In the wake of the grand jury non-indictment of Darren Wilson on November 24th, there has been a variety of reactions from across the political spectrum. While I don’t imagine people were expecting the Republican Party to express outrage for the decision to not indict Darren Wilson for shooting death of Michael Brown, the Democratic Party, most notably its figurehead, failed to use this event as an opportunity to address larger institutional problems. The failure of the major parties to seriously address the problems we are currently facing, most recently those in Ferguson, only helps to legitimize and strengthen the calls for civil disobedience in all of its forms.
It is worth noting that President Obama’s address to the nation did include lip service to support the efforts of those to express their “concerns” in a non-violent way. However, the major takeaway of Obama’s speech was not his outrage over what had happened in Ferguson, it was his blind faith in the rule of law.
Granted, one can argue that Obama, as the leader of the national government, can not condemn the problems of legal and political institutions without undermining his own authority. However, as far as I can tell, he has already lost whatever authority people here and abroad believed he had. When you have survey after survey showing increasing dissatisfaction with both the presidency and political institutions as a whole here at home and an increasingly shaky standing for the US abroad, its time to be honest and start looking at the larger problems within our system (and that’s without going into his powerlessness in the face of the new Congress).
All of that being said, “liberal” leaders like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (the anointed 2016 presidential nominee) have failed to push the conversation in any meaningful direction (because political language by-and-large has been pigeon-holed into narratives of Democrats and Republicans, “liberals” in this case will refer to individuals in the Democratic Party). While there are a number of reasons why these leaders have failed to use this event to pursue systemic reforms, the two reasons I would focus on are the following:
1. “Liberal” leaders are working within a system that automatically constrains their ability to pursue broader changes.
2. “Liberal” leaders are not liberals at all.
The difference between these two is slight but significant. Apologists for Obama and Democrats alike would take up option 1 when making sense of the “liberal” response to Ferguson, though the excuse itself becomes weaker with every additional instance of failed leadership, whether it relates to police misconduct, foreign policy, or previous calls for systemic reforms (anyone remember who was president when the crackdown on Occupy occurred?).
The second option, I would argue, is gaining more and more attention. It’s not a new theory to suggest that Democratic Party leaders are conservatives in disguise. Noam Chomsky rightfully stated that “there is basically one party, the business party. It has two factions, the Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies.” What is new is the way people are responding to this truth.
The protests that have occurred across the country are linked through a common refrain. There is a sentiment of powerlessness that is in the streets. The fact that a commonly repeated chant is “Black Lives Matter” points to the fact that many African Americans feel the system does not value their lives. When considered through this lens of feeling powerless, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1968 speech “The Other America” sound more like prophecy than like observations of his time:
“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Throughout the responses to the Ferguson non-indictment, there are continued calls for protests to be non-violent and peaceful. While there repeatedly have been non-violent protests throughout this country’s history, the violent protests themselves may be just as integral to achieving the changes so many people want. Granted, nobody wants to see businesses being burned to the ground; but this is the unfortunate result of policies that leave people feeling powerless. If “liberal” leaders do not want to see riots, then they, as the ones who claim to represent the poor and working class, should do more to make sure the poor and working class people of this country are being heard. The fact that buildings and property are being destroyed is indicative of the larger problems Democratic party leaders are either unable or unwilling to resolve. If it is the former, then the political, legal, and social structures in place demand fundamental change. If it is the latter, then liberals need to find new leaders. If systems of law and order actually worked to treat everyone equally, then violent riots or looting would not happen as frequently.
The process of finding that leadership is already underway. Even with the relative silence coming from “liberal” leaders, actions are being taken to highlight the injustices of the system. In addition to the actions of people who recall the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, a whole new generation of activists is being awakened (albeit rudely) to the injustices of our 21st century society. As these leaders continue to organize their own actions and efforts, the main issue is still one of figuring out what should be done next.
What happened in Ferguson is indicative of the problem America still faces when it comes to race relations. However, over the course of the four months since Michael Brown was shot, discussions were also raised on the militarization of the police, the idea of community policing, and the question of whether police officers are above the law. With the grand jury’s decision now public, these discussions need to continue while also making room for the new discussions on the broken nature of our court system, the failure of leadership within our two-party system, and the effort to revitalize a democracy that has been continuing its drift towards oligarchy. It is my sincere hope that the protests, the passions, and the outrage continue to drive this discussion forward. In the meantime, those who have the legislative authority to change things should start engaging this movement, because it seems unlikely that this systemic frustration is going away; especially as the injustices continue.