Ferguson is a city of around 21,000 citizens in St. Louis County, Missouri. For nearly two weeks now it has been the focal point of the nation, as the shooting death of an unarmed African-American man by a Caucasian police officer has sparked debate, protest, riots, armed guards, and, well…you know the routine. But what it is to the rest of us is Fearguson; a place not on a map with real people or actual ideologies, logic or law. It exists in the deepest recesses of the human psyche, and because this is a free society that works under the laws of a nation that still bears the scars of its original sins, it boils over with two of humanity’s most basest instincts: Fear and Anger.
It doesn’t get any more primal in the human condition than Fear and Anger. These are the biggies; empathy, sadness, love bounce around in there somewhere, but at our core, as mammals, we react immediately with Fear and Anger. It is the basis of all violence and war. Name one act of violence; whether personal or systemic, and it is derived from Fear and Anger. Sure, sometimes it is masked in wealth, borders, religion or ideology, and most times it is propped up by race, nationality, gender or economic standing, but mostly it is merely Fear and Anger.
The reason I delve into dangerous Freudian corners on this is there is no way to properly process why it appears that once a week a black man is shot dead by a cop, mostly white ones. Or why African-American communities erupt either with righteous anger or indefensible rage resulting in destruction of property, arson and looting. None of this can truly be explained, unless you get down to the raw truth of it: Fear and Anger.
I broached a similar framework during the 1992 L.A. riots over the brutal beating of Rodney King by white police officers. And as we are learning now in Ferguson, it does not happen in a vacuum. There is history there, as in L.A. It was long and festering—going back to the Watts riots in 1965—this bitter tension between the police and black communities. No way to understand what the hell was truly going on if you watched that nightmare unfold from afar; back East or in the Midwest, without understanding that history; a history of Fear and Anger that had no other possible conclusion but to explode into violence.
The dirty little secret of the 1994 O.J. Simpson trial in the wake of ’65 and ’92 is that it had no chance of ever being about Simpson or the people he allegedly murdered, despite the preponderance of physical and circumstantial evidence against him. It was the history of Fear and Anger that fueled the “not-guilty” verdict. This eerie sense that it was entirely plausible that he could have been framed by a police force so damaged by its continued actions against citizens of color that it almost became a fait accompli.
Let’s forget race for a moment and concentrate on matters of the state—the system—law enforcement culture versus the ideal of citizenry. On a grander scale, I return once again to the 1960s, where Fear and Anger had its most visible parade of loons and goons, primarily due to the widest generation gap in our nation’s history and a completely immoral, insane and inexcusable war in Viet Nam. The unrest on college campuses and the violence in the streets across the country in the escalated stages of the war, when it appeared to even the most jingoistic among us that this horror show was now merely a killing ground of youth and a massacre of civilians abroad which had reached its saturation level, especially for a federal government that felt as though it was being challenged by radicals possibly backed by communist interlopers.
Who can forget the images of the children, mostly white middle-class kids, being beaten into bloody pulps by crazed policemen in the streets of Chicago or frightened national guardsmen opening fire on students carrying books at Kent State? That single film of a shaggy-haired kid running for his life across a newly-shorn campus lawn brilliantly captures the point.
But that all feels like another age; a much scarier and untenable world of chaos, but it was nothing more than Fear and Anger; fear of being murdered for the United States saving face internationally and the ensuing anger of being its fodder and the resultant fear of a complete crack in the nation’s foundation and the unremitting force needed to quell it.
Months after 9/11 the entire country fell victim to Fear and Anger. It was an absolutist’s dream, and the first time since World War II where the nation rallied against a single enemy, even if it meant that enemy was among us; Muslim, Arab, etc. Sure as hell there was Fear and man was there ever Anger. It was not a proud time. It revealed, on the most basic level, the Fearguson edict; and although it did not blow up in spastic acts of anarchistic violence, it was a slow burn into some of the most heinous war crimes committed since Viet Nam.
Los Angeles. Chicago. Watts. Iraq. Ferguson.
What Fearguson is comes from the core of this country’s being; it deals with race, economics, bigotry, and distrust of authority—some of it earned, some of it calculated—as it also comes from a predisposition to judge, on both sides; a bunker mentality that reflects our most embarrassing faults; we’re human. Not monsters or mutants or alien beings; humans. ISIS in Iraq, Nazis in Germany, KKK in Alabama, Black Panthers in San Francisco, hippies, yippies, Birchers, TEA Party, 99-percenters, NRA, NOW, gay, straight, black, white, Christian, Muslim. Human.
It all comes from Fear and Anger. Doesn’t matter what triggers it; overzealous police or enraged citizenry. Look how the mayor acted this week, the governor, the voices on cable news, your friend’s opinion, this column.
We love to pick sides and weigh the consequences of other’s actions and find a safe place to land ideologically. We love our psychology and philosophy and our reason. But there is no getting away from what lurks way down there.
Fear and Anger.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus” and “Y”.