This August, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer named Darren Wilson. The city erupted with vandalism and then violence as the local authorities attempted to suppress — through what many would call extreme tactics — the community’s disappointed response. Yesterday evening, a grand jury officially decided that Wilson would not be indicted for the killing, and, predictably, more mayhem ensued. There were vocal protests around the country, but nowhere was the outrage more tangible than the city where the original incident occurred.
Outlets like CNN and MSNBC have been continuously streaming overnight footage of smoldering police cruisers and spiraling tear gas canisters since the decision was announced. While so many on Twitter and Facebook have declared their support for the citizens of Ferguson openly let down by the justice system, others have decried the looting and destruction of private property to which those citizens have resorted. The oft-heard, presumably flouted logic here is, “Why, after an injustice, commit even further destruction within one’s own community?” And, yes, beyond the purity of impulse fueled by outrage, the act of rioting can be difficult to understand.
Let’s all protest alleged injustice by burning down the businesses and cars of innocent people. Because f*ck logic? #FergusonDecision— Elephantiesha (@HausofContessa) November 25, 2014
Not just the inciting incident in Ferguson but also its aftermath recalls the strikingly similar climax of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. After witnessing the senseless and unlawful murder of a local man, Lee’s character ignites his neighborhood’s latent frustration by hurling a garbage can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria – a mostly beloved establishment and his own place of employment. One can argue that the riot which follows, no matter how physically devastating to the area and local economy, was a necessary release valve for the community’s pain. Others might say that such an impulsive, violent reaction to violence is misguided and cannot possibly be helpful in any way.
John Singleton’s Boyz ‘N the Hood addresses some of same concerns that arise in *Do the Right Thing,“ although the trappings are dissimilar and the respective settings are 3,000 miles distant. Whereas racial tension on the stoops and across the corner stores of Brooklyn precipitates the upheaval in Lee’s story, gang rivalry is the immediate primer for the combustion in Singleton’s. Nevertheless, the burned-out backdrop of early '90s, post-riot Los Angeles speaks to the pernicious nature of public unrest, its inevitable police response, and its aftermath. Call it heavy-handed if you want, Furious Styles’ (Laurence Fishburne) speech about housing scammers taking advantage of the unstable Compton neighborhood introduced a whole generation to the specter of gentrification.
It’s hard to watch the damage that has occurred in Ferguson over the last few months — specifically over the last 24 hours — and make immediate sense out of these seemingly conflicting actions. That said, there is strong, historical, support for the notion that riots and uprises — black, white, or multiracial — are very effective engines of change. The beauty of the aforementioned films by young, black storytellers at the prime of their potency, is that they allow for that ultimately hopeful possibility without necessarily championing it. Trey’s dad’s Compton speech would be significantly less impactful if it wasn’t set against a devastated community that desperately needed to take agency over its own future.
And as for Mookie and the trash can, his actions, however you interpret them, were clearly meant by Lee to symbolize some sort of arc for the heretofore immature character, a transition into someone who steps up and assumes responsibility. He made a sacrifice for something bigger than himself. He lost his job and close relationships. Hell, he’s lucky he didn’t get gassed and/or hauled off to jail like so many discontent protesters in Missouri. You can call it impetuousness or rage, but that’s not right. Go back, watch the scene, look at the character’s face before he empties out that can. It is a mixture of exhaustion and resolve. He knew the fallout would be incalculably dire. But in the end, he was willing to risk what little he and others possessed for the merest glimmer of change. That is a choice that can only be judged over time.