Demonstrations erupted in hundreds of communities last week, actions in response to the decision by a suburban St. Louis grand jury not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting in August of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. 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 afterward.
It’s a long list: Brown’s body was left to rot in the street for hours; the police department refused to name the officer involved; there was no incident report on the shooting; police employed a heavily militarized response to nonviolent protesters; someone leaked grand jury testimony and videos that impugned Brown’s character; and the state used 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 don’t matter. And, as the nation learned, the city itself — with a black majority 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.
Ferguson is arguably a 21st-century plantation economy. And local area protesters 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 U.S., and around the world, have been protesting.
And so, last week, Seattle was among the many communities with protests. The nights after the Nov. 24 decision, relatively small groups of mostly white protestors marched around downtown, Capitol Hill and the Central District, blocking intersections and, on the night of the decision, briefly blocking Interstate 5. Students from at least four local high schools walked out the next day. The largest response, also on Nov. 25, was a march from the Central District to the federal courthouse downtown, sponsored by the NAACP and local black clergy.
Through it all, Seattle’s own problems with these issues were an unavoidable subtext. As appalling as Ferguson’s institutionalized racism is, King County has, in the 40 years of its current inquests’ system, found the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers to be justified in every single case, spanning nearly 200 cases and some truly egregious ones, like the 2010 shooting of John T. Williams. Seattle 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 the Seattle Police Department (SPD), but former city councils and two successive mayors (Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn). There’s still enormous resistance within SPD to these reforms and so far, no SPD officer has been held criminally accountable for 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.
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 suburban cities. We won’t be able 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.