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Why Protesters in Ferguson Can’t Stay Home at Night

Ferguson Protesters

People protest Monday, August 18, 2014, for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

For the first time since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, his family has a scrap of solid information about his death: the number six. That’s how many times Brown was shot, at a minimum. According to Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner of New York City who conducted a private autopsy at the request of Brown’s family, one of the bullets, probably the last, entered the teenager’s skull at an angle that suggests he was leaning forward.

The stark detail of the preliminary autopsy, complete with a diagram of a man that Baden marked in black ink to show the bullet holes, stands in sharp contrast to the selective way that the Ferguson Police and the St Louis County Police have released information. “Troubling,” is the word that Attorney General Eric Holder chose on Monday to describe their conduct. So far, local officials have offered details that seem intended to smear Brown while hiding others that might clarify the circumstances of his death.

After refusing for days to name the officer who killed Brown, Ferguson police finally identified him on Friday as Darren Wilson. Wilson himself has skipped town, and police still have not released his or any other official report of the shooting. That silence enabled an anonymous account of the shooting from someone claiming to have heard it from Wilson’s wife to get traction in major media outlets, even though it closely resembles another account, originally attributed to Wilson, that had already been dismissed as fake.

What officials did deem appropriate to share—despite the Department of Justice’s objections—was a report of a man stealing cigarillos from a convenience store, and a video of the theft that police say implicates Brown. No one has offered a cogent explanation for why the report of the robbery warranted a public airing while those of Brown’s death do not. Two such reports exist, one written by the Ferguson Police Department, and another by the St. Louis County Police. Both are cited in the account of the convenience store robbery: “It is worth mentioning that this incident is related to another incident detailed under Ferguson Police Report #2014-12391 as well as St. Louis County Police Report #2014-43984. In that incident, Brown was fatally wounded involving an officer of this department.”

Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson was at best unclear, and at worst misleading, about how the robbery and Brown’s death are related. Several hours after announcing details about the convenience store theft in a way that insinuated it had prompted Wilson to engage Brown, Jackson clarified, “The initial contact between the officer and Mr. Brown was not related to the robbery.” Then Jackson refined the official story yet again, telling reporters that Wilson “made the connection” to the theft when he saw Brown carrying a box of cigars.

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St. Louis County is also sitting on basic findings from the official autopsy. Yet a very selective scrap of information was leaked to The Washington Post on Monday by two sources familiar with that county report: that Brown had marijuana in his system when he died, meaning only that he’d used it sometime in the last month. Predictably, right-wing commentators seized on this information to vilify Brown.

Officials have chosen particular details about the protests to highlight. At a press conference early Tuesday morning, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson set a couple of handguns and a Molotov cocktail on a table beside him, and said they’d been taken from “violent agitators” the night before. The optics served to justify the aggressive responses from police that have served only to embolden the minority of protesters engaging violently with police.

In the ten days since Brown was killed, law enforcement have tried to quell protests with rubber bullets and tear gas, with at least four different police forces, with a charismatic captain, with a curfew, by forcing protesters to walk, not stand, and finally with the National Guard. On Tuesday, Johnson said police would again try a “different operational plan,” which seemed to amount to “hoping that protesters will stay home” at night.

There’s been a lot of talk about trust, and its absence, in Ferguson and elsewhere. “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” President Obama said Monday. The mistrust in Ferguson is rooted in history, but it’s also being deepened in real time. History tells us that justice is unlikely to be served in this case; the conduct of the local officials charged with investigating Brown’s death only signals to the community that this time will not be different. In that context, not staying home at night seems like the only way to ensure that it will be.

 

Read Next: Alex Vitale asks how we can end militarized policing.

Tear Gas Is an Abortifacient. Why Won’t the Anti-Abortion Movement Oppose It?

Protesters react to the effects of tear gas that was fired at demonstrators reacting to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, August 17, 2014. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

A couple of years ago, when I was newly pregnant and reporting in the West Bank, some of my local colleagues insisted that I skip covering a protest at an Israeli checkpoint. At first, I was resistant to letting pregnancy stand in the way of my work, but they knew from experience that there might be tear gas, and tear gas, they said, causes miscarriages.

They were right: though rigorous studies are few, there is evidence that tear gas is an abortifacient. In 2011, Chile temporarily suspended its use after a University of Chile study linked it to miscarriage and fetal harm. Investigating the use of tear gas in Bahrain in 2012, Physicians for Human Rights found that local doctors were reporting increased numbers of miscarriages in exposed areas. And UN officials have connected tear gas to miscarriages in the Palestinian territories.

This means it’s likely that police in Ferguson, Missouri, have been spraying abortion-causing chemicals on crowds of civilians. Recently at TheNation.com, Dani McClain wrote about the killing of black youth as a reproductive justice issue, one that goes to the heart of the rights of parents to raise their children in peace, safety and dignity. She’s correct, of course, but if the anti-abortion movement were actually concerned about the well-being of the unborn, then the violence in Ferguson would be a pro-life issue as well.

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Leaders in the contemporary religious right have long argued that they’ve transcended their movement’s racist past. “The white evangelical church carries a shameful legacy of racism and the historical baggage of indifference to the most central struggle for social justice in this century, a legacy that is only now being wiped clean by the sanctifying work of repentance and racial reconciliation,” Ralph Reed wrote in his 1996 book Active Faith. They have tried to align themselves with the African-American community by calling abortion “black genocide.” Now, in Ferguson, they could take a stand that is genuinely pro–civil rights and anti-abortion, by demanding an end to the use of tear gas on a traumatized community. At a time when some erstwhile small-government conservatives are openly supporting the mad excesses of the police state, they might even have an impact. So where are they?

Read Next: Dani McClain on how the murder of black youth is a reproductive justice issue

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Demand that Cops Stop Acting Like Soldiers. Plus: How to Help in Ferguson

Police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, MO

Police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

When residents of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets to protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, they were met with assault weapons, armored vehicles, tear gas and police decked out in full riot-gear. A community already suffering the loss of one of its own found their town occupied by what appeared to be a paramilitary force.

If the police looked ready to fight a war, it’s because that’s what their equipment was designed for. Much of it came courtesy of the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which sends “surplus military equipment” to police departments. Since 1033 was introduced in the late 1990s, the federal government has sent $4.3 billion worth of military hardware to local and state police forces. The program has a particularly brutal effect on communities of color, as it is used primarily to execute the disastrous and racist “war on drugs.” While the images in Ferguson have just recently become familiar to many, police have long used SWAT teams outfitted in military gear to serve warrants for arrests for minor drug crimes, terrorizing whole communities and sometimes injuring or even killing people in the process.

TO DO

This fall when Congress is back in session, Representative Hank Johnson will introduce the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which would end the federal government’s policy of sending military equipment to local communities. Write to your representatives and demand that they fight to end the militarization of the police. Then, to help people in Ferguson right now, donate to one of a number of worthy causes: you can help the Brown family collect the funds needed to pursue justice for their son, contribute to the bail or legal fees of protesters who have been arrested or pay for food for children of Ferguson who may go hungry while school remains canceled. There’s also a campaign to fund independent journalistic coverage of what is happening on the ground in Ferguson and CREDO is raising funds to keep up the progressive livestream it has launched with WeActRadio. You can also call the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office and demand that he take action against Officer Darren Wilson. (The good folks at Bolder Giving compiled much of this information on an excellent resource page.)

TO READ

At The Nation, Alex S. Vitale argues that at the root of militarized policing is “a cynical politics of race that has perverted criminal justice policies” that focuses on “the management of poor and non-white populations through ever-more-punitive practices.”

TO WATCH

While it is crucial that we demilitarize the police, law enforcement doesn’t need tanks and body armor to terrorize communities of color. On her show on MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry reminds us how familiar Michael Brown’s story is, as she gives voice to nine black men recently gunned down by police officers and points out that between 2006 and 2013, white police officers killed a black person at least two times a week.

St. Louis Police Arrest Nine Protesters Demanding Justice for Michael Brown

Hedy Epstein

St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers escort Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, after arresting her for failure to disperse. (Photo by Steven Hsieh)

St. LouisIn the second week of protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer, St. Louis Metropolitan police on Monday arrested nine protesters for blocking the entrance of a state office building.

Among those arrested was Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in St. Louis.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90,” Epstein told The Nation, as two officers walked her to a police van. “We need to stand up today so that people won’t have to do this when they’re 90.”

Roughly 125 protesters marched to the entrance of the historic Wainwright Building, which houses Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s downtown office. They demanded Nixon withdraw National Guard troops from Ferguson municipality, where peaceful protests throughout the week were disrupted by late night riots. The protesters also called for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation of Brown’s death, as well as an expansion of the Department of Justice’s existing investigation to look into patterns of civil rights violations across North St. Louis County.

The crowd kicked off the two-block march singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round.” Participants took turns addressing the crowd, using a megaphone. The demonstrators chanted “Hey hey! Ho ho! National Guard has got to go!” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”


Ebony Williams, 22, addresses a crowd of protesters outside the Wainwright Building in downtown St. Louis. (Photo by Steven Hsieh)

Nine demonstrators linked arms in front of security guards at the building’s entrance, as police officers watched from inside. At around 4:20 pm, a police officer informed the nine that they each faced arrest for blocking the doorway. Shortly after, police escorted each demonstrator away in plastic handcuffs.

St. Louis police charged the nine arrestees with failure to disperse. All but one of were released, according to Jeff Ordower, an organizer with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.

The rally was organized by the Organization for Black Struggle. A Facebook page for the action reads, “Effective policing does not need to include masses of military equipment, intimidation, and denial of constitutional rights.”

Police also arrested Ebony Williams, a 22-year-old from St. Louis. Williams, who is pregnant, earlier told the crowd that she worries about raising her son around police officers that could target him because of his race.

“I’m out here standing up for what’s right. What they did to Michael Brown is not right,” Williams said. “We have to have justice. We want justice now.”

CORRECTION (8/19/2014 3:06 am): An earlier version of this post stated that eight protesters were arrested in downtown St. Louis on Monday. In fact, nine were arrested.

Take Action: Demand that Cops Stop Acting Like Soldiers

Where Is the Voice of Migrant Children in the Immigration Crisis?

Immigration Child

 (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

This article originally appeared in Generation Progress and is printed here with permission.

While the voices of those in office have risen to the forefront of the border crisis, the child migrants and their families are the ones actually being affected by the shifts in policy, and ultimately, any decision made impacts their future first and foremost.

These children chose to leave their home countries in Central America because they were fleeing poverty, violence and, in some situations, death.

“I am afraid to go back to Guatemala because I am afraid that there is no one to protect me,” 15-year-old Dulce Medina said during an ad hoc press conference organized by the House Progressive Caucus on the influx of unaccompanied migrants from Central America.

Along with debate surrounding their future in the United States, their temporary status has been challenged, as many have been threatened with immediate deportation. Throughout the crisis, there have been reports of states not using shelters, US officials closing shelters previously used to house migrant children, along with unfounded accusations that the children may have Ebola.

On Tuesday, officials in Massachusetts said they will not need to open up shelters for unaccompanied children. According to officials, “fewer children have been caught while crossing the border illegally over the last month and the government has expanded capacity at existing shelters in other states.”

But there are many stories of children in Central America who have become victims of the extreme gang violence. Reports of missing children whose remains are later found buried in an abandoned field are common.

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During the ad hoc press conference, 12-year-old Mayeli Hernandez recalled witnessing two separate homicides in Honduras prior to fleeing. She said “it was very ugly to see the blood running on the ground.”

The immediate response from many lawmakers has been to send these kids back as efficiently and quickly as possible, but the question of their fate after returning to the very country they were fleeing from is rarely part of the conversation.

When the fact is that the violence children are fleeing is not just murder but brutal murder, where children are “stabbed to death, cut into pieces or tortured,” the question of what children are returning home to needs to be a part of the conversation.

With Congress having just entered a five-week recess, the pressure to have these voices heard lies on the shoulders of President Obama. And while shelters are closing or are no longer planning to accommodate migrant children, violence continues on in the countries of origin, without any guarantee as to when the increasing number of migrants coming across the border will come to a comfortable stop.

 

Read Next: StudentNation on reflections from the brick wall

Police to Media: ‘You’re Getting Maced Next Time You Pass Us’

This footage, which All In producers filmed, shows the police loudly threatening Chris Hayes and his media team as they attempt to film the chaos in Ferguson. As Chris Hayes approached the scene with cameras, police threatened to mace them—one officer shouted, “Hey! Media! Get behind us! Do not pass us! You’re getting maced next time you pass us.”

Hannah Harris Green

The Major Problem With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Powerful Essay on Ferguson

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at a panel discussion about race and sports. 2014. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

There is so much good in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Time magazine essay about the protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that it almost feels churlish to raise any kind of criticism. After all, here is a basketball legend, the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, the master of the skyhook, marshaling his platform to speak about poverty and class in the United States. Kareem even references the new book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, by radical journalist Laurie Penny.

Everyone should read his piece. People in the United States with positions of authority rarely, if ever, talk about class. And yet here is Kareem putting not just Ferguson but the whole of the United States directly under that economic microscope saying, “We have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.”

Kareem says—and this is unarguable in my view—that if the 50 million people who live below the poverty line joined together, they would become “a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals.”

He talks about the rise in poverty and the ways the modern media and “the 1 percent” keep the poor at each other’s throats. He even references how the mammoth success of dystopian teen fiction like Divergent and The Hunger Games symbolizes the ways that so many young people feel hopeless and helpless about their economic futures.

Thank you, Kareem, for writing about class. Thank you for writing about the ways the wealthy divide to conquer. Thank you for quoting John Steinbeck and Marvin Gaye. The entire essay reminded me of the famous quote that if the poor could be organized to spit at the halls of power simultaneously, corruption would be washed away in a righteous flood.

And yet… there is also a serious and extremely fundamental problem with Kareem’s piece. This is first seen when he writes that making Ferguson about the “fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor.”

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Michael Brown was shot dead by the police because he is black. If he was white, no matter how poor, he almost certainly wouldn’t have died. If that is not your starting point, then you are lost without a compass. Yes, Ferguson is in so many ways a “class issue”. But Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown is about racism. If we don’t acknowledge the centrality of racism both in this case and in how racism is used to divide people, then the unity of the 50 million poor people that Kareem wants to see will forever be a pipe dream.

The problems with Kareem’s argument come into sharper focus when he brings up the issues that “keep the poor fractured by distracting them.” He brings up “immigration, abortion and gun control” as reasons why poor people “never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.” Yet immigration and abortion are not “distractions.” They are about race, gender and, yes, class oppression. Immigrant workers are more likely to live below the poverty line than those who are native-born. If immigrant workers can be locked in a purgatory of unorganized, undocumented status and branded as “illegals,” then that serves to drive down the wages and political capital for all workers. Since so much of anti-immigrant rhetoric is built around anti-Latino invective, any kind of class unity will forever be illusory if fighting this kind of racism is not at the heart of how we organize.

The same principle holds true for abortion. The closing down of clinics, the attacks on Planned Parenthood, the fact that 87 percent of counties now have no abortion facilities, amount to an attack on the healthcare available to poor women, particularly black and brown women. If you don’t stand up for the reproductive rights of poor women, why would they want to join your 50 million–strong movement?

The point of all of this is to say that fighting racism, sexism and anti-LGBT bigotry is not a distraction from building a united struggle but a precondition for building a united struggle. Oppression acts as a cancer on the solidarity necessary to fight for a better world. If Kareem wants to see class unity, then the people risking their lives in Ferguson should not be seen as people “fist-shaking for a racial agenda” but instead as the brave souls on the front lines in the fight for a better world: a world where people aren’t shot dead by cops because of the color of their skin. Kareem wants to see solidarity. It starts with solidarity with the people in the streets of Ferguson. It starts by arguing explicitly with white workers that their sympathies should lie with the people of Ferguson and not the politicians or the police. With one voice, we need to say that the real looters are on Wall Street, and without justice there can never be peace.

 

Take Action: Demand that Cops Stop Acting Like Soldiers

Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews MVP,  a pro wrestler who traveled to Ferguson.

How Starbucks’s ‘Flexible’ Scheduling Is Stretching Workers to the Breaking Point

Starbucks employee

(Reuters/Stefan Wermuth)

Starbucks is a brand of contradictions: it’s the crême de la crême of fast food, blending high-brow coffee culture with middle-brow commercialism. And its workers represent a stylishly liminal “barista class” hovering between upward mobility and millennial stagnation. But as Starbucks industrializes global cafe culture, the company’s “partners”—their preferred term for “workers”—face a growing labor crisis, percolating just beneath the surface of the coffee brand.

The New York Times explored the lives of the Starbucks precariat last week with a feature on Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old single mom doing the barista hustle in San Diego. As she juggles erratic hours, her family life has become consumed by financial stress. Her workdays are tightly scheduled through an ultra-efficient computerized program. But the logistical automation leaves workers subject to scheduling volatility that interferes with household budgeting, from Navarro’s childcare expenses to her lapsed college plans.

Starbucks spins this kind of instability as an asset: they call it “flexibility.” The emancipatory ring of that term suggests what CEO Howard Schultz calls the company’s “employees first” philosophy—keeping workers happy to boost performance. Just as you can personally flavor your own latte, the company’s system of not giving set schedules is all about a freewheeling, enterprising lifestyle. Baristas can embrace this slippery work/life balance with “your special blend” of “rewards,” such as health benefits and partial tuition assistance (relatively rare in low-wage service work). So goodbye forty-hour work week, hello flexible work life, with barista shifts filling the hours between philosophy seminars and band practice.

But a new report by the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) argues that the coffee giant fails to fairly source its labor. Drawing on the company’s data, the union, an affiliate of Industrial Workers of the World, argues that “partners” are tethered to miserable wages and schedules akin to those suffered by other fast-food workers, and workloads are intensifying despite unsustainable pay scales. Compared to the dramatic growth in corporate revenues, SWU says, the supposedly progressive company is denigrating the employees it claims to put “first.”

While baristas typically scrape by on less than $10 an hour, the company has transferred a cumulative total of about $3.7 billion to shareholders from 2010 to 2013, through dividends and repurchased shares, according to the report. The union points out that the company’s “improved performance is due to the hard work of the nearly 200,000 Starbucks workers,” mostly “low-wage store baristas who serve the customers every day.”

In response to criticisms of its treatment of workers, Starbucks spokesperson Zack Hutson tells The Nation that the company “strives to be flexible to accommodate their commitments outside of work,” and that the company is “very proud of our progressive workplace,” including its compensation and benefits package. He also says that the SWU does not speak on behalf of the entire workforce, and, “While we respect the free choice of our partners to affiliate with unions, we believe that the direct employment relationship we currently have with our partners is the best way to help ensure a great work environment.”

Meanwhile, following the Times story, in another gesture of “corporate social responsibility,” Starbucks declared it would reform and upgrade its scheduling practices, better enforce its existing policy of posting workers’ schedules with a week’s advance notice, and make concerted efforts to ensure that workers live within an hour’s commute of their stores. But labor advocates dismissed these measures as too limited; after all, one-week’s notice won’t help workers accommodate a monthly daycare program for their kids, or plan for next semester’s classes.

The labor dilemma facing Starbucks and other service brands reveals a grinding friction underlying their corporate and consumer culture: a slick cultural aesthetic is fueled by a brittle illusion of middle-class stability, which is, amid global economic tumult, unraveling for the workers, and for the young professionals they serve. Behind the image of the perky barista, Navarro’s daily life isn’t nearly as “put together” as the brand suggests: her schedule forces her to shift childcare duties onto her increasingly frustrated family members. Constantly fearing any slip in her schedule, she struggles with the grueling “clopening”—the double-duty of closing and opening the store in back-to-back shifts.

In response to the announced scheduling reforms, SWU organizer and former barista Sarah Madden tells The Nation via e-mail that the company should “take Ms. Navarro’s story to heart and try to set an industry standard for scheduling in the food and retail industry.” A more equitable system, she suggests, would be “to post workers’ schedules a month in advance and meet hour and scheduling requests based on seniority.” Such an arrangement would help baristas “attend school, make doctors appointments, schedule childcare and plan our futures.”

For many marginal workers in irregular service jobs, flexibility tends to work in the management’s favor, not theirs: a variable schedule is not a perk when you’re grasping for enough hours to make rent.

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According to Joe S., a barista and SWU activist, flexibility is done to workers rather than provided for them: “‘Flexibility’ is a euphemism for forcing chaotic, inconsistent schedules onto low-wage workers, and I have seen firsthand how this ‘flexibility’ has negatively impacted educational and family commitments outside of the workplace.”

Activists also view with skepticism the company’s latest initiative for helping baristas advance themselves: a much-hyped tuition-discount plan offered through Arizona State University’s online degree program. Joe S. tells The Nation via e-mail that the tuition benefit, which phases in during the last two years of college, just isn’t realistic for many struggling rank-and-file workers: “To many of us, it felt like a PR campaign designed to bolster the company’s public image, not help its employees, while issues like the pay that baristas receive, which often falls below the Federal Poverty Line, are swept under the rug.”

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Of course, poor workers do need “flexibility,” because rough hours and day-to-day hardships mean there’s little financial “give” in their family lives. But this flexibility requires worker empowerment, protective labor legislation, and control over job conditions. So SWU seeks to organize workers to demand more secure wages and schedules. That in turn would allow employees to see their barista gig as potentially a long-term, decent livelihood worth investing in. Though Starbucks is not a union shop in the United States (despite notable labor campaigns in overseas branches), simple reforms like fairer scheduling rules, Madden says, “will change the work environment instantly, removing unnecessary stresses on workers,” which can help stabilize the workforce and decrease turnover.

The contrast between Starbucks’s astronomical profits and the precarity of the barista’s daily grind highlights tensions in a young workforce that, despite the “partner” label, is chronically strapped. And many now realize instability isn’t part of a go-getter lifestyle.

For workers without security, in workplaces that lack a supportive structure to negotiate labor conditions, flexibility can be dangerous—more about compromising than finding “your perfect blend.” There’s precious little room for flexibility when you’re already stretched to a breaking point.