Mass Incarceration: Behind the Ferguson Uprising*
Glen Ford is a distinguished radio-show host and commentator. In 1977, Ford co-launched, produced and hosted America’s Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television. In 1987, Ford launched Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated Hip Hop music show, broadcast on 65 radio stations. Ford co-founded the Black Commentator in 2002 and in 2006 he launched the Black Agenda Report. Ford is also the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Protests are continuing in St. Louis after the fatal police shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown.
LESLEY MCSPADDEN, MOTHER OF MICHAEL BROWN: You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many! Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway, they’re going to try to take me out anyway.
NOOR: On Saturday, August 9, St. Louis, Missouri, police shot dead Michael Brown, and unarmed African-American teenager. Authorities say officers were defending themselves, but eyewitnesses offered a different account.
FRIEND OF MICHAEL BROWN: He shot again. And once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and he put his hands in the air, and he started to get down, but the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and he fired several more shots.
NOOR: After hundreds attended a peaceful vigil on Sunday, headlines were dominated by the burning and looting of several area businesses. The Brown family released a statement condemning those actions:
“I just want everyone to know and understand that the stealing and breaking in stores is not what Mike will want, it is very upsetting to me and my family.
“Our family didn’t ask for this but for Justice and Peace…. Please let my family grieve in Peace and stop the violence in the street tonight”
The Associated Press is reporting the FBI is now investigating Brown’s death. As The Real News has previously reported, such actions are not isolated incidents. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released a report titled Operation Ghetto Storm, which found one African-American is killed every 28 hours.
KALI AKUNO, ORGANIZER, MALCOLM X GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT: … roughly about 40% if you add it all up, were folks whose basically family members or they themselves were in some form of distress and called the police seeking aid for someone who was disturbed, off their medication, dealing with some health issues or health-related crisis.
And how the police were trained to respond to the situation is what really, I think, kind of transformed it from a moment of I’m here, I’ve called you in for you to help me, to we are now here to first and foremost establish order, which means maximum force, the utilization of maximum force, and ask questions later. That is the vast majority of how all the people who are in this report, that’s how the vast majority of them became these extrajudicial killing kind of statistics, if you will. But it really speaks to the very aggressive and militaristic nature of how the police are trained to operate within black and other oppressed communities.
NOOR: The officer responsible for the teenager’s death has reportedly been suspended. But a group calling itself the Ad Hoc Committee for Justice on Behalf of Michael Brown released the following demands:
- “The officer involved in the shooting death of Michael Brown be IMMEDIATELY identified.
- “The same officer should be immediately fired and charged with murder.
- “The Ferguson Police Department ‘Protocol Handbook’ be distributed throughout the Ferguson community.
- “The racial composition of the Ferguson Police Department should reflect the racial demographics of the community.”
Now joining us to discuss this from Plainfield, New Jersey, is Glen Ford. He’s the cofounder and executive editor of The Black Agenda Report and author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.
Thank you so much for joining us, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thanks for the opportunity.
NOOR: So, Glen, it seems like the media is grappling with these protests, which in a few instances turned violent in St. Louis. And they can’t understand why they resulted from the killing of Michael Brown. Can you shed some light on that?
FORD: Well, the U.S. corporate media seems to have a need to reinvent history every day. Actually, police violence against blacks is the constant factor in black life. And every black rebellion since 1935 has been sparked–virtually every rebellion has been sparked by some kind of police atrocity. And that has included 1917 in St. Louis, where a mob of white people rushed across the bridge to East St. Louis, Illinois, which was a big black community, attacked that community, and killed as many as 200 people. During that era when people referred to race riot, they didn’t mean black people rioting; they meant white people rioting against blacks. And the Harlem riot of 1935 was the first time that black folks, in reaction to police brutality, did the rebellion on their own.
NOOR: And this is also the 49th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion.
FORD: Yes, and that was a big one, that is, in terms of the national consciousness in the ’60s, although, as I said, black rebellions had been occurring since 1935. But that was the one that introduced to the United States the prospect of long, hot summers. And they became–as the weather would heat up during the ’60s, the national mood would turn ominous: what are the black people going to do? And it seems like your reporters, who are so curious as to what’s happening in St. Louis today, are experiencing that same kind of ominous feeling.
NOOR: It also seems like the conversation around the killing of Michael Brown is happening in a vacuum, especially in the context of mass incarceration in the United States.
FORD: Yes. This is been a mass incarceration regime since the early ’70s, since the end of the black freedom movement. The ’60s also saw a tremendous beefing up of police forces by both the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations. This is when the SWAT team was invented. This is when the police began to be militarized. And this is when every year the numbers of blacks in the nation’s prisons continued to rise, until now there are probably more than nine times as many black folks in prison as back in 1970. And to put that many people in prison, you have to do a whole lot of provocation on the street. And that’s what was happening with Michael Brown when he met his death, when he was doing nothing except living while black, which appears, if not to be illegal, a kind of state that requires the intervention of police.
NOOR: And the deep antagonism you see between police officers and the African-American community, how can we solve that? Is training enough? Or is the problem more systemic?
FORD: Well, they’ve been training these police forces for 50 years. Apparently training does not work. What needs to happen is an abolition of the regime that criminalizes black people, that is, the mass incarceration regime. If the police were not led to believe all across the nation–not just in the big and heavily black cities, but all across the nation–that their job is to contain a potentially dangerous and subversive population of black men, then they would behave differently. But that in fact is what they believe is their mission. And so until the mission changes, we will continue to have these kinds of confrontations and fatalities–and rebellions.
NOOR: And even one of the demands I read earlier from the Ad Hoc Committee for Justice on Behalf of Michael Brown, they’re demanding for a more racially inclusive police force. Is this an answer?
FORD: We hoped so, many decades ago, but we have found that that is not the case. If the mission, as I said, is to contain and incarcerate masses of black men, then even if lots of black and brown people are recruited into the police force, if they are given the same mission as their white counterparts and white predecessors, they will carry it out. And the racist regime continues even if the officers enforcing it are not white.
NOOR: And finally, Glen, so I’ve been reading some of the comments online and on Twitter and on blogs and websites from the white community, and even those that say they sympathize with the family of Michael Brown, they seem to say or imply, I would suggest, that things are dangerous for police officers. They have to defend themselves. They have to be given the benefit of the doubt when they’re in these dangerous situations. What’s your response?
FORD: Well, actually, being a police officer in the United States is not one of the most dangerous occupations, although you hear constant propaganda saying that it is. The numbers don’t lie. It would be far less dangerous if they were far less provocative, if/when they stopped being so provocative, then the situations in which death can result–death to them can result–will be fewer.
NOOR: Glen Ford, thank you so much for joining us.
FORD: Thank you for the opportunity.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.