In Defense of Outside Agitators

About a week into the Ferguson crisis, cable TV anchors like Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper began to decry the presence of “outside agitators” in the community. This was after SWAT teams with MRAP trucks and M-16 assault rifles came from outside in response to crimes against property (window-smashing and looting) prompted by outrage at the police killing of an unarmed black 18-year-old boy.

There are 53 members of the Ferguson police force, 50 of them white in a town that is almost 70% black. One in four people lives below the federal poverty line in Ferguson, and most black residents say they’ve been pulled over by police or have friends or family members who have been harassed by the police. It’s a place that was ready to explode.

On August 10 police responded to the protestors with rubber bullets, tear gas, Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) sound cannons and police dogs. The next day, 300 St. Louis cops were deployed in Ferguson.  The very appearance of these (outside) militarized forces shocked the community and the world. Cable news reporters covering the story were themselves uncharacteristically appalled, making comparisons between Ferguson and a war zone.

On Wednesday, August 13, four days after the killing, SWAT officers (wearing no name tags) were deployed. Footage of them training their guns on peaceful crowds produced more outrage and critical press reporting. (It didn’t help that Washington Post and Huffington Post reporters were arrested by cops at a McDonalds for no good reason.) Police arrested St. Louis alderman Antonio French, holding him in prison overnight without charges “because he didn’t listen.”

One might say these law-enforcement outsiders agitated the people of Ferguson. They got them really riled up. So did the refusal of the chief of police, John Belmar, to reveal the name of the officer who’d killed Michael Brown.

The next day Obama appealed for “peace and calm” while Attorney General Eric Holder opined vaguely that the militarized police presence was “sending a conflicting message.” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon in an effort to quell the ongoing protests announced that the police would withdraw and that the State Highway Patrol would take over “security operations” in Ferguson.

The new force was headed by Capt. Ronald Johnson, a Ferguson-born African-American whose arrival  met for a time with much good will. He hugged lots of people, and claimed to understand and share their pain. “Within hours” of Johnson’s advent, according to AP, “the mood among protesters becomes lighter, even festive. The streets are filled with music, free food and even laughter.” It was a large-scale “good cop, bad cop” routine — the Highway Patrol to the rescue after the poouhlice nightmare. You might say that these guys were “outside pacifiers.”

The night of Thursday, August 14, was the first calm night since the killing August 9, but the next day, the Ferguson police chief finally identified Michael Brown’s killer as Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the department with no significant disciplinary problems.  (As a 28-year old white man, recently divorced, with a small child, he’s just the sort of cop it will be easy to raise funds for on line if he’s indicted for shooting a black teen in the head. As of August 22 it’s reported that supporters have raised a $200,000 defense fund.)

At the very same time, as if to “balance” this delayed announcement with new information on the boy, the police department released footage from a convenience store surveillance video showing someone looking like Brown pilfering some cigars and shoving away a shopkeeper apparently protesting the theft.  (Brown’s parents had not been shown the video or been asked to identify the person shown as their son.)

Many in the community saw it as an effort to smear the victim and place the executioner in the most favorable light. Meanwhile a  certain “Josie,” a self-identified friend of Wilson, told a local radio talk-show host that only “the other side” had been told. She said she’d been “afraid to speak out” until then for some reason, but now wanted to give “his [Wilson’s] side…his version of events.”

In this version, Michael Brown and his companion Dorian Johnson were politely instructed by the cop to stop walking on the street and instead walk on the sidewalk. But for some reason  “they refused to, and were yelling back, they were almost rebelling, there was some cussing involved, um, and then he just kept rolling up [the window] and pulled over…”

In the scenario presented by Wilson’s interlocutor — presented a week after the fact — Brown taunted Wilson and “started to bum-rush him.”

(Question for discussion: Is it ever right to rebel?)

But why would a young black man familiar with the police state-protocols of his community, educated by his mother and by experience to defer to policemen, lunge suicidally at this officer?

Josie explains: “He [Wilson] really thinks he was on something.”

Okay, actually, this is possible.  The toxicity autopsy report won’t be in for a while, but let’s say it shows Michael was messed up at the time the police officer shot him in the head and killed him. What difference does it make?

European cops deal with drug addicts with behavior issues all the time but almost never shoot them to death. The comparative figures are mind-boggling.

The honeymoon with Capt. Johnson was over. Friday night was anything but calm, and the next day Gov. Nixon, declaring a state of emergency. ordered Ferguson residents to remain indoors from midnight to 5:00 a.m.

SWAT returned and deployed “smoke-based deterrents” on demonstrators as well as Long Range Acoustic Devices (or LRADs), and tear gas.

Police ordered journalists into a “press area” removed from the protests and harassed some recording their behavior on camera.

The next day, August 16, Nixon signed an executive order summoning the National Guard into Ferguson “to restore peace and order.” He cited the presence of “outsiders” threatening these. On August 17 a cop was filmed telling the crowd, “I will fucking kill you. Get back.” A journalist live-streaming the protests was instructed by a cop to turn off his camera or “be shelled.” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was threatened with mace. A policeman was caught on camera calling protesters “you fucking animals.”

Meanwhile the print media, echoing police statements and those of some “religious leaders” in the black community, began to draw attention to “outside agitators” deliberately inciting violence, for example, by teaching local youth how to make Molotov cocktails.

The Christian Science Monitor singled out the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which it described as “a small, mysterious, but nationally dispersed Maoist cell led by activist Bob Avakian” and its affiliated Revolution Club and the “New Black Panthers [sic] Party.” (In fact, the latter organization has been denouncing other groups as “agitators,” has said it’s working with community leaders to maintain peace and has been getting relatively positive treatment by CNN.) The Daily Beast reported that “Joey Johnson, a member of the Revolution Club of Chicago, did his best to incite a violent reaction from police.”

CNN’s Cuomo complained, first of “anarchists” taking advantage of the situation to “promote their agendas,” then of “communists from Chicago.” He probably doesn’t want to identify groups by name, so as not to promote them himself.

On Monday, police shot and killed a 23 year-old mentally disturbed black man in a St. Louis suburb near Ferguson, claiming they threatened him with a knife. This naturally produced more outrage. (But CNN’s chosen “expert” on such matters, David Klinger, author of Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force, assured viewers that the officers’ actions were not uncommon and were appropriate given that they felt their lives in danger.)

The same day an officer was filmed training his gun on a protestor and telling the crowd “I will fucking kill you. Get back” and when asked his name replied,“Go fuck yourself.” CNN’s Jake Tapper in a live report noted that many of the cops were “dressed for combat.”

“Why they are doing this,” he continued, “I don’t know. Because there is nothing going on this street that merits this scene out of Bagram. So if people wonder why the people of Ferguson are so upset, this is part of the reason. What is this? It doesn’t make any sense!”

One might ask, what would the sensible community response be to this occupying army? Respect? Resignation? Acceptance? Should such be the default mode, to — do what? — maintain the sort of “law and order” that’s prevailed in Ferguson so long? Can’t one imagine a different kind of law, a different kind of order, in which the routine humiliation of black men is not the cement that holds it all together?

Tuesday night (August 19) was relatively calm, causing Capt. Johnson to announce optimistically “there was a turning point made.” Protests in any case died down, partly due to a visit by Holder who met (“as a parent”) with Brown’s parents who say that they trust him. The National Guard is now reportedly withdrawing.

But daily there are new controversies and provocations. It’s been announced that the grand jury that will consider indicting Wilson is comprised of nine whites and three blacks, and St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough will not recuse himself from the case despite his family’s intimate ties to the St. Louis Police Department and his cop father’s death in an event involving a black suspect.

155 people have been arrested in the protests, 80% charged with “failure to disperse” on police orders. (One quarter is reportedly non-Ferguson residents.)

Many pointed out that when ordered to “go home,” they were, in fact, in their own neighborhoods, on their own streets. They wanted the cops to go home.

I doubt that many resented the presence of the Amnesty International contingent, or the arrival of outsiders in the NAACP.  Or the national and international press exposing the reality of police brutality and African-American oppression. All kinds of people concerned about the situation have gone to Ferguson to show solidarity.

Cuomo reporting on the (possible) reopening of public schools in Ferguson stressed their role in educating students how to protest peacefully and appropriately, going through the system, registering to vote, etc. But how likely is it that this shooting would even been reported on national and international news, had the people not resorted to the tactics that they did?

Paraphrasing Mao, sometimes it’s necessary to go to extremes to right a wrong. If U.S. Secretary of “Defense” Donald Rumsfeld could smirk and exult in 2003 about the “creative chaos” the U.S. military had inflicted in Iraq (leading directly to the chaos ISIS is visiting on the people of Syria and Iraq as we speak), decent people can surely cut the Ferguson youth some slack on their extreme actions. The vandalized businesses will recover quickly, covered by insurance. The psyches of victims of occupying armies who view the people as “fucking animals” may take longer to heal. But maybe it’s easier to heal when at least you (as Malcolm put it, “by any means necessary”) fought back.

Ivy League academics have recently concluded that the U.S.  is not a “democracy” in which the people decide anything, but an oligarchy in which the wealthiest steer the state, for their own interests. (These are not Bolsheviks but empirical social scientists just as we said in the 60s, “telling it like it is.”) Telling angry youth to seek justice (and a better world in general) by going through the system is telling them to accept the rule of the 1% and declare allegiance to the democratic farce by the empty ritual of voting. (“Vote for me and I’ll set you free” as the Temptations sang in 1970, in the appropriately entitled song “Ball of Confusion: What the World Is Today.”) It’s brainwashing.

Relatively small instances that some call “mayhem,” in part attributable to “a definite criminal element” (CNN),  brought in a very ugly response from the regime. Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist, wrote on August 19 that the U.S. is becoming a “police state where authority trumps liberties.” But the silver lining is the clarity. There are (as that fine old Buffalo Springfield song puts it) battle lines being drawn. In its ongoing assault on the people, the state is exposing its character as never before.

To cite Mao again: “It is good if we are attacked by the enemy, since it proves that we have drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves.” One really needs to ask, “Who are our friends? Who are our enemies?” Are the folks saying, “Just calm down and go home, vote for officials who can change the police force, and let’s drive these agitators out of town” the friends of the oppressed in Ferguson? Or do the friends include those who come from outside and say, “Your struggle here is part of something much bigger, and what we need is a real revolution”?

Over a century ago, before the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin famously argued “that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.” Russian proletarians (meaning, people who had “nothing to lose but their chains”) “could not be conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system.” Their experiences were too limited to see the larger picture.

That consciousness of unsolvable conflicts “would,” in Lenin’s view, “have to be brought to them from without.” I think this is true.

The U.S. ruling class has a long history of attacking popular struggles as the result of “outside agitators” with their own agendas threatening law and order. Bosses told workers that other workers, coming from elsewhere, were just trying to exploit them. White politicians told African-Americans in the 60s that those white freedom riders from the north, risking their lives to support racial equality, were trouble-makers, communists.

In fact, some were communists. The Civil Rights Movement involved many self-defined communists. Martin Luther King appreciated their participation, just as Nelson Mandela deeply valued to contributions of the Communist Party of South Africa to the anti-apartheid struggle.

So when I see and hear these denunciations of “outside agitators,” I think those complaining have nothing better to offer — in exchange for promises to lay down the Molotov cocktails — than delusions of peaceful democratic change within a dream world. Their capitulation advocacy secures their reputations as respectable “community leaders” and may result in regular appearances on TV news. But it won’t change the fact that the oppression of black people is rooted in a system.

“To be radical,” Karl Marx once wrote, “is to grasp the root of the matter.”

I’m not a member or supporter of any of the “outside agitator” groups who’ve been in Ferguson recently.  I have major criticisms of, and differences with, them. The wannabe revolutionaries on the ground are, in my experience, unlikely to communicate comfortably with the masses.

They come across to most, in any sustained conversation, as woodenly dogmatic. (The once-significant RCP has sadly become mired in a bizarre personality cult that will, I think, be a hard sell in Ferguson.)

But if such people spark some thought about the root of the matter, some sustained discussion about topics that don’t necessarily come up in daily conversation — like capitalism, imperialism, national oppression – about how to address and uproot the problems themselves, and meet oppression with appropriate forms of active resistance — I say more power to them. Let there be two, three, many outside agitator groups in Ferguson.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.