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  • The Black Bottom Line: Reflections on Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and White Male Violence in America
  • Houston A. Baker Jr. (bio)

During recent decades and especially in recent weeks and days, all walks of life seem to read out in violent terms. Politics, gender, sexuality, entertainment, race, religion, and academics have morphed into venues of violence and cultural mayhem. Journalism still salutes the canard “If it bleeds, it leads!” In present-day reportage, there scarcely seems any other lead. This forum addresses the bound-to-violence conjunctures of everyday life in the US and their entailments in and for the academy. Framing the issue in the context of the police shooting of Michael Brown seems prescient after Orlando and the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The violence of these scenes allies and signifies along an indisputably violent trajectory of our nation’s founding and its specific gravity of white male privilege and accord. I will return to this point later.

Michael Brown was 18 years old and a recent high school graduate. On 9 August 2014, he and a companion entered a convenience store in their hometown of Ferguson. Brown stole two packages of cigarillos, and they shoved the storeowner away from the door, fleeing into the street. A police dispatcher reported the theft. White police officer Darren Wilson, on patrol in his squad car, spotted Brown walking down the street with his friend. He attempted to detain them for questioning. A scuffle ensued: Wilson’s gun fired; Brown and his companion ran; Wilson gave chase, stopped and [End Page 845] exited his squad car, and commenced firing his semiautomatic pistol at the fleeing boys; Brown turned to face Wilson. In an instant a bullet crashed through the young man’s skull. Deadly force was the Ferguson police response to two stolen packages of cigarillos.

Michael Brown’s uncovered body remained in the sweltering summer street for hours. Ferguson, a predominantly black suburb of St. Louis, erupted at sundown. On subsequent evenings, militarized police with armored vehicles and chanting, violent protesters faced off in a reprise of long hot summers of the 1960s and 1970s. When two years before, a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, had been murdered by a community watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, whose rogue bravado and predatory stalking set off a firestorm of protest, the confederation known as Black Lives Matter was born. Now, in Ferguson, it suddenly had a new focus.

Legal proceedings surrounding the deaths of Brown and Martin resulted in the respective acquittals of Wilson and Zimmerman, just as the death of Freddie Gray has likewise led to legal exoneration for the several Baltimore police officers involved in his death. Grand juries and prosecutors exonerated these perpetrators of black teenage death. Incredulity and outrage filled streets at home and abroad as phalanxes of black, white, Asian American, Puerto Rican, and East Indian young activists of multiple economic registers and academic levels disrupted the status quo everywhere. Millennials shut down urban traffic flow, conducted die-ins and “blackouts,” demanded, and were granted, meetings and conversations with major leaders of vaunted political and academic institutions. New scripts of accountability were drafted and instituted. Covert operations—such as the “disappearing” of evidence by police and politicians—were exposed. Many thousand voices and thousands of newly registered members thunderously enhanced the work of Black Lives Matter. The confederation became indisputably a major activist driving force of the nation. Black Lives Matter was voted first runner-up in Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” selection for 2015.


After Orlando, Baton Rouge, and St. Anthony, Minnesota, it is essential to remember that Black Lives Matter (BLM) was, in fact, born at the intersection of race and LGBT activist concerns. According to the BLM website: “Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” The intersectional orientation and reach of BLM remove it entirely from any narrow signification and/or [End Page 846] charge of nationalist or provincial racism. The very cast of its demographics demonstrated in the multicultural, multiple gender and sexuality, cross-class-and-age demographics...


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