Following the police shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown on 9 August 2014, images of Ferguson, Missouri conjure the atrocities suffered by those living under military occupation in war zones across the world. They depict Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams in battle helmets with guns trained on the foreheads and chests of black women and men; military tanks circling residents demanding to know why police had killed yet another young black man; and protestors doused with tear gas crying with the pain of a substance long banned as a chemical weapon by the Geneva Convention.
Globally, people have responded to the use of military-like force on citizens with outrage and disgust, drawing connections between the treatment of US residents of color and the current siege on Gaza. When St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar claimed that the police had done everything possible to practice “restraint,” he seemed to echo the words of Israeli officials justifying, yet again, civilian deaths in Gaza. Indeed, Palestinians have reacted to police brutality in Ferguson by providing advice on how to avoid the side effects of tear gas and expressing support for demonstrators there. Residents of Ferguson, in turn, have held signs reading “Free Gaza” alongside placards that state, “I AM A MAN,” evoking the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. This exchange between people on opposite sides of the world, and the hopeful networks of solidarity emerging therein, illuminate troubling aspects of the US state and offer potential frames for global activism.
These two spaces are linked by the US government-financed militarization that has supported sieges on communities with unequal access to power worldwide. In the Middle East, according to a collective of US professors writing in 2011, the US government has offered some 8.6 million dollars per day to Israeli forces for the occupation of the West Bank. While paying lip service to the idea of peace talks, the US government has unhesitatingly shared damaging intelligence with, and supplied weapons and ammunition to, the Israeli state. Less than two weeks ago, US lawmakers demonstrated their unfaltering support for Israel by approving 225 million dollars to maintain the Iron Dome, despite the perverse death toll of Palestinian residents as a result of offensive Israeli military operations in Gaza.
The long history of the US government’s military support of Palestinian repression has been paralleled by the gearing up of militarization in state and local police forces inside the United States. Following the 1965 Watts Rebellion, where black and brown residents of Los Angeles took to the streets frustrated by the socioeconomic limitations of civil rights legislation as well as police brutality, the arming of local police forces with paramilitary capabilities has had a disproportionate effect on low-income communities of color, according to a recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union. The end of the Cold War initially exacerbated this trend, as Ronald Reagan launched a “war on drugs” that concocted low-income communities as a threat to domestic security. Since its 1997 inception, the Department of Defense’s 1033 program has also transferred military surplus weaponry—including tanks, helicopters, and M-16s—to local and state police forces. Through the program, police forces nationwide have received some 4.3 billion dollars in military-grade equipment.
However, the practice grew exponentially after 11 September 2001. With the premise of protecting citizens from acts of terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security has provided over thirty-four billion dollars in grants to local and state police forces. Ironically, just last year, the police chief of nearby St. Louis asked for an undetectable drone with which to police the city in case a terrorist attack took place. The pretext of fighting the “global war on terror” has had the result of turning communities of color, long treated as enemies of the state, into potential war zones.
The troubling trend of increasing militarization is made more so by how political leadership has displaced responsibility for such violence. In Ferguson, as in Gaza, official US demands for peace ignore the fact that the supply of military weaponry negates such a call to action. This irony has not been lost on residents in Missouri and abroad. One Palestinian tweeter, displaying an empty tear gas canister reading “Made in USA,” offered satirical assurance to the citizens of Ferguson, saying that there should be no worry because the tear gas they faced had been tested on Palestinian civilians. If, as Missouri Congressional Representative Emanuel Cleaver rightly states in The Guardian, that it is “unconscionable that we would convert a city in the middle of America into a war zone,” it is equally unconscionable that we would provide Israel with the means to do so in Gaza.
[A protestor takes shelter from smoke billowing around him, Ferguson, Missouri, 13 August 2014.
AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, David Carson, www.parade.condenast.com]
This drawing of connections between Ferguson and Gaza also offers important critiques of power, space, and the politics of occupation. In Ferguson, a town where seventy percent of residents are black, yet the power structure is predominantly white, protestors have readily evoked the language of an “occupied territory,” reminding those watching that their citizenship has always been second-class. The language of occupation signifies an appraisal made long ago by Marcus Garvey, the Black Panthers, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, among other civil rights organizations, who have used such a concept to critique the relationship of US power to communities of color nationwide. As residents of Ferguson chant “Gaza strip” at local police forces, they also connect to present-day struggles for liberation worldwide; they seek not only justice, but also self-determination.
Representing police activity in Ferguson as a colonial occupation brings to bear the connections between occupied spaces such as Gaza and low-income communities of color in the United States, where residents have been physically barricaded from resources, denied access to education, redlined from housing opportunities, stripped of citizenship, and segregated in apartheid-like conditions. The kind of outrage growing in Ferguson, Palestine, and other colonized spaces responds not only to the immediate events that have triggered action, but to decades upon decades of repressive occupation and the denial of social and political enfranchisement.
While the killing of Michael Brown has focused the media’s gaze on issues of police militarization and brutality, the residents of Ferguson, Missouri have been subjected daily to institutionally and structurally preserved inequalities, as well as the more hidden violence(s) they produce. Persistent harassment from police, often accompanied by brutality, is well known in Ferguson. Yet brutality and the marginalization of Ferguson residents go well beyond their interactions with the police. Unemployment in Ferguson stands at thirteen percent, according to recent data from the Brookings Institute, and nearly one in four residents lives below the federal poverty line. Access to education is indicative of these incidences of socioeconomic violence. When the school district that Michael Brown attended received a “failing” designation, instead of transferring students to more prosperous districts, the state board of education voted to re-accredit the schools as a collaborative, allowing officials to shirk responsibility for inter-district inequities.
In Gaza, where the bombing of UN schools and the death of children has generated new criticism of the Israeli occupation, this appraisal has most often stopped short of grappling with the everyday violence Palestinians endure. In Gaza, the restriction of Palestinian movement and goods in and out of the strip has devastated the livelihood of those residing in the occupied territory. Over twenty percent of residents live in poverty and unemployment is devastatingly high. Israeli officials have used caloric calculations to limit the food supply and have systematically destroyed Palestinian farms, businesses, and homes. Subject to abusive military checkpoints, the indiscriminate revocation of civil and human rights, the imminent potential of random detention, imprisonment, and death, Palestinians live as perpetual colonial subjects.
To link these spaces is not to overestimate their similarities, but to understand the US state as central to the perpetuation of global inequality and racialized terror. The historical oppression that has been challenged in Ferguson continues to expose the limitations of US democracy. It is a demand for freedom and self-determination that most fundamentally unites residents in Gaza and communities of color throughout the United States. To that end, projects like Facing Tear Gas have attempted to offer new global frameworks to combat repression and strengthen resistance movements. We must continue to have conversations about the troubling uses of military might and US power, connecting experiences, as those in Gaza and Ferguson are doing, to the broader trends of racism, imperialism, and capitalism that have defined and circumscribed the voices of marginalized communities globally.