Fast food, Ferguson, and 'heightening the contradictions' in 2014 America

Police watch as demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9.

If I was truly the Marxist that the commenters on this blog claim that I am, I think I would have learned the phrase "heighten the contradictions" a long time ago. Supposedly, the term has its origin in the writings of Marx (Karl, not Groucho) and some of his later 20th Century acolytes who believed that the contradictions of capitalism would become so obvious that the West's primary economic system would collapse of its own accord .That's something that didn't happen (although in fairness I haven't looked outside the window in the last couple of hours.)

No, I became aware of the phrase "heighten the contradictions" only about six years ago, as I read author Rick Perlstein's masterful political history of the late 1960s and early 1970s, "Nixonland" (which is not to be confused with his current masterful bestseller about the mid-1970s, "The Invisible Bridge"). He notes that student protesters and other radicals often spoke of actions that would "heighten the contradictions" raised by Vietnam and other questionable U.S. actions of that era. Protests that drew a massive police response, even violence, would be a positive for the movement in the long run because average citizens would be won over by the sight of realities of an unfair society. Ditto the election of the very unprogressive Richard Nixon in 1969. In hindsight, there's no doubt that the contradictions were present for all to see, although what citizens did with that info wasn't always what the Left had hoped for.

Still, I found myself thinking about the ever widening contradictions of our modern American society just last month, watching the civil unrest that was unfolding in Missouri. The killing of an unarmed black youth, Mike Brown, by a police officer -- one of far too many similar cases lately -- was the trigger, but it wasn't really the thing that elevated Ferguson to a place where the name now carries echoes of places like Selma or Chicago. Instead, it was the escalating and alarming steps that authorities took -- at first to protect the secrets of how Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson. Then, increasingly, it became clear they were really protecting a fragile grip on the sham of a society that had been created in the fading suburbs of St. Louis, a place where African-Americans endure substandard public schools and a mostly white police force and government on a level that people foolishly thought was a bygone relic of the segregated South before 1965.

Indeed, the first shock came hours after Brown was murdered, when police used dogs to control the gathering crowds of mourners, exactly as Bull Connor had done in trying to prevent integration in Birmingham. Four nights later, a peaceful, daytime protest march was met with gunners atop armored personal carriers, with police who seemed to be equipped for Kandahar Province and not southeast Missouri, and with reporters and a local politician swept up in arrests. For the last several years, Americans have become increasingly aware of the gaps in modern society, of the obscene gulf that is opening up between the rich and poor and the gross injustice of policies like "stop and frisk," the "war on drugs," and the mass incarceration of young black males. What Ferguson showed -- with millions paying close attention for the first time -- is the insane lengths that a now militarized police force will go to in order to preserve that inequality, and to push back citizens with legitimate grievances.

The contradictions could not have been heightened any more clearly. And now, just 24 days after Brown's killing, it feels like something has changed in America. The stakes have been raised. Not everybody feels that way yet, but many do.

Tomorrow morning, fast-food workers in Philadelphia and 150 other cities are planning a strike and other protests as they escalate their campaign for a $15-an-hour living wage and the right to form a union. Just as auto workers and coal miners found themselves nearly a century ago, today these workers (in what used to be an after-school gig for teenagers) are becoming the bedrock of America's post-industrial society. They are hoping for the basics of a middle-class lifestyle, just like industrial workers won in the middle-20th Century. But they are learning that it once took radical actions -- like Michigan's famous sit-down strike of 1937 -- to get those gains. They are ready to take risks, to repeat history.

A number of the fast-food strikers say they will take part in civil disobedience -- get arrested, if necessary -- to advance their cause to the next level. "It's what we're going to have to do if we want change to happen," Shymara Jones, who makes $7.60 an hour after working for five years at a Philadelphia Popeye's and who works a second, even-lower-paying job to support herself and her 1-year-old son, told me this week.

The fast-food worker movement has been radicalized in a hurry, and I have no doubt of the underlying reason. It's what they saw in Ferguson. So it is, too, with the thousands who plan to march for climate change action later this month and the growing numbers that have protested everything from police brutality to the official abandonment of urban public schools in recent weeks. The whole world was watching in Ferguson, and what they saw an occupying force with its tear gas on one side, and citizens with their hands up on the other. The scenes made one thing clear to many: That it was time to pick a side.

Everyone saw the contradictions in Ferguson. That's not the issue anymore. The issue is only what we are going to do about it.