At times certain names take on a strange quality whereby they come to hold a unique position within our imaginary. For me these names are those of Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Azelle Rodney, Leon Briggs, Smiley Culture, Jimmy Mubenga and a list that could continue into the thousands naming each of those that have died in custody or after contact with the police.
Today in Ferguson Missouri a single name, that of Michael Brown, is at the forefront but carries with it the memory of a similar list of previous deaths. The names coalesce together in these politically charged lists to highlight an endemic social problem: that the deaths of black people at the hands of the state has risen to the level of an atrocity and that decades have been allowed to pass with justice seemingly moving further and further out of grasp. The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson is this grave political problem realised.
As we look at Ferguson and the United States we should remember that what we see is a refusal of the status quo that brings about these deaths. But in seeking justice the family and all those protesting are also refusing the state’s inability to hold itself accountable. When Brown was shot eight times by Darren Wilson a movement for justice sprung up all across the US. The civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties has not brought us nearly far enough if police officers, with the full support of the law, can choose who is a citizen and who is expendable.
Every one from the President of the Unites States down called for peace as the St Louis County grand jury’s decision came in. Prosecutor Bob McCulloch echoed this call whilst militarised police officers in riot gear took to the streets in Ferguson as he announced the jury’s decision. Violence after violence has been dealt out in the name of peace: the shots that killed Brown, the media demonisation of him, the repression of protest over the last few months and the prosecutor’s frankly offensive gesture toward justice.
But peace does not equal silence and there will be no peace whilst there is no justice. If politicians and police mean by peace that calls for accountability continue to go unheard then the movement against this atrocity will become louder and louder. The movement has already been initiated in Missouri, the United States and internationally. Those in Tottenham know well the names of Michael Brown and now Tamir Rice and those in Fergusson too know of the killing of Mark Duggan. The global call is simple: Black Lives Matter.
It is clear that this is a racist problem and one that goes beyond institutional racism to the very perception of black people held by many. What must juries think of these young black men in order to let their killers off the hook? What must private citizens think of young black men when they support and contribute financially to the police officer that killed them? Time and time again police kill in the name of keeping people safe. As a young black man I don’t feel safe, I feel that my life is expendable for the safety of others who would see my death as a job well done. We should all find this a disturbing notion. We will only be done with the work of anti-racism when we bring black lives to the centre of our politics and make racist state violence unthinkable.
For many, not least the families involved, it would be hard to forget the list of those who have died at the hands of the state yet not nearly enough people have heard these names and the brutal stories that accompany them. Now is the time to ensure they are heard. Now is the time to ensure that they cannot add another young black man to the list and get away with it. We must start a new list of names, one of those officers who have been held accountable for what they have done. Until then every chance encounter with the police is a battle over life and death. No Justice, No Peace.