MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the ironic split screen that aired on nearly every 24-hour news channel the night St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced a grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. An aerial shot of Ferguson, Missouri, on one side, its streets obscured by gray plumes signifying tear gas or flames, and on the other, President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black leader, demonstrating unfailing equanimity while urging Ferguson protesters to remain peaceful and local law enforcement to show “care and restraint.” However, some months earlier, there was yet another ironic juxtaposition involving Ferguson, one that was less readily apparent but nonetheless betrays the paradoxical nature of black citizenship in the United States.
On August 18, President Obama addressed the nation on then-unfolding situations in Iraq and Ferguson. From Gaza to Ebola to the downed Malaysia Airlines plane left smoldering in Ukraine, it was a summer of crisis — a time, indeed, also marked by a spate of black men killed by police and the undeniable ascendancy of ISIS (or ISIL, as it was later rechristened). As for ISIL, Obama announced the successful US humanitarian mission to aid and protect thousands of Yazidi refugees trapped by the insurrectionary Islamic group on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, and outlined a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group. Many of his other statements on ISIL were similarly strong. Obama said that he would “not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq”; he vowed to “hunt down terrorists […] wherever they are,” and to contain “a savage group that seems willing to slaughter people for no rhyme or reason.”
Obama’s statements on Ferguson were, by contrast, far more tentative. As per usual, the president validated both the right of protesters to peacefully assemble without being subjected to the excessive force of police officers, as well as the concerns of law enforcement officials about possible looting and violence. Obama also mentioned that the Department of Justice had opened an independent federal criminal civil rights investigation into Wilson’s shooting of Brown; however, he stressed that, while he was closely monitoring the situation, his hands were ultimately tied. “These are issues of local jurisdiction,” Obama maintained. “I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.”
The president, then, was careful to show respect for the sovereignty of the state of Missouri, effectively conveying that while he and his charges would consult with Governor Jay Nixon and police officials “on the ground,” he would not tell them what to do. Such deference, meanwhile, was practically absent from his statements on Iraq — a foreign sovereign State, which, at least according to the letter of the law, is supposed to present a much higher bar for legitimate US (federal) intervention than, say, Missouri does — after all, Obama is, ultimately, president in Missouri. Obama did take care to explain that, in rescuing the Yazidis, Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead “on the ground,” and that the United States would work with the Iraqi government, as well as a coalition of international governments, thereby lending some legitimacy to the US intervention. However, Obama did not hesitate to spell out what he thought Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi needed to do in order to “address the interests of all Iraqis.”
The implication of all this — that the president of the United States appears less hesitant to intervene in Iraq than in Ferguson, Missouri — is not just conjectural. There are real world consequences. Five days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, CNN news anchor Soledad O’Brien asked: “Why no massive airdrop of food and water? In Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, they got food dropped two days after the tsunami struck.” What she did not know then was that Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco — hampered by a National Guard whose ranks had been thinned by federal deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan — had already asked President George W. Bush to dispatch an additional 40,000 federal troops to the state. However, concerned about exaggerated media reports of looting and violence, President Bush responded that he would only send additional troops under the Insurrection Act — which authorizes the president to domestically deploy federal troops (including federalized members of the National Guard) to enforce the law in the event of rebellion, and act, essentially, like civilian police officers.
While Bush did not legally need Blanco’s permission to deploy federal troops under the Act, he still insisted on trying to get it for days until finally caving to her opposition. “If I invoked the Insurrection Act against her wishes,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, “the world would see a male Republican president usurping the authority of a female Democratic governor by declaring an insurrection in a largely African American city. That would arouse controversy anywhere.” He continued: “To do so in the Deep South, where there had been centuries of states’ rights tensions, could unleash holy hell.”
States’ rights? Could this righteous appeal to federalism — although “states’ rights,” some say, is a mere code word, and has been since George Wallace’s day — explain why Bush responded more quickly to a natural disaster in Indonesia than in Louisiana? Why Obama seemed more cautious about intervening in Ferguson than in Iraq?
In that light, the Insurrection Act — which some have called on Obama to employ in order to protect Ferguson protesters, and others, including Joint Task Force Katrina Commander Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré have claimed might be necessary to thwart rioting in Missouri — is particularly dubious. Perhaps Bush recalled Governor Orval Faubus referring to federal intervention in Little Rock as “the military occupation of Arkansas”; or Governor Wallace claiming in May 1963 that President John F. Kennedy had ordered federal troops to “invade Alabama”; or Governor Ross Barnett’s speech delivered two weeks before Kennedy would deploy federal troops to Mississippi, in which he referred to “an ambitious federal government, employing naked and arbitrary power, [which] has decided to deny us the right of self-determination in the conduct of the affairs of our sovereign state.”
While I can only guess at what President Bush had in mind as to the “holy hell” he was loath to unleash, what is clear is that the mostly black residents (or, as they were often called, “refugees”) left stranded in the hell of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina were not only perceived as victims, but also as perpetrators. Like the unstable image highlighted in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which in the flicker of an eye could be seen as either a duck or a rabbit, black evacuees in New Orleans were at once casualties and criminals, residents and refugees, relief-seeking and rioting, impotent and insurgent.
The paradoxical state of black citizenship is an ongoing manifestation of the internal contradiction of this country’s founding documents, which codified both “freedom” and “slavery,” granting black people the status of being among the citizenry but not citizens. While progress, as they say, has been made, such progress has historically hinged on whether black Americans are perceived as wards or enemies of the state. Take the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Civil rights protesters went from being brutally attacked with tear gas and cattle prods by Alabama state troopers to then having their First Amendment rights enforced by National Guard troops who, deployed under the Insurrection Act, were ordered to shield protesters from harm. Indeed, proclamations of “insurrection” under the Act — though exceptional — still provide a clear timeline of this vacillating perception, starting with those made during Radical Reconstruction, when former Confederate states were administered by federal troops who safeguarded the newly granted civil rights of freed blacks. So-called “insurrections” were also proclaimed to quell civil unrest in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, DC, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and more recently to deploy federal troops to Los Angeles to quell riots sparked after the police officers who assaulted Rodney King were exonerated.
Time marches on, and this double-vision has not changed. The factious national debate, over whether Ferguson demonstrators are mostly marauding looters or merely exercising their freedom of speech, is simply one more example. So is the fact that black victims Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner can be considered suspects in their own killings. This paradox, finally, might also explain the consistent racial aspect of federal military interventions at home, as well as the relative ease with which presidents seem to respond to crisis abroad.
As any psychologist would counsel, it is always easier to identify the enemy outside than the enemy within. But in this case, who, pray tell, is the enemy?
Hawa Allan is a lawyer and a writer of cultural criticism and fiction whose work has appeared, among other places, in Best African American Essays, the Chicago Tribune, and Tricycle Magazine, where she is a contributing editor.