There was something farcical about the drama that unfolded this month in Ferguson, MO, and that may not have ended yet. Between the initial killing (that of Michael Brown) that triggered the protests against the police, and the most recent death (that of Kajieme Powell, also shot on the sidewalk by the cops), both sides in the confrontation followed recognizable scripts, although neither failed to surprise. The protestors, with their militancy and resilience, were remarkable in the history of relations between police and black Americans since the 1970s. Black men are shot by the police with sickening frequency in this country; it is the norm, not the exception. Sustained protest and media glare are the exceptions. It may be impossible to reach a neat explanation for this turn of events, since none of the factors that can be identified in Greater St. Louis  – the history of police violence, the racial divide between a mostly-white police force and a mostly-black community, the economic decrepitude of the inner city, the calamitous ‘life prospects’ of young black men – are unique to this particular place. We could call it a ‘perfect storm’ of variables, or simply random.

But the protests were also quite restrained. It cannot be denied that they went beyond the brainless sloganeering that makes street protest in America almost unbearably embarrassing. (“Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go!” Hey ho? Are the Seven Dwarves marching again?) But the idiom of respectable protest and its specifically American pedigree were not tossed out in Ferguson, in spite of the presence in the shadows of men with guns and Molotov cocktails. The crowd did not take kindly to attempts by old, Church-based, Civil Rights leaders to take charge of the protests, but Black Panther and Nation of Islam types surfaced more successfully as voices of reason, authority and crowd-control. And quite surprisingly, the protests did not spread beyond the immediate locality, in spite of the prevalence of similarly provocative circumstances in every large American city. Except in slogans, it fell short of a ‘revolution’; it was, rather, a miming of revolution, not least for a television audience.

But it is the reaction of the police that was truly bizarre. Much has been made of the militarized response of the St. Louis County authorities, and justifiably so: mechanized, heavily armed and armored police are a new cancer in American society. That the police now functions in the mode of the SWAT team is not a surprise, of course. The revelation is how this army of warrior-cops, with their us-against-the-animals mentality of occupiers among natives, behaved given the chance to go to war. We saw camouflage uniforms, mine-resistant vehicles and the conspicuous pointing of automatic weapons, but we saw neither shooting nor effective crowd-dispersal. The police, for the most part, just posed with their guns and battle-dress, caught between preening and bewilderment. Again, there was that element of television drama, except that it was unintentional farce, scripted by morons.

Very quickly, therefore, the references in the media (including social media) to ‘police brutality’ against protestors wore thin. Yes, tear gas was used, and beanie rounds and wooden projectiles were fired. But in the worldwide repertoire of techniques for dealing with angry crowds, this was almost non-violent. No live rounds were fired into the crowd, and not even the truncheon saw much use. This was not the Egyptian counter-revolution, Tiananmen Square, Gaza, Chicago 1968, or an Indian city on a bad day. Here, the theater of militarized policing seemed to paralyze the police themselves, subjecting them to the scorn of the audience. After the first day, when the camera turned out to be hostile to the police, there was no doubt about who was on the defensive. Very quickly, the crowd – black men and women whose everyday relations with the police are marked by fear – lost their fear. They taunted, name-called, video-recorded and laughed, while rifle-pointing policemen (like the now-famous Officer Go-Fuck-Yourself) found themselves escorted from the scene by supervisors, like chastised schoolboys.

That effective fearlessness was a significant victory not just for the crowd, but for victims of racist policing in general. The limits of that victory are also significant, judging by the murder of Powell in another part of St. Louis. It is not clear that Powell, muttering incoherently and waving a knife at no one in particular, was a part of the Michael Brown protest, but there can be no doubt that by killing him in that moment and in that extraordinarily cavalier manner, the St. Louis police connected him to Ferguson. They sought to reassert their dominance and the fear on which it rests, but they did it on another stage, away from the carnival of cameras and jeering crowds on Florissant Avenue. On Florissant, the police had already lost. But that loss was contained by the theater of the protest itself, which was too ritualized and isolated to pose a wider threat to the ‘establishment.’ That may yet change, especially if Michael Brown’s killer is not charged with murder, but it seems unlikely.

It is interesting to think about the ordinariness, as well as the peculiarity, of what happened in Ferguson. The history of modern policing is inseparable from the history of race. Robert Peel’s innovations in Victorian Britain are entwined with anxieties about the Irish and urban “street Arabs,” the antecedents of the Indian police lie in colonial nightmares of Thugs, ‘criminal tribes,’ terrorists and the native crowd, and big-city police forces in America are rooted in two great race-migrations: the arrival of off-white Europeans in the later 19th century, and blacks moving north after the First World War. But beyond the common dynamic of race-control, there are distinct mythologies of policing: the polite and unarmed English constable, the brutal but servile Indian daroga, the American cop who combines the machismo of the gunslinger with the awesome authority of the state. These distinctions reflect, and to some extent determine, the level of danger the police pose to citizens of democratic states.

The Indian example is the outlier. It is a nakedly unreformed colonial apparatus, loosely bound by law but almost devoid of legitimacy, a delinquency essential for the protection of class privilege but disliked intensely even by the classes it protects. Not surprisingly, its use of lethal force is casual and often indiscriminate, in a way unthinkable in the United States or Britain. The English constable, by contrast, retains a certain appeal not only in his own country, but also among Anglophiles in the two other countries, from readers of Enid Blyton to watchers of Monty Python. He is the displacement of a civilized ideal. That constable, if he ever existed in Britain, did not survive the racial tensions that gave us the Guns of Brixton and another Powell in the 1970s, the riots of the Thatcher era, and the murder of a Brazilian electrician on the London Underground. But as a fantasy, he lives on, not least among Tories who cling to a soothingly white idea of Englishness. And because fantasies are not powerless, the use of guns and truncheons by the police in Britain falls into a grey area of legitimacy: everybody understands that it happens in places like London and Bradford, but London and Bradford are already a compromised England.

In America, however, violence itself constitutes the legitimacy of police action. The non-violent cop hardly exists in the imaginary of law-enforcement beyond enclaves like Mayberry, which were consigned to pure nostalgia as soon as they were imagined. And even in lily-white Mayberry, the nice policemen came attached to guns. (This was, after all, the geography of Cherokee expulsion.) This means that episodes like Ferguson are particularly vexing: there is a widely shared conviction that the state is normatively an armed presence in civilian life, but simultaneously, the sight of police with rifles (common in India) makes Americans uncomfortable, because rifles blur the distinction between ‘over here’ and ‘over there.’ In a country that worships soldiers, in which all combat veterans are ‘veterans of foreign wars,’ and in which warfare has been charged from the outset with the language of race, the intrusion of the abroad into the home – or rather, the regular presence of the abroad in the home – is intolerable: oppressive, self-alienating, the appearance on the doorstep of one’s own murderous twin and his victims. That, I think, is at least partly why St. Louis County police quickly became paralyzed by their own militarization. The “regular,” non-camouflaged police were less inhibited. They screeched up to the raving black man when they could have kept their distance, drew their guns and yelled when they could have talked instead, and fired nine times at point-blank range within thirteen seconds of their arrival. This was the state going about its everyday business of authority, and it will continue even when the armored cars have been returned to the Department of Defense. Hey ho.

August 22, 2014