From Charles E. Cobb Jr., on ‘the challenge of Ferguson’

I’ve generally left the Ferguson matter to my co-bloggers, because I generally haven’t followed the facts closely myself. But Charles E. Cobb Jr., who guest-blogged a few weeks ago on his “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible” was kind enough to pass along something on the subject, and I wanted to pass it along in turn.

Charles Cobb is Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, a distinguished journalist (with National Public Radio and other outlets), a former member of National Geographic Magazine’s editorial staff, and currently Senior Writer and Diplomatic Correspondent for AllAfrica.com, the leading online provider of news from and about Africa. From 1962-1967 he served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi; he is also the author of “On the Road to Freedom, a Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail” (2008). Here are his thoughts:

I understand racist cops; have encountered a few myself over the years — and I have 71 years. The mostly white Ferguson police force may be racist; in the final analysis, I do not know because in this era of ever-intensifying “national security” in the name of fighting terrorism, local police forces have been armed and empowered in unprecedented ways. One result has been what I simply call swagger; a growing inclination to bully and even brutalize whenever they detect defiance. It is nonracial. We also see this with many TSA personnel in airports.

That discussion is a large one and I do not intend to pursue it here although it provides some context for what I do want to pursue. Reports have suggested a history of anti-black behavior from at least some of Ferguson’s police, and a history of tolerance of it from higher-ups in the police department and city government.

The question is why. And I raise that question in a narrow political sense as distinct from the usual accusation of racism. Let’s be blunt and basic. Ferguson is two-thirds black. Given that percentage, how is it that the 6-member city council has only one black member and the 53-member police force only has three blacks in its ranks? Who and what is at fault here?

The numbers exist to clean house; to get rid of the mayor or police commissioner or whoever the community concludes is working against its best interests. Why hasn’t that happened? If Mississippi towns and counties can now have black mayors and sheriffs, what in the world is wrong with Ferguson?

[UPDATE: Here’s an answer: Only six percent of eligible black voters voted in the last municipal election.] Rev. Al Sharpton says “America is on trial” in Ferguson. Isn’t black leadership also? What kind of black leadership exists in Ferguson that it has not managed to organize the ouster of those in local government? This is not to excuse what I consider the unjustified August 9 shooting of Michael Brown. The investigative process will perhaps provide some answers to whatever questions remain although even with the Justice Department stepping in we cannot be certain.

In any case, the leadership question will not be answered by whatever this investigation turns up. Black leadership seems to have failed. We see this kind of failure right across black communities in the United States, although the black organizing effort to defeat the challenge of tea party-backed Chris McDaniel to Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Republican Party senate primary runoff seems a notable exception.

Admittedly, this is more complicated than usually realized. In North Carolina, for example, the statewide totals show that more blacks turned out for this year’s mid-term primary than the last one. But looking at this primary county by county, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, black turnout decreased in 8 of the 15 counties where African Americans are over 39% of the registered voters. There is an organizing mission suggested by these numbers that black leaders need to take on that ranges from fighting voter suppression to maximizing the turnout of registered black voters.

Local leadership as we saw in the Mississippi primary is taking on this task. It is often young leadership as with Florida’s Dream Defenders or North Carolina’s Moral Mondays.

National black leadership, however, seems lax. Oh, they will show up to protest incidents of murderous horror. With militant speeches they sometimes generate momentary mobilizations. But when it comes to being insistent and consistent with their time, energy and resources on the day-to-day organizing tasks that could empower black communities, I for one, do not see them. And nowhere is this truer than in black inner city communities besieged by violence — not white police violence, not Ku Klux Klan violence, but by people of color killing people of color.

While it is true that the huge issues of economic disparity, the collapse of public education, and the congressional gridlock that has brought to a halt any meaningful effort to tackle national needs can account for some of the inattention by leaders used to asking the federal government for everything they need, Ferguson teaches a more fundamental lesson that should be paid attention to: There is power to make change if we organize to seize it.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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