Nowhere in Idaho, as far as I have seen, have there been spontaneous street protests in reaction to the yet unanswered for police killings of black men in Ferguson, Mo. and now in Staten Island, NY.
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I attended two different Ferguson vigils last Saturday night in Boise — organizers had dueled on Facebook over philosophy in the lead-up to the events, but they eventually came together, with much overlap in attendance and speakers. The message at both events was ultimately one of education: learn about American history and the torrents of racism present from the founding, learn about the fault lines in the U.S. criminal justice system, learn to love your brother.
The earlier protest on Saturday staged a brief blockade of Capitol Boulevard — four and a half minutes to represent the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street in Ferguson. The blockade did not make the news in Idaho. The later protest gathered at the Statehouse after dark; a lone heckler drove by yelling from the window of her SUV. A Ferguson reading list for Boise, Idaho really ought to start with another look into the black history canon… at a minimum: DuBois, Garvey, Baldwin, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Or, for a more contemporary reckoning of 238+ years of the African American experience in the U.S.A, see Coates on Reparations.
This lack of protest tradition in Boise — the general lack of protest tradition in majority white regions of the country — is symptomatic of the nation’s continued racial strife despite sporadic media efforts to declare a post-racial American detente. Historian Jill Gill recently described Idaho’s civil rights tradition this way:
Granted, the weight of Idaho’s historical allegiances tended to be with civil rights resisters, meaning that Idaho’s poor reputation on racial justice is grounded in some truth, despite local wishes to the contrary. However, this trend does not negate the fact that clusters of Idahoans have arisen throughout the Gem State’s history to push for civil rights. In rare instances, they used confrontational protests; more often, though, groups conducted education-based campaigns that relied on teaching, persuasion and lobbying rather than marches or civil disobedience.
Read that again. Idaho’s timid protest tradition — and whether we like it or not, “Idaho” is a proxy for white America — has handed the weight of history over to “civil rights resisters” in the state. More evidence: Imagine if Eric Garner were white, in Idaho, via The Atlantic The post-racial moment in states like Idaho is an historical impossibility. Never having experienced the life-or-death protest politics of a civil rights movement, the white majority in places like Idaho cannot, by definition, be post-racial.
That was the essence of the short-lived split in the dueling Boise Ferguson solidarity marches last weekend. Organizers of the first march claimed a race-blind mantle, calling Mike Brown “an 18-year old unarmed human being.” A second group formed to “acknowledge that white supremacy and a deeply anti-black state/legal system are directly responsible for the massively disproportionate amount of violence and brutality that black folks face at the hands of police and other state institutions.”
In the end, as much due to demographics, movement politics and the factors Gill cites in her prescient essay from October, very few black people attended either rally. But we all learned something, registered our discomfort with the policies that led to this most recent spate of police killings of unarmed African Americans and indeed, stood in solidarity, for a brief moment, with the rest of America.
This Saturday night there will be a single solidarity march in Boise as the organizers appear to have reconciled their differences. And so, in the long tradition of Idaho-style, education-based activism, here are another dozen or so Ferguson reads, sources on the deep fissures between race, policing and justice in America:
- Big Page of evidence and reports from the grand jury proceedings on Officer Darren Wilson, from St. Louis Public Radio.
- The new, criminal justice focused site The Marshall Project (with former New York Times editor Bill Keller at the helm) has it’s own set of 10 essential Ferguson reads, including a link to The Nation‘s Chase Madar, a civil rights attorney, with a lengthy overview of “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop.”
- Boston Review managing editor Simon Waxman on the intersecting justifications for killing embedded in the law: “Not everyone gets the chance to be justified.” Also, Waxman’s followup take: “Righteous indignation is not a source of justification that our society accepts.”
- Media critique from Aaron Bady (Zunguzungu) at The New Inquiry, challenging the predominant media message of fire, flame, engulfing: “The police will protect your property from people that want to burn it.” The State of Idaho does have some protest tradition. The largest march in Boise history is assumed to be the 1999 gathering to save a giant, lighted cross in the foothills. Latino activists and teachers have gathered in large numbers in Idaho’s capital at least twice in the last decade. And, of course, the Tea Party made its presence known on occasion.
- The Journalist’s Resource Center at the Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard published a useful round up of statistics and theory on police-involved shootings. Their links include a federal DOJ report and survey from 2010 on police use of force (pdf) and a more recent study from Propublica showing that black youth were 21 percent more likely to be shot by police than white youth.
- Shorenstein could also have cited the late criminologist and former police lieutenant James Fyfe (pdf) whose research in the 1980s pointed to widely disparate training and rules of engagement in police forces which led to variable rates of police shootings and higher incidences of police shootings involving African-American suspects. Writing about Memphis, Fyfe concluded: “The data strongly support the assertion that police there did differentiate racially with their trigger fingers, by shooting blacks in circumstances less threatening than those in which they shot whites.” To wit: Idaho deputy prosecutor recites ‘Dixie’ in closing arguments, via Idaho Statesman.
- International responses to the shooting in Ferguson and the failure to bring charges against the officer from Global Post, for example, from Venezuela: “People have the right to grieve and demand justice in a system that they perceive as unfair. They have the right to spark a long-overdue debate on race, policing and justice in America.”
- And two literary links: The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Off/Page Project combining poetry and journalism on Ferguson, and James Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis from 1970: “If the American people are unable to contend with their elected leaders for the redemption of their own honor and the lives of their own children, we, the blacks, the most rejected of the Western children, can expect very little help at their hands: which, after all, is nothing new. What the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil, is not a racial war but a civil war.”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.