Beyond Darren Wilson: Challenges to the System Starting in Ferguson and St. Louis

Since the documents from the grand jury in the State of Missouri v. Darren Wilson case were recently made public, debate over Officer Wilson’s response to the incident has raged, as it did during witness testimonies. After the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson was announced Monday, November 24, the public’s responses have likewise been deliberated.

After the grand jury announced that Wilson would not be indicted, challenges to prevailing systems of justice have been launched from activists across the country.

Prosecutor Bob McCulloch had convened the grand jury to decide whether to indict Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, on August 9.

Wilson testified that as he was driving that night in August, he approached Brown and another man, Dorian Johnson, walking in the middle of the street. Wilson said he saw Brown with Cigarillos, which were reported stolen. Brown and Johnson refused to go to the sidewalk when asked, Wilson said.

Noting Brown’s “intense face,” Wilson testified he at one point told Brown to “get the fuck back” and then used his car door to push him.

Describing Brown as showing “the most intense aggressive face” he had ever seen, and as looking ‘like a demon, that’s how anger he looked,” Wilson, who added he “felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan” when he grabbed the young black man, said Brown came toward him “with his hands up.”

After another altercation when, according to the testimony, Wilson fired his gun, he said Brown ran toward a light pole near the intersection of Copper Creak Court and Canfield.

Brown “posed a threat, not only to me, to anybody else that confronted him,” Wilson said. He pursued and shot.

“When he fell, he fell on his face,” Wilson testified.

One witness on her way home from the library said what happened “looked like murder.”

People’s Responses

Back in August, residents burned down a QuikTrip gas station, which was defended in some circles as a rational, properly politicized response.

Responding in turn, authorities equipped police with military-grade weaponry, which came as part of a broader movement of police militarization.

“Some people started to question who exactly was the threat when many from the neighborhood showed up in the streets with their hands up and the police showed up in armored personnel vehicles and military grade rifles, deploying tear-gas, flash bombs, and firing rubber pellets,” Stefan Bradley, director of the African American Studies Program at Saint Louis University, said about what ensued soon after Brown was killed.

The Ferguson October “Weekend of Resistance” ignited a new round of street marches last month, and it culminated with a massive march into and occupation of Saint Louis University.

Throughout that weekend, chants of “Black Lives Matter,” coupled with protests, communicated that while people were incensed about Brown being killed without the prospects for justice, it also extended far beyond just an indictment of Wilson. The chant “Indict, convict, send that killer cop to jail, the whole damn system is guilty as hell,” contained within it an immediate call for justice, but also a denunciation of the entire edifice maintaining oppression.

Wilson’s actions, as those on the streets suggested, were a symptom of a systemic problem of police violence, or even of the police as an inherently dehumanizing institution, an arm of the state serving to protect property, profits, power and privilege.

Recognizing the animus against the system and against those protecting it, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon activated the National Guard and declared a state of emergency the week before in anticipation of the grand jury decision. Once the decision was made public, actions erupted in cities across the country.

Militants broke shop windows and hurled rocks at police cruisers across South Florissant Road in Ferguson, Mo., as police shot tear gas across Grand Avenue in St. Louis the night of the announcement.

In Ferguson they threw a few objects – mainly water bottles – at officers in riot gear with shields and also set fire to at least a dozen buildings.

Gun shots could be heard and tensions rose later that night among those who assumed a more militant posture. When actions became extra-legal, racial tensions mounted for a time between black and white persons unfamiliar with each other but participating in extra-legal acts against the state that did violence to their community and then denied them justice.

The loyalties forged in those situations – destruction of infrastructure – were ephemeral, but for those involved, the implicit consensus was they were also transformative. Media outlets dismissed the resistance as out-of-control rioting, but the acts against private property bridged racial divides, bringing those engaged in insurrectionary activity together, if only ephemerally. One participant in the unrest said those bonds of solidarity forged with those you might never meet again can actually carry over and be transferred into politicized relations with other people, as part of a learning process in a “pedagogy of disobedience.”

Authorities provided ample opportunities for that sort of education throughout the area.

Just south of Ferguson, in St. Louis proper, police shot off tear gas that night near Grand Boulevard and Arsenal Street, near Mokabe’s Coffeehouse, a popular meeting place for leftists, socialists, anarchists and others interested in social justice or multiple vegan menu options.

Empty canisters of 5320 CS Riot Smoke littered the St. Louis streets in the neighborhood. Graffiti on one nearby garage door read “Fuck Wilson.”

Authorities also shot tear gas off right outside St. John’s sanctuary, which was supposed to be a safe space where fun-size chocolates, Triscuits, peanut butter sandwiches, beverages and extra clothes were on hand for activists.

Tuesday: Action Continues

The day after the grand jury decision was announced, the group Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, an organization “at a unique intersection of social, economic, climate, and environmental injustice” and committed to fighting the corporate power structure, according to their website, led a march that ended at the Thomas Eagleton Courthouse in St. Louis.

People chanted, “From Dred Scott to Mike Brown,” and pushed down the first set of metal barricades on the courthouse steps.

From there, marchers moved toward I-70, and occupied the interstate for a time near Exit 292 A for MLK Bridge.

“We’re blocking the street,” said Rasheen Aldridge, an organizer with a megaphone at the interstate occupation who had led several of the marches and chants during the “Weekend of Resistance” back in October. “We’re tired of our voice not being heard.”  

Both sides of the interstate were blocked until police showed up in riot gear. When they arrived, police sprayed protestors who were too close to the divider in the face with pepper spray, and then pushed a person’s face against the concrete before arresting him and several others.

Everyone else was forced back in the direction of the city.

“This is our city, and we’re taking over,” Derrick Robinson, a St. Louis area native said. “We’re tired and we’re not going to be quiet. We’ve been quiet too long.”

Later that night, in Ferguson, more than 40 people were eventually arrested during the second night of protests.

A line of National Guardsmen and another line of riot cops stood between about 100 or more protestors and the police department on South Florissant. Armored vehicles surrounded the vicinity.

At one point, police shot smoke bombs out into the crowd, used mace and pushed protestors onto the sidewalk.

After 10 p.m., a contingent rushed down Florissant and moved around the corner to City Hall.

An anarchist from Chicago who goes by the name “Loon,” said the mood was “tense,” partly because people wanted to move but didn’t at first, fearing police repression.

“It all happened really quickly, but immediately after we got there, tons of people started throwing landscaping bricks from around a garden into City Hall’s windows and at the cop car,” she said. “Some people had crowbars and hammers and were breaking the cop car windows. Eventually a group of people got together and they flipped the car, but then it bounced back and hit the ground. Two people threw Molotov cocktails into the car.”

Helicopters overhead had their lights on those down below the entire time. Authorities threw tear gas in the area, causing everyone to disperse at about the same time as some 100 police and National Guard vehicles deployed in that direction.

“At that point we started to get out of there because they were snatching bodies and arresting people, and hitting people with their batons and just using lots of force,” Loon said. “The cops became very aggressive to the point where it was actually kind of scary so everyone started to really run.”

Back near the police station, around midnight, authorities instructed over a megaphone to everyone in the vicinity that it was time to go.

“Please disperse,” an officer said in monotone over the loudspeaker. “This is now an unlawful assembly due to objects being thrown. Please disperse now or you’ll be subject to arrest.”

The officer also told protestors to “please go home,” to “stop destroying property” and to “leave Ferguson, Missouri.” The latter struck those present at the scene as odd because many of the vigilant protestors – unlike members of the National Guard – were from the neighborhood. A red sign with lights reading “Seasons Greetings” hung just above the street near the police station, creating an ironic image when officers in riot gear stood just below it forcing people out in what one militant described as a “pathetic” false assertion of normalcy.

Past the “Seasons Greetings” sign, in the other direction on South Florissant, action picked up after the order to disperse.

“People realized that a militant sort of tactic was needed,” said Loon, who had made her way over to where the windows to a Meineke Car Care Center not far from the police station was smashed. After windows to the empty building were broken, someone threw a firework inside.

An argument in defense of the rioting, based on principles of economic efficiency drawing on a theory developed by Nobel Laureate economist Gary Becker, inverted the logic that justifies the existence of the police to instead justify the anti-police activity.

If punishment increases the costs of bad behavior, the argument goes, it thereby tends to decrease the amount of that behavior deemed bad. Considering riots as a sort of reprimand for police abuses and censure of the injustice of the justice system, then insubordination which increases the cost of those police-state injustices – because of the loss of control the state and police seek to maintain – should thereby modify the behavior of those institutions, compelling them to become more just.

Intriguing as the argument is, the assumption echoes the economic rationality that people are self-interested actors out to maximize their gain and conducting cost-benefit analyses. The risk protestors in Ferguson have taken since August, despite tear gas and threats of force, in order to decry injustice – not for their own benefit – points to an obvious flaw in the model. Likewise, movements to construct alternatives to the existing system – with values that could challenge the logic of even putting Wilson behind bars – level criticism against the practice of punishment espoused in the model too.

Historical evidence, however, also legitimates extra-legal action for social change, just as it illustrates how double standards have been applied across racial lines.

Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward echoed the argument back in their 1977 book, Poor People’s Movements: Why they succeed, how they fail, wherein the authors examined the effects and reverberations of “mass defiance” on institutions. After analyzing case studies, like the un-sanctioned labor strikes in the 1930s, Piven and Cloward concluded that “disruptive forms of political behavior” are often the only means those most marginalized have to achieve systemic change. They noted the reverberations can “go beyond the institutions in which the disruption is acted out.”

In the past, rioting in the St. Louis area was actually supported by the police, when white people initiated it, as during the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917.

“White rioters streamed through the streets, beating and shooting black people, smashing and setting fire to black businesses and homes,” historian Malcolm McLaughlin documented in an academic journal article about the events in May and July in 1917. “Appallingly, the riot mobs were actively urged on by racist police officers, and when the National Guard arrived in the city, many troops deserted their posts and joined in the killing. The rioters were thus almost wholly unrestrained and carried out merciless attacks downtown and in adjoining residential streets.”

The Report of the Special Committee Authorized by Congress to Investigate the East St. Louis Riots released in July 1918, was replete with racist analysis of what transpired the year prior.

The report noted how after a railroad worker conflict pushed several thousand black men and women into the East St. Louis area, “White women were afraid to walk the streets at night; negroes sat in their laps on street cars; black women crowded them from their seats; they were openly insulted by drunken negroes,” and how “dance halls in the negro sections were filled with prostitutes, half clad, in some instances naked, performing lewd dances.”

Struggle Continues

Almost a century later, invoking civil rights movement tactics, some 100 marchers took off from the street where Michael Brown was killed, heading for Jefferson City, the capitol of Missouri located about 120 miles away from Ferguson, as part of a “Journey for Justice” to be carried out in 17-mile increments. The same day, demonstrators conducted a die-in at a shopping plaza in Brentwood, one of the well-to-do suburbs of St. Louis largely untouched by gentrification and poverty, unlike Ferguson.

While Wilson has resigned from the Ferguson Police Department, resistance continues in multiple forms.

In response to unending institutionalized racism, the anarchist who goes by “Loon” said that when people – especially black people – are valued less than property, then persistent militancy, including property damage when appropriate, is probably necessary to get the attention of those otherwise dismissive, complicit or complacent within the system.

In addition to changing public consciousness, she said the actions transform those participating in them too, imbuing them with a sense of insurgent urgency.

“This is how you dismantle a system,” she said.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

All photos by James Anderson.