AUGUST 21, 2014
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The American Dispossessed
by KANISHKA CHOWDHURY
Since the outbreak of the protests in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a lot of talk in the media and on blogs disparaging “outsiders” who are participating in the protests. These comments echo the official line: for instance, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson referred to those arrested on the night of August 18th as coming from as far away as New York and California, implying that the “trouble” in Ferguson was caused by these outsiders. Likewise, Corporal Justin Wheetley of the Missouri State Highway Patrol asserted that “It is mostly outsiders who are coming in and destroying this peaceful community.” Even The Guardian’s headline on August 19th reads “Ferguson: outsiders spread unrest and unease in pursuit of eclectic aims.”
This distinction being made between “outsiders” and the people of Ferguson, of course, has a precedent in the long history of race relations in this country. After all, Southern whites during the civil rights movement had a standard line that outsiders should not interfere in their matters. The Freedom Riders, for example, were commonly described by Southerners as “outside agitators.” But, even more disturbingly, claiming this distinction between those who live in Ferguson and those who are “outsiders” ignores or suppresses a basic reality about the similar economic and social conditions that exist in so many minority communities across the country, eliding the bonds of solidarity that tie together people across this nation. Indeed, the economic disparities between Ferguson and the neighboring white communities, the violent behavior of the predominantly white police force toward the black residents of Ferguson, and the complete invisibility of such communities in the mainstream media and in the consciousness of national politicians is instantly recognizable to most of us who do not reside in Ferguson. Moreover, the reality of what is means to be black and poor in this nation is also recognizable to the “outsiders” who are in Ferguson. This means that these outsiders know and experience the connections between race and economics; they know about the absence of employment opportunities that offer a living wage; and they live the effects of a lack of affordable housing and health care. They also know that they are liable to be stopped, beaten, or in extreme cases, shot by police officers, and that many cops see them, as they saw Michael Brown, purely and simply as black bodies to be violently policed, regulated, and controlled. These outsiders’ lives are tied to the destinies of the people of Ferguson and to those of all of the people around the nation who live in similar circumstances.
If we are seeking true outsiders in Ferguson, then we don’t have to look very far. As we have seen in the last few days, it is Governor Nixon, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, Mayor James Knowles, and the legions of other people in power in the state of Missouri who are the true outsiders. Indeed, the predominantly white power brokers in Ferguson and in the state of Missouri have demonstrated the irony of the insider/outsider binary. Their insider status has not prevented them from being completely surprised by the scale of the protests. They have shown that they have neither a strategy to deal with the people’s response nor a clue about what “justice” really means, other than reciting the usual pieties about “coming together.” President Obama and Attorney General Holder have done little better, offering predictable and banal remarks that obviate any attempt to link the events in Ferguson to the widespread economic disparities that exist across the nation. Predictably, the President asks us to “heal,” but we get no indication of how people are supposed to heal in the face of continued violence directed against them. Perhaps it is foolish to expect those in power to acknowledge the connections between race, capitalist exploitation, and police violence. However, if the response of the true outsiders demonstrates anything, it is that we ordinary people can’t expect those in power—the true outsiders—to solve our problems.
One could argue that the fact that there are so-called outsiders in Ferguson is a sign that a critical constellation of the dispossessed is possible in this nation, that even as the Occupy movement demonstrated, resistance and revolution must start somewhere and will include insiders and outsiders. And the outsiders should include those of us who live in relative privilege, lucky enough not to endure the oppressive conditions and the constant indignities of everyday marginality. Aren’t we all part of and responsible for what is happening in Ferguson? As soon as “normalcy” returns to Ferguson, will we go back to our lives, waiting for the next insurrection, and then lighting up Twitter and newspaper blogs with our comments of outrage? If we believe, along with Walter Benjamin, that the oppressed exist in a permanent state of emergency, then we must cease to be outsiders and join those who are dispossessed in whatever way we can in their struggle for equality.
Kanishka Chowdhury is Professor of English and Director of American Culture and Difference at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of The New India: Citizenship, Subjectivity, and Economic Liberalization.