In December 2015 a 19 year old protester named Josh Williams will be sentenced for his part in trying to set fire to a convenience store. Those of us in Ferguson knew Josh very well. During the months of protests he was often seen at the Ferguson police station shouting and taunting officers. He had been physically and verbally abusive towards local residents as well, including minors. Through several Ferguson City Council Meetings he told us blatantly that our town and neighborhoods were going to burn.
Despite all that, he seemed like a nice kid, more than anything else just young and emotionally lost. Though he was always the one doing the shouting, the threatening, it always seemed the like encouragement that got him to do it came from a group of seasoned, angry protesters. To his own testament, they became his family, and it really seemed like he did the shouting and taunting to make his new family happy. The seasoned protesters didn’t do anything to actually put themselves at much legal risk, now it’s Josh that’s going to jail.
The Black Lives Matter movement is rightly characterized as both youth-driven and leaderless. But up close here in Ferguson it seems like much of what the youth are saying comes from an older generation of activists and intellectuals that believe our system and society are fundamentally corrupted by racism.
“The Whole Damn System is Guilty as Hell”. “All Cops are Racist” and dozens of variations that suggest that every aspect of our economy, educational and legal systems are so corrupt and illegitimate that the only way forward is to overthrow them.
The many variations of “we need a revolution” look great on T-shirts of course, and fit easily into a twitter message. But they also have no connection with the real world. The system the young protesters are shouting about today will be the system in place tomorrow and for many years after that. Democracy isn’t going anywhere. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere. While creaky and balky, democratic capitalism does a pretty good job of meeting the needs of most of our population and has a far better track record than any other approach.
Yes, we need to continue to make our country and economy more inclusive, and yes we need to continue to work to improve police transparency and accountability. But these are improvements to the system we have, not a revolution. Historically, improvements come from working within and succeeding within the system. While being able to walk down any street anywhere without being called n___r will be a great step forward, the true measure of equality is and will always be economic.
Often it seems here in Ferguson that an older generation of activists and intellectuals are getting the young activists so angry at “the system” that they will be unable to participate in it, they will be unable to accumulate economic power. It’s hard to figure out how to succeed in a system if you are convinced it is corrupt and evil.
The movement risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating a generation of young African American activists that purposely reject the system and then, failing to prosper in it, blame it on the system.
The irony of this is that many of the seasoned activists have done well for themselves. For example, Dr. Cornell West, Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University has succeeded within the educational system as well as economically. The seasoned protesters in Ferguson, including Dr. West who were manipulating Josh’s anger and encouraging his outrages have jobs and mortgages. They were careful in keeping their social status clean, while using those who are expendable to them.
Let’s hope that this angry young generation of protesters eventually realize the potential and worth of themselves and the system we have and figures out how they can succeed within it. You cannot change the law until you understand the law.
Let’s hope the other Joshes out there learn from Josh Williams' mistakes and don’t become so infused with the anger of their elders that they wind up ruining their own lives.
Help Ferguson Get the Truth Out
Beginning with Eric Holder announcing the Department of Justice’s “searing” report, the DOJ has selectively collected and presented information to paint Ferguson as racist and abusive. Ferguson Truth was formed to push for transparency and truth from the Department of Justice, to counteract this distorted narrative that the DOJ created.