculate” about the existence of beef.

            It’s intellectual laziness at best and cowardice at worst.

            Ferguson was allowed to happen because an entire population has been systemically disenfranchised both politically and economically.

            That’s not a speculative future emergency. That’s a crime today. That’s an injustice today. And you’re not going to prevent more Fergusons by ignoring that core element.

            Mike Brown had a right to due process under the law. He was deprived that right. Whether he “knew his rights” or not was irrelevant. Again, if you’re not willing to discuss why this was so, you’re just playing around.

            • Brian Mayer

              Not only have you set up a straw man to argue about racism, it’s a stupid straw man, because I don’t even disagree with you about the injustices perpetrated by the police in Ferguson before and after the shooting, especially against black people, and especially as indicative of unjust policing all across the country. These are all real problems that plenty of people have written about. I don’t think I have anything particularly enlightening to add to the discussion (and I’m pretty sure you yourself have admonished me *not* to add to the discussion in the past).

              Now, after happily joining you to knock down the straw man you set up, nothing has changed or altered my core concern in this post, which is the scary police army with jackboots marching down the streets of small town America. That’s what this post is about. It could have been written about Boston, or Cornelia, GA, or Fairfax, VA or anywhere else overwhelming police force has been used recently. As it happens, overwhelming police force affects minorities and poor people more than anyone else. That’s a cause for concern in its own right. And one thing that I didn’t say specifically that perhaps I should have said above, is that people who aren’t minorities or poor shouldn’t ignore it just because they are fortunate enough not to be targets right now. Because if they keep ignoring it their time will come soon enough.

              I know you agree with me, Danilo. So why are you being so obtuse?