In the early afternoon of August 9th, a young black male, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, was gunned down by police in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. The exact reason as to why officer Darren Wilson drew his weapon and fired at the teenager remains unknown, and there are different versions of what actually happened. The shooting occurred on a Saturday and by Monday people all over the country had taken to social media to organize vigils and huge group photos in honor of the slain teen and in protest. The Twitter hashtag #handsupdontshoot became a way of connecting people and is a reference to the moment just before he was killed in broad daylight. The residents of Ferguson, a predominantly African-American community, have taken to the streets, voicing their anger, frustration and fear because of this specific incident but also because of the atrocious and inexcusable history of police brutality, oppression and hostility that has been directed towards the black community time and time again. The images of police, armed to the teeth with gas masks, bullet proof vests, assault rifles and tear gas, coming out of Ferguson are reminiscent of the 50’s and 60’s. These were the days of legalized segregation and Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama, when white people opposed and literally fought against racial equity. Three weeks later, what has transpired in Ferguson is bigger than Michael Brown and represents much larger structural issues within the United States. Because of this, we acknowledge that this story is continually developing and there is still more information that will come to the fore. Our attempt here is to highlight some key articles and videos that help to give context to this story and that we found helpful to understanding the history and broader systems of inequality and brutality that are clearly on display here. Additionally, we hope to give examples of where hip-hop fits into all of this. While this piece may not fully encompass everything that has gone on, we feel that the following articles are crucial in working towards an understanding of what people are feeling, thinking and wondering as the story continues to evolve.
“America Is Not For Black People” The Concourse August 12th, 2014
Written on the first Tuesday following the shooting, Greg Howard revisits the different accounts of what happened before Brown was shot. He then speaks on the militarization of police since 9/11, the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell and Eric Garner, as well as the demonization of Michael Brown. As he explains here:
“Part of the reason we’re seeing so many black men killed is that police officers are now best understood less as members of communities, dedicated to keeping peace within them, than as domestic soldiers. The drug war has long functioned as a full-employment act for arms dealers looking to sell every town and village in the country on the need for military-grade hardware, and 9/11 made things vastly worse, with local police departments throughout America grabbing for cash to better defend against any and all terrorist threats. War had reached our shores, we were told, and police officers needed weaponry to fight it.”
In this article, Howard expertly links the death of Michael Brown to the greater societal and historical context of racial oppression and fear of terrorism that continues to haunt the United States.
Ferguson Pastor: This Is Not A Race Issue All Things Considered August 14th, 2014
This is one of the most powerful things you will most likely listen to involving the story of what has been happening in Ferguson. In this interview, Melissa Block talks with Ferguson preacher Reverend Willis Johnson about a picture that was published of him in the Washington Post. In the photo, Johnson is seen speaking with, and holding back, a young black man from joining in on the protests going on around them. The young man is clearly beside himself, a mixture of anger, fear and pain etched across his face. Johnson talks about his own experiences growing up in the United States as an African-American male, what that has meant throughout his life and that to him, what has been happening in Ferguson is beyond race. Listen to this interview because when Rev. Johnson speaks, you will hear how real racism is and how much it hurts.
“The Deaths of Black Men in America” Melissa Harris-Perry August 16th, 2014
In this video segment, MSNBC host, Melissa Harris-Perry discusses the fact that black men have been killed by police officers at an alarming rate in just the past decade alone. As she points out, “From 2006 to 2012 a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country.” To go along with this, Perry looks to the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v Sanford as the origin of many of the issues that we face today. In 1857, it was ruled that African-Americans were not citizens and were never intended to be by the authors of the Constitution.
“How The Rest of the World Sees Ferguson” The Washington Post August 18th, 2014
With this article, Adam Taylor and Rick Noack share examples of how other countries are covering the death of Michael Brown. This article is helpful in trying to get a better sense of how this news story fits within the larger global context. The article touches on coverage in countries such as Britain, Germany, Turkey, Afghanistan, Russia, Iran and China. The various publications have their own agendas and opinions on what has been happening in Ferguson in large part because of their country’s relationship with the United States. Predictably, much of the coverage has been focused on the racial dynamics and images of police that are impossible to ignore.
Killer Mike Interview on CNN August 20th, 2014
Atlanta native, Killer Mike, has always had a knack for saying what needs to be said in a somewhat controversial and in your face way. In short, he is a gangsta when it comes to expounding on socio-political topics such as Reaganomics and the effect that the War on Drugs has had on black and brown communities. In a conversation with CNN, he has a lot to say about police in the United States. We learn that his father was actually a police officer. Because of this, he holds police in high regard and acknowledges the difficulty of the job. Police as he says, “Are blue collar guys.” The issue is, however, that police are typically no longer from the community they serve. Instead, the culture of policing has changed since 9/11. Here, Killer Mikes forces us to think about what it would look like if police actually protected and served their communities.
“Black Life Is Treated with Short Worth”: Talib Kweli & Rosa Clemente on Michael Brown Shooting Democracy Now August 22nd, 2014
In this twenty minute interview, Talib Kweli and Rosa Clemente discuss many of the key issues that surround the situation in Ferguson. First, they recount their own personal story from the previous night’s protest in which they thought they might see another young man killed. Despite her twenty years of work as an activist, Clemente refers to it as, “the most terrifying moment of my life.” From there, Kweli and Clemente express their opinions on the use of social media within the context of the protests, what happens when we focus on the looting that has taken place, the fact that women are also being terrorized at the hands of what is referred to as “a militarized police apparatus” and that the death of Michael Brown has the potential to shift the narrative on how the police are viewed within the United States. In her final thoughts, a deeply moved and passionate Clemente asks crucial questions:
“And I’m sick and tired of this. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, I am sick and tired of this. We have so much life to live and a limited time amount to do it. And every day, the older my daughter gets, or any of my friends, all I can think about is, is this world better? Because it’s just really not. And what is going to happen to our children? What does this do to other people in the community? How does this affect white people that are anti-racism, working against racism? All of this has been so lost in this.”
Kweli and Clemente are both legends because of the work they do as social justice activists in and outside of the hip-hop community, making this interview a key component in the attempt to understand the broader scope of what has happened since the death of Michael Brown.
“Race/ Off” The Daily Show August 26th, 2014
In true Jon Stewart fashion, he dismantles what Fox News has said in the past few weeks following the shooting of Michael Brown. In this 10 minute clip, we see everything that is absurd about the right wing news channel and the stupidity of their anchors (I’m lookin’ at you, Bill). Stewart is a master of using humor while talking about issues that are humorless. At some point, if we don’t laugh at the ignorance that is being thrown in our face (while also challenging it), it may destroy us. Despite the jokes, the reality of racism in the United States cuts through with hard hitting honesty that isn’t funny, in any way, shape or form. We are reminded that, “People of color, no matter their socioeconomic standing, face obstacles in this country with surprising grace” and that, “race is there and it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.”