Demonstrations have erupted in hundreds of communities in response to the decision by a suburban St. Louis grand jury to not criminally charge a Ferguson, Missouiri police officer in his fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, last August. The protests have been fueled not just by the shooting itself – as bad as it was, with multiple eyewitnesses claiming it was essentially unprovoked – but by the entire official response afterwards, from leaving Brown’s body rotting in the street for hours, to not naming the officer involved and not having an incident report on the shooting, to the heavily militarized response to nonviolent protestors, to the leaking of grand jury testimony and videos impugning Brown’s character, to a longtime local prosecutor notorious for his pro-police sensibilities.
At every turn, Ferguson’s official response has been to protect an officer widely thought to have committed murder, and to all but explicitly proclaim that black lives didn’t matter. And, as the nation learned, the city itself – majority black but run by white politicians and businesspeople – turned out to be funded by a classic example of institutional racism. Poor local black residents get harassed by police, charged and fined over petty crimes, fined further for court costs, and that revenue provides the largest part of a city budget that doesn’t significantly tax local, often white-owned businesses.
It’s literally a 21st Century plantation economy. And local area protestors were dogged enough in protesting and drawing attention to the situation that it became a national tipping point, resonating with all the victims of unaccountable police departments and racist local economies around the country. That is what people across the US, and around the world, have been protesting.
And so, over the past two days, Seattle was among the many communities with protests. The last two nights, relatively small groups of mostly white protestors marched around downtown, Capitol Hill, and the CD, blocking intersections and on the night of the decision briefly blocking I-5. Students from at least four local high schools walked out yesterday. The largest response, also on the following day, was a march from CD to the federal courthouse downtown sponsored by the NAACP and local black clergy.
Through it all, Seattle’s own problems with these issues have been an unavoidable subtext. As appalling as Ferguson’s institutionalized racism is, King County has, in the 40 years of its current inquest system, found the use of lethal force by a law enforcement officer to be justified in every single case, spanning nearly 200 cases and some truly egregious ones (like John T. Williams’ shooting in 2010). Deattle is “dealing” with police reforms now only after a federal investigation and lawsuit that dragged on for years because of the adamant resistance of not just SPD, but city council and two successive mayors (Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn). There’s still enormous resistance within SPD to these reforms, and still no misbehaving SPD officer that’s been held criminally accountable in a shooting.
The entire official system in Ferguson is racist and rotten to the core. But white Seattle liberals have a bad habit, on issues of race, of evincing a smug superiority that makes acknowledging and dealing with our own serious problems much more difficult. I grew up in the South; I speak fluent Racist Dog Whistle. As appalling as that sort of racism is, in a way I respect it because on average such people are a lot more honest about their bigotries than white Seattleites are.
Seattle in 2014 is a city giddy with building cranes erecting new market rate housing that is remaking Seattle into a wealthier, whiter city while poorer immigrants and minorities are forced to the suburbs. We can’t work to undo white privilege, let alone white supremacism, until we acknowledge that it exists. That’s the lesson of Ferguson. We’d do well to learn it.