As I monitor the images and information streaming from Ferguson, Missouri, I can’t help thinking of the novelist Charles Baxter’s observation about writing fiction: “If you want a compelling story,” he has advised, “put your protagonist among the damned.” Pictures, some from gifted photojournalists like Scott Olson and Lawrence Bryant, others from fearless amateurs with cell phones, give us glimpses of what hell might look like: smoke, sulfurous fumes, shadows, screams, and volatile armies clashing by night. In the United States right now, there may be no more compelling story than the violence and unrest erupting in a humble heartland town, where long-simmering racial resentment boiled over following the shooting of an unarmed teenager.
Just as intriguing as the story is the continuing battle over who gets to tell it.
For we descendants of enslaved Africans, control of the narrative has been a central issue ever since our ancestors arrived in chains. Early on, memoirists such as Frederick Douglass and journalists such as Ida B. Wells often wrote with a zealous intent to “tell the world the facts,” in Wells’s immortal formulation. By placing their bodies directly in front of a ludicrously weaponized occupying force—and by sharing their experience via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media—the protesters in Ferguson are continuing that struggle. In Ferguson, a police department with a history of racist practices rushed to construct a story, abetted by cooperative media, of a big, belligerent black man who forced a vulnerable police officer to gun him down. In their quest for justice for young Mike Brown, the protesters have cornered the durable story of the beast-like Negro and have begun to grind it under their apparently tireless heels. They are angry, fed up, and completely unhampered by the politics of respectability that often paralyzes black campaigns for full equality. (Perhaps as an indication of this impatience, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was reportedly booed during his appearance in Ferguson.) Their story includes villains such as Jay Nixon, the timid, clueless governor, and Darren Wilson, the officer who fired the fatal shots and fled town almost immediately after. Their tale is also enriched by the emergence of heroes, including Anthony Shahid, a community activist, and Antonio French, an elected official who has seldom strayed from the front lines.
Still, each night of state violence presents a new chapter, making it clear that the story is still being written. While independent reporters and coiffured network correspondents offer breathless reports of peaceful citizens subjected to tear gas and intimidation, the tanks, LRADs, and riot-shielded troops loom in the background like editors in armor. For now, the iconic image of the Ferguson uprising is a man hurling a tear gas canister back at police, like a black, dreadlocked Clayton Kershaw, clad in an American flag instead of Dodger Blue. Images of his heroic toss have become viral and reproduced on unauthorized t-shirts and posters. It might make for a potent symbol of revolution—if not for the bag of potato chips in the man’s other hand, the specter of consumerism’s eventual triumph even in the midst of genuine fury.
Jabari Asim has written three nonfiction books and a collection of short stories, A Taste of Honey (Broadway Books, 2009).