Monday, December 1, 2014

Ferguson: Outrage, while supplies last

BLACK FRIDAY, the day of the locusts that descend on Walmarts and targets across our bargain-besotted country immediately after Thanksgiving, was not particularly too good this year.

A survey released Sunday by the National Retail Federation found that consumer spending dipped from last year’s levels. The survey came out Sunday and so didn’t include that day’s totals, but expectation-based estimates determined that sales would be down about 3.5 percent.

The foundation blamed it on a lot of things, including consumer exhaustion with the hand-to-hand combat of store shopping on the busiest retail business day of the year.

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“A strengthening economy that changes consumers' reliance on deep discounts, a highly competitive environment, early promotions, and the ability to shop 24/7 online all contributed to the shift witnessed this weekend,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement, as reported by AFP and in Business Insider.

There may be other reasons, as hard-wired in the national experience as economics. Partly because of panoramic weekend protests over a grand jury’s exoneration of Darren Dean Wilson, the white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot Michael Brown Jr. to death on Aug. 9, the American attention span has changed about race, the media and our values.

Over the weekend, the union of commerce and civic concern made sure the phrase “Black Friday” will never mean the same thing again. On Monday, a White House initiative and its counterpart in Ferguson made sure that, one way or another, the country will never be the same again.

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SO MUCH has happened in the last 72 hours, it’s hard to keep everything straight. On Friday, shoppers in malls and shopping districts across the country encountered protesters, by the hundreds or the thousands, who voiced outrage at the Ferguson grand jury’s pass on any punishment for Wilson, who killed the unarmed Brown in an encounter whose specifics remain in dispute.

You could say it started near the epicenter. Malls in Richmond Heights, Des Peres, Chesterfield and St. Louis, Mo., were the targets of protesters who crowded escalators, conducted die-ins and carried signs announcing the fact that BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Protesters snarled traffic in Oakland; at the West Oakland BART station, protesters took the novel tack of linking themselves together with bicycle locks and duct tape, forming a chain of protest that was stronger than just holding hands. In San Francisco they took to the streets near Union Square, the city’s glitziest shopping district.

In Seattle, the tree-lighting ceremony at Westlake Center had to contend with Ferguson protesters who made their way through the ceremony and into the Westlake Center mall, then moved down the street and onto the upper floors of the vast Pacific Place shopping mall nearby.

Similar protests took place in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami and other U.S. cities, with some even calling for boycotts of stores, appealing to the better angels of consumer nature. The same thing happened on Sunday, and again on Monday, almost certainly at a shopping mall near you.

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But for governments state and federal, Monday was a Rubicon-crossing day on all matters Ferguson. That’s when President Obama announced he would sign an executive order meant to connect federal government largesse — hundreds of millions worth of military-grade equipment and technology sent to law enforcement agencies — with enhanced training for law enforcement officers.

The president proposed a sweeping $263-million program that would include emphasis on police-community relations, and $75 million intended to cover half the cost of 50,000 body cameras, for use by cops around the country — the better to prevent the next Michael Brown/Darren Wilson incident.

And in Missouri on Monday, the Ferguson Commission (the panel put together by Gov. Jay Nixon for the purpose of preventing the same thing), began its work ... facing the protesters that matter, the ones who live in the belly of the beast.

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YOU’RE forgiven if your eyes glazed over slightly when you saw the word “Ferguson” in direct apposition to the word “Commission.” As a nation, we’ve been down this official road before, with varying degrees of success.

The Warren Commission investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, yielding results that many have doubts about today. The Kerner Commission examined the cause of race riots in 1967, ylelding results that were hopeful at first but ultimately challenged by political pushback, changes in the economy, and the inherent contradiction of the commission’s support of more police surveillance and informants — a version of the same antagonistic police culture that would give us ... the Ferguson Police Department.

The Christopher Commission, assembled in the wake of the Rodney King assault in March 1991, called on changes to be made in the insular culture of the Los Angeles Pollce Department. Five years later, according to a Police Commission report on the LAPD, change was a mixed bag of lowered uses-of-force, sluggish minority advancement, and the conclusion that the LAPD “has not undergone reform to the extent that was possible or required” — another way of describing the same immovable police culture that would give us ... the Ferguson Police Department.

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Commissions large and small have a history of being where achievable, beneficially volatile, nation-rattling ideas go to die. Writing in The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb seemed to say as much about the pre-reflexive formation of the governor’s panel:

“Nixon, whose handling of the [Ferguson] situation had already been severely criticized, holds the distinction of creating a commission whose existence preceded the unrest that it will presumably be charged with addressing. This was a sign of either governmental prescience or resignation — or, possibly, both. A defining achievement of American bureaucracy is that even assaults on its authority wind up generating more bureaucracy.”

But Nixon’s panel may have been an early concession to the dark realpolitik of police power in America; a pre-emptive nod to the historical forces in play whenever a police officer is charged with killing a citizen; a tacit acknowledgement of the broad existential authority possessed by any police officer on any street in this country at any time — and to how society is generally unwilling to question those who wield that power, at their discretion.

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THIS COMMISSION might end like others have, with little or nothing getting done. But people gotta talk. Mouths must be run behind microphones. That’s often how the ball moves in American society, when the ball moves at all. But the still-emerging fallout from the Ferguson grand jury’s travesty of jurisprudence is bigger than many expected.

And as shoppers on Black Friday and the days after discovered, the notion that BLACK LIVES MATTER won’t respect the convenience of location, the friendly confines of the shopping mall. The fact that people reacted uncharitably to Ferguson protesters — angry that somebody dared to violate accepted decorum and agitate about racial injustice while they were sifting the holiday bargains at Nordstrom — is exactly the problem.

Whether it’s people staging protests, a commission jousting with an outraged public or a president offering ideas and resources almost doesn’t matter. The first step to people paying attention to an issue — any issue — is getting the attention of the people whose business it is to get people to pay attention.

That means the president at the White House. And Missouri citizens living at ground zero. And people of conscience of every race in every state in the country.

Image credits: Ferguson protest: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images. Wilson: St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office. Seattle protest: Broken Shade Photo/Crosscut. Obama: Rodney King 1991: Source unknown, possibly LAPD. NYC Ferguson protester: NBC News.

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