Cover of Darkness, Rays of Light
by Randall Amster
The announcement arrived at the telegraphed moment, conveniently scheduled for prime time in most zones. A decision said to shed light on a matter of national importance is revealed only after dark, with the lede buried under a pile of prosecutorial dereliction. When the decisive words are finally uttered, they echo with unintended irony as a broken system delivers its own self-indictment: “No True Bill.”
We’ve been here before, far too many times. Anguish fills the air, slowly replaced by tear gas and smoke. Rage smolders from the friction of perpetual despair, finally igniting fires that engulf a handful of structures. People are urged to lodge their complaints but keep their place, to express their views but only from the sidelines, to follow the rule of law but relegate their quest for justice. The convenient spectacle of “violence in the streets” obscures the perpetuation of “structural violence” everywhere.
Is it at all surprising that an incendiary decision revealed under cover of darkness leads to flames of unrest? Can anyone envision a scenario where “no probable cause exists” sufficient to support an indictment if Michael Brown had shot and killed Darren Wilson? Is the normalization of a police apparatus increasingly indistinguishable from a military force merely seen as a cost of doing business?
These are some of the lingering questions to be grappled with in the days ahead. The details of the tragic encounter between Brown and Wilson will only tell us part of the story, and even if Wilson had been indicted it might have been at best a necessary but not sufficient step toward justice in America. The problems before us are thoroughly systemic, structurally embedded, and historically palpable.
The stain of slavery and genocide remains the nation’s unreconciled legacy, transmuted over the centuries into accepted social policy, playing out every day in panoptic fashion from schools and hospitals to prisons and malls. An ostensible “land of the free” with its wealth built through servitude, a body politic plagued by untreated -isms coursing through its veins with devastating ongoing effects.
There will be time in the days ahead to disentangle the true magnitude of the task. Yet the ray of light during a dark night in the country’s history is that the issues have been joined publicly and unwaveringly. Impoverishment, disempowerment, disenfranchisement, corruption, militarism, racism, hopelessness. The list goes on, and the intersectionality of that which ails us becomes apparent even amidst the haze.
Viewed from another angle, perhaps one that will come to define the legacy of Ferguson, pointed calls for peace are issued from a multitude of fronts, the president openly acknowledges that the roots of the problem run deep, and the mainstream media invoke phrases such as “nonviolent direct action” and “civil disobedience” in anticipation of a potential shift from immediate reaction to measured resistance.
Whatever transpires going forward, some things will not change. Michael Brown’s family will never have him back, representing a trauma that most parents can only begin to comprehend. A legal system incapable of obtaining an indictment against Darren Wilson winds up indicting itself in the process. Young people access the depths of their frustration, and many are radicalized for the struggles ahead.
The misnomer that is our “justice system” paradoxically touts its transparency in the opacity of nightfall. Yet as the smoke dissipates and the dust settles, the first cracks of daylight form on the horizon, announcing a new day at hand. A thing once seen cannot be unseen; a collective vision is not easily denied. The cover of darkness, once lifted, reveals a faint but steady light that points the way forward.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, and serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. His books include Peace Ecology (Paradigm, 2014), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008).