New York Protest

A night of heavy hearts: Reflections on the Darren Wilson grand jury verdict

New York Protest

Miracle on 34th Street: Demonstrators march up New York’s Seventh Avenue in response to Monday night’s grand jury decision. (Photo Credit: Michael Appleton, New York Times)

As if they were extras in a perfectly framed shot from a post-apocalyptic horror movie, a faceless row of heavily armoured riot police stood guard beneath a glowing “Seasons Greetings” sign hung between telephone poles, backlit by streetlamps and heedless traffic lights. 

This was Ferguson; as political leaders urged calm from a besieged and powerless community, the police continued to master the finer points of irony, juxtaposing tear gas volleys with President Obama pleading for peaceful protest.

Last night’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, unarmed and surrendering, was a travesty on par with CeCe McDonald’s conviction, or with George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Like in those previous two cases, a nation gathered around its glowing screens, and just as before, we walked away knowing that justice remains elusive and unequal as it has ever been for black Americans, who continue to be scapegoated for their own suffering.

This is our nation’s living, breathing shame.

Sententious twaddle is a dime a dozen in these trying times, and St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch offered a ten for one special with a rambling and meandering speech that was astonishing not only for its abrogation of prosecutorial duty (indeed, he often sounded like Officer Darren Wilson’s defence attorney), but also for its breathtaking insults which acted only to salt the significant injury dealt to Brown’s family and the citizens of Ferguson. McCulloch used his platform to lay blame on the press and, particularly, on users of social media for creating the “most significant challenge” in the investigation.

There can be no doubt that social media has serious flaws that are worth having good-faith discussions about, but there was nothing good or faithful in McCulloch’s extensive whinge which served only to displace responsibility from his own failure to properly discharge his duties, or explain how it is that his office produced one of the exceedingly rare, 1 in every 14,000, grand juries that fails to return an indictment. Instead, he elected to condescend to a grieving community with tiresome clichés about social media. Whatever discussions can be had about social media activism, this was neither time nor the place to have it or attempt to start it, and instead this felt like McCulloch — so obviously sympathetic to Officer Wilson — spiking the football in a perverse act of moral triumphalism.

Bear in mind too that in his own testimony, Officer Wilson said that “it looked like a demon” when describing Michael Brown’s mien during their altercation; a moral outrage lurks in those words, but McCulloch was too busy upbraiding the protesters to notice.

But if we must have the social media discussion, Ferguson makes a strong case for why it is absolutely vital, especially as a tool for the marginalized and the chronically unheard. It provides a river of information, photographs, stories, organizational tools, and an intricate international web of support for those mobilizing whole communities against powerful institutional forces. It does not level the playing field, but it provides an archipelago of platforms that can lend strength to those who otherwise could not stand up to those black uniformed sentinels beneath the Seasons Greetings sign, hiding behind Perspex shields.

The social media organizing done by black communities in this country is a sight to behold and, indeed, one of the wonders of the modern age when you consider the consciousness-raising that it both demands and perpetuates, against a pathologizing narrative from the government and many sectors of the press committed to telling politicized black communities that they are “violent” and “dangerous.” It takes overwhelming strength — strength that should never be asked of any group of people in a just world — to organize a movement, a community, and a counter-narrative in the face of that. Not just a narrative, indeed, but a new way of life athwart the all-too-grand edifices of ongoing institutional racism and the wracking devaluation of black lives in this country. It’s not merely hacking out rants on Twitter; for many, organizing online and in the streets is an act of survival.

That work should be respected, not slandered on a national stage by a prosecutor eager to blame his failings on mobilised communities of color. McCullough’s rhetoric eschewed the funerary colors of contrition in favor of condescending rubbish that dumped on that epic project.

There is one final word to be said as well about the dramatic hypocrisy on display with all the institutional pearl clutching about “violent protest.” I have a long history of being a critic of violence at activist events, or the flippant justifications endemic to “burn it all” rhetoric, yet I never join with the well-paid concern trolls of our government and press in their tut-tutting about Ferguson’s protesters. Why? Not only because fixation on a violent minority is the gateway drug to blinkering one’s self to racial injustice, but because of our shocking double standards on this question. Violent masculinity, particularly among a certain class of young white men at college campuses and downtown bars across the nation, has led to actual riots in the wake of sporting events and yet it is all but condoned or excused in much mainstream discourse; at worst, it is considered an isolated social problem that is never met with the full weight of militarized police.

Vancouver Riot

Vancouver, after their hockey team lost. We fail to recognise actual, wanton rioting by white people over *games* as actual rioting, nor do we see it as evocative of a far more troubling social corrosion than a community rightly combating state-sanctioned murder.

There was a riot in State College, Pennsylvania when late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired for enabling the mass sexual abuse and rape of young men by Jerry Sandusky. Yet there was no national handwringing, save brief moments of self-reflection, about the diehard apologists for football-as-religion who felt that a small army of raped boys should not tarnish the bronzed legend of State College. Similarly, we were not treated to any nationwide soul-searching about the young men who destroyed city buses in San Francisco after a World Series win by the Giants, and who even mocked the media by writing “RIOT” on a burned-out police car while the press studiously avoided the word.

All this because a man was held accountable for perpetuating rape culture.

We permit not only the institutional violence of police against communities of color — the obvious and outrageous visitation of violence that is a daily reality for too many Americans — but also accept these carnivals of unchecked male rage in the wake of sporting events as the price we pay for having a free society. Meanwhile, when black communities organize in their own interest, they are met by those armored officers beneath the Seasons Greetings sign.

Last night laid bare a panoply of frightening social ills, sicknesses, and addictions that this country scrupulously refuses to acknowledge or grapple with. And the fault for these maladies most certainly does not lie with Black America — or Black Twitter.



Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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