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Rebellion in Ferguson: A Rising Heat in the Suburbs

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Posted on Aug 17, 2014

By Chris Hedges

  Community organizer and People’s Organization for Progress Chairman Lawrence Hamm. Photo from People’s Organization for Progress website

NEWARK, N.J.—The public reaction to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., exposes the shifting dynamic of rebellion and repression in the United States. Spontaneous uprisings against the lethal force routinely employed by militarized police units will probably not erupt at first out of the old epicenters of unrest—Watts, Detroit, Harlem, Newark and others—but suburban black communities such as Ferguson, near St. Louis. In most of these communities, the power structures remain in the hands of white minorities although the populations have shifted from white to black. Only three of the 53 commissioned officers in Ferguson’s police department are black. These conditions, which approximate the racial divides that set off urban riots in the 1960s, have the potential to trigger a new wave of racial unrest in economically depressed black suburbs, and perhaps later in impoverished inner cities, especially amid a stagnant economy, high incarceration and unemployment rates for blacks and the rewriting of laws to make police forces omnipotent.

“We are headed into a period of increased social protest,” said Lawrence Hamm, one of the nation’s most important community organizers and the longtime chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. POP, which has roughly 10,000 members, is based in Newark and has 13 chapters, most of them in New Jersey. I met with Hamm in a downtown coffee shop in Newark.

For a video of Lawrence Hamm speaking in Washington, D.C., in 2010 at a rally against imperialism, click here.

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“The pendulum swung far to the right after 9/11. Now it is swinging back,” Hamm said. “Fear and paralysis gripped the country after 9/11 and the creation of our authoritarian police state. We are overcoming this fear. The rebellion in Ferguson was not planned. It was spontaneous. People said, ‘Enough.’ They struck out in the only way they knew how. All the other ways—and I have no doubt that the people in Ferguson and St. Louis, as we have, marched peacefully, sent letters and went to city council meetings to protest police violence—have proved ineffective. We will see other incidents like this one, but because of demographic changes these rebellions will occur in places that did not rebel previously.”

Hamm said that the declining populations of primarily black cities—Newark, where he has spent most of his life as an organizer, has seen its population drop from 400,000 to about 250,000 in the last few decades—coupled with the election of black officials and the integration of blacks into police forces mean that the old centers of rebellion are less polarized.

“These [changes] helped to ameliorate the overt racism and will probably prevent a recurrence of open rebellion in these urban areas,” he said. “In cities like Newark you no longer have a blatant apartheid structure. This dynamic dampens, to a degree, the movement for social justice. It dampens the outrage. It dampens the ability to mount opposition to ongoing institutional racism and oppression. But we have suburbs around Newark [much like the St. Louis suburb] Ferguson that were once white and are now black and that replicate the racial power imbalance. And this is where the tinder will be.”

Being the object of unwarranted deadly force by police officers is part of what it means to be black and poor in America. But, as Hamm said, no matter how much blacks raise their voices against indiscriminate police violence “the killings keep coming.”

“The police are the primary instrument of social control,” Hamm said. “But after the rebellions in American cities in the 1960s the [federal government under President] Nixon realized that the police were not enough. Nixon began to link the local police with the state police and the National Guard. During the rebellion in Detroit in 1967 the [federal] state had to deploy the 82nd Airborne. Nixon set up this seamless connection between local police units and the military. It was then that we began to see a change in training, the acquisition of military equipment and the arrival of SWAT teams in black uniforms. In April 1999 when we marched in Orange [N.J.]  to protest the torturing to death by the police of Earl Faison the police deployed SWAT teams on the roofs of the post office and department stores. These teams had their automatic rifles pointed at us. And we were nonviolent marchers. The real criminals [those who killed Faison] were within the ranks of the police.”

In the 1970s Hamm obtained a scholarship to attend Princeton and when he graduated began work on a doctorate at the university. But he abandoned his doctoral work to return to Newark, where he had grown up. In 1983 the organizer co-founded POP, one of the nation’s most impressive grass-roots radical movements. He can routinely pull thousands of people into the streets and is one of the most rousing orators in the country. He was always an agitator, organizing a student walkout in city schools when he was in high school, but he credits his political maturation to the playwright and poet Amiri Baraka, also from Newark. They met in 1971 and remained close friends until Baraka’s death last January. It was Baraka, he said, who inspired him to commit his life to political struggle on behalf of poor people. And he carried that commitment to Princeton University, where he mobilized students to carry out sustained protests against the numerous ties between the university and the apartheid regime in South Africa.


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