For all the talk of community and locality central to social justice rhetoric, people have been willing to believe that any sort of radicalism is alien.
Language matters. Its power can turn moments of distress into revolutionary movements for change. It can also turn people away from action that might be deemed as “irresponsible” or “not respectable,” or be used to obscure the kind of radicalism that undergirds these periods of intensity. But most importantly, language shapes the way we see history from up close and at a distance.
This inherent power is evident in the ways we have framed two of the biggest liberation movement leaders—Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela—in the popular imagination. Their commitment to peace has seemingly defanged them, reducing them to placards for mere conciliatory rhetoric. Their vigorous challenges to white supremacy and capitalism are often emptied from the official narrative. But they were anything but docile; their radicalism and the shared ideology of their cohort were the driving forces behind two of the most heralded political movements in the 20th century. Mandela was an advocate for armed revolution throughout most of his career in both the African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing, the Umkhonto we Siswe (MK). As Charles Cobb explained in his recent book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, King’s house, according to one reporter covering the movement, was “an arsenal,” and the willingness of those who surrounded him within the Civil Rights Movement to carry arms ultimately kept the death toll from being far higher during the height of the struggle. Further, the economic program King advocated for after 1965, which included a subsidized program to train all of the unemployed and the extension of labor protections to rural Black agricultural workers, was expansive in a manner seldom seen by a major sociopolitical figure.
The face-off between various levels of law enforcement in eastern Missouri and the inhabitants of Ferguson, just 12 miles from downtown St. Louis, has been an exceptional lesson in the naked power of language. Was the August 9th death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson a “killing” or a “murder”? Have the three (and growing) weeks of demonstrations since Brown’s death by the people of Ferguson constituted a “protest,” a “rebellion,” or an “uprising”? Are the people who have traveled from elsewhere to join in the Ferguson demonstrations “solidarity protesters” or “outside agitators”? The answers to these questions will ultimately shape how this conflict is remembered, and whether it ends up growing into a more aggressive call to arms against state-sanctioned violence.
Last Spring, I taught Public Administration here at the University of Alabama, where I am a doctoral student. In discussing racism and its effects on public policy and the facilitation of public services, I discussed the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that occurred in the wake of a still preposterous Not Guilty verdict for four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with assault and use of excessive force in their beating of Rodney King.
As I was carrying on teaching duties that week as normal, I suddenly realized that a bunch of quizzical faces were staring back at me. I then posed a simple question: “How many of you were alive at the time of the L.A. Riots?” Out of the 30 students in my class that semester, only one student raised their hand. When I asked them if they remembered the 2001 Cincinnati Riots, triggered by the police killing of 19-year old Timothy Thomas, none did.
Ferguson is rare. A community defiantly standing up to the terrifying machinery of the state is not something that you see too often in this post-9/11 world. The anger felt over years of watching unarmed Black men being gunned down without punishment has finally exploded. If you are Black in the United States, the names flash before your soul like a 1960s newsreel. Oscar Grant. Ramarley Graham. Amadou Diallo. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. John Crawford III. Chavis Carter.
Yet the prospect this moment of intense outrage becoming a viable revolution that could provoke a sea change in the way that the United States engages with its communities of color has been too heady for some to handle. For all the talk of community and locality that is central to much social justice rhetoric, people have been willing to believe that any sort of radicalism shown by those protesting in Ferguson is alien. That the “outside agitator” must be stirring up trouble in this poor, benighted community. That looting is only the work of malevolent thugs seeking to bring the fury of the state down upon Ferguson’s oh-so-helpless residents. That the answer to the problems of the last three weeks can be solved by simply voting in new people (and they better be Democrats, otherwise they deserve what’s coming to them).
This discourse is wrapped in the language of concern and the language of the ally. That makes it all the more dangerous.
It is dangerous because in a world where Black college graduates are on equal economic footing with whites with a high school education, where no one can actually tell us how many unarmed Black people are killed every year by law enforcement, and where walking down the street has become cause for everything from manhandling to murder at the hands of your friendly local law enforcement officer, nothing short of a revolution is necessary to fix wrongs on this magnitude. Nothing short of a big-ass reset button on this society is needed. The Ferguson barber who told the Guardian that “this is a revo-fucking-lution” understood that. The Kerner Commission understood this when their 1968 report (troublesome as it was on certain accounts) recognized that looting and property destruction was committed not because of wanton thuggery, but because those businesses were a constant reminder of how capitalism had failed the offending parties and their neighbors.
But the politics of least resistance is what works for today’s liberals. They place a premium on things like voting, as if the ungodly sums of public money spent on elections would ever allow radicals to take seats of power (as if those seats of power in and of themselves were sought in the first place). They place a value on “having diverse voices at the table,” so long as those voices are not too disruptive. They decry respectability politics when it comes to clothing, naming conventions, and appearances, but have no problems enforcing said respectability markers on communities that conceive of a different means by which they can voice their disapproval of systems that oppress them.
One wonders what today’s liberals would have thought of Viola Liuzzo, the mother of five from Detroit who was murdered by Klansmen as she shuttled Black marchers from Selma back to Montgomery. Come to think of it, she was called an “outside agitator” too — by George Wallace. To quote Dr. Adolph Reed, Jr. (who was, ironically, discussing the sterile fecklessness of today’s liberals): “I wish somebody had told poor Viola Liuzzo, you know, before she left her family in Michigan and got herself killed that that's what the punch line was going to be, because she might've stayed home to watch her kids grow up.”
And, again, this is why language matters: its ability to frame not just the instantaneous present but history itself. History is being made by the minute in Ferguson, and the long-term goals of this movement will be determined by which version becomes accepted. Will people look at Ferguson and see voting for Democrats as the way to end state violence? Certainly local politicians like Antonio French would love to see Ferguson become a movement that centralizes voting and candidatures in the narrative of change (which would seem incongruous, since French is a city councilman in St. Louis and Ferguson located in the 1st Congressional District). But what would that deliver? And what does it mean to have a movement that prioritizes voting without having the means to make those you elect fear the power of your voice? People may dismiss talk of revolution as pie-in-the-sky, but is it any more quixotic than the person who insists that electoral politics will change everything, even as recent history has shown otherwise?
If the level of state violence on view in Ferguson is not enough to make folks join hands and build a sustained movement aimed at abolishing it, then I am at a loss of words to figure out what will stir US-Americans enough to demand an end to the wanton murder of its denizens by law enforcement. The stakes are higher than they have ever been, because this issue is literally one of life and death for Black people.
Edward Said wrote in his 2001 book The End of the Peace Process, “an imprecise, not very concrete hold on language and reality produces a more easily governable, accepting citizen, who has become not a participant in the society but an always hungry consumer.” Language matters. The forces of reaction, repression, and revanchism have long understood this, and they have used it to their advantage. Let us use our own language, that of liberation, working-class power, and revolution, to ensure that Michael Brown’s death was not in vain. Let these protests be the beginning of a resistance that demands that not one more Black mother has to bury her child as a result of state violence. Let us be the scribes of our own histories, and not simply have our power managed by those who seek their own ends. Let us not be the simple hungry consumers that Said described, but agitators and provocateurs for durable, community-based change.
And let us recognize those who seek to knock us from this path, and recognize them as the enemies of liberation that they are. The survival, health, and vitality of our communities depend on it.