Michael Brown, Police Militarization and Racism in 2014

Whitney Curtis for the New York Times

It’s only been two days since I wrote this piece on here, “Ferguson Police Kill Teen Michael Brown,” but a lot has transpired since then. So, consider this an updating.

As you can see above, that’s a scene shot by Whitney Curtis for the New York Times in Ferguson. Three officers decked out in military attire, machine guns, war helmets and gas masks point their weapons at a single black man holding his arms up, unarmed. According to the Times, protesters took to the prosecutor’s office in St. Louis County yelling, “Don’t shoot!”

The standoff lasted for more than an hour, with about a dozen men approaching officers with their hands up saying, “Don’t shoot me.” At least 100 police officers were on the scene, shining bright lights into the crowd and telling people to return to their homes. At least 12 people were arrested.

At one point, the sound of gunfire was heard from within the area where the police had barricaded streets in Ferguson. Earlier in the night, several people threw rocks at officers.

Chief Jackson of the Ferguson police told The Associated Press that the officers used tear gas and shot “beanbag rounds” after rocks were thrown at officers and gunfire came from the crowd.

Just to state the obvious, again, unlike others, I do not and will never condone violence directed toward police officers. It’s wrong. The looting, the rioting, the vandalism, the rock-throwing, it’s all unequivocally wrong. However, there is a sense of irony that here are these people protesting police brutality (and let’s also state the obvious: Many are doing it peacefully) and they are being met with tear gas, beanbag rounds, pepper balls, arrest and the overall threatening presence of a militarized (and largely white, which I’ll get to later) police force. It says as much about Ferguson and its long historical issues with segregation (again, I’ll get to this in a moment), as it does about the greater problem across the U.S. of police militarization.


To the point about segregation and the white police force, also from the Times:

“You have to begin with the frustration,” said one protester, Wayne Bledsoe of St. Louis. “Treatment of these communities is not equal. In white communities, the police truly protect and serve. In black communities, that is not the case.”

Ferguson, a city of 21,000 northwest of St. Louis, has shifted substantially over the last decade, with blacks, once a minority, now making up two-thirds of the residents, after many white families moved out to surrounding suburbs. The town’s leadership and the police have remained predominantly white.

And additional information from Vox:

  • Ferguson’s population is 67% black and its police force is 94% white.
  • Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white.
  • Ferguson’s five members of its six member City Council are white.
  • Ferguson’s local school board has six white members and one Latino.
  • Ferguson’s police force only has three black officers out of 53 commissioned officers.
  • 86% of traffic stops and 92% of all arrests in the city were of black residents.

Also, The Atlantic sat down with Terry Jones, professor of political science at the University of Missouri to discuss Ferguson’s history and it’s quite insightful.

His theme postulates that this “could happen anywhere.”

But I think it’s a mistake to have the underlying causes of this incident focused on the city of Ferguson itself, as opposed to the entire St. Louis metropolitan area. This incident could have happened anywhere in St. Louis. It happened to happen in Ferguson. There’s nothing special about Ferguson that makes it stand out from the rest of the metropolitan area. In DC, it could have happened in Prince George’s County; it could have happened in Alexandria. 

That doesn’t relieve Ferguson of responsibility, but the narrative should not be, “It’s not St. Louis, it’s Ferguson. That’s the problem.'” Each municipality, and each area of St. Louis, should be looking at Ferguson and saying, “There but for the grace of God goeth us. It could have happened here.”

Again, just so we’re maintain clarity here, none of this justifies violence or rioting or vandalism or hurting police officers. But it does add some context to why tensions boiled over, why Michael’s Brown shooting and death was a potential “boiling point,” and the historical backdrop.

And a very startling development to this would-be journalist: Journalists are being told to get the hell out of Ferguson. As Julie Bosman for the Times put it in a Tweet, “Police shooting rubber bullets at crowd, including reporters and photographers. #Ferguson”

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer, David Carson was “being ordered to leave scene threatened with arrest,” according to a Tweet he sent out. Also, Tweeted by him is a picture of black teenagers cleaning up after the rioting and the looting, which I hadn’t even seen circulated by the media:

Cleaning up

According to Antonio French on the scene, a line of police cars greets anyone trying to enter Ferguson saying, “It’s shut down. No media allowed.”

Moreover, the Federal Aviation Administration banned low-flying flights over the Ferguson area, which includes news helicopters, supposedly because someone earlier had shot at a police helicopter.

In the blog post two days ago, I mentioned the conflicting police reports of what happened to Michael Brown with the eyewitness accounts, including that of Dorian Johnson (I wrote his name as “Derek” Johnson in the previous posting, it has now been corrected) who was walking with Michael Brown at the time. According to MSNBC, he has yet to be interviewed by police.

“I could see so vividly what was going on because I was so close,” said Johnson, who said he was within arm’s reach of both Brown and the officer when the first of several shots was fired at the teen. Johnson says he feared for his life as he watched the officer squeezing off shot after shot.

Hands up
A “Hands up!” protest in Ferguson from Antonio French

Finally, there’s one last element I have to address: The racism. Yep, it’s quite obviously alive and thriving in the year 2014 in America. Not that such a fact is particularly surprising, but it’s still nevertheless disheartening. While clearly, Facebook comment sections are not a scientific or wholly accurate portrayal of the average American, I wouldn’t be shocked to see it being close. All yesterday, as ABC News, NBC News, NPR and other sources shared stories from Ferguson, almost every top comment had implied racism. And it was abhorrent. Situations like this seem to bring out the ugliness in us.

Comments like implying black people don’t work, that they’re all animals and violent and that white people don’t ever riot or loot (which we know is nonsense). Again, it’s disheartening to see. We clearly have a long way to go.

All of this taken into consideration, one last article of note out of Salon from Brittney Cooper discussing “black rage.” Black rage scares us because it confirms our worst racist fears that blacks are animals and thugs. Blacks need to know their place and be docile, right? Fuck that, says Brittney Cooper (in a manner of speaking), their black rage is justified. It doesn’t justify the looting, but nor should we let racists obfuscate the real issue here — Michael Brown being dead — because of the looting.

It seems far easier to focus on the few looters who have reacted unproductively to this tragedy than to focus on the killing of Michael Brown. Perhaps looting seems like a thing we can control. I refuse. I refuse to condemn the folks engaged in these acts, because I respect black rage. I respect black people’s right to cry out, shout and be mad as hell that another one of our kids is dead at the hands of the police. Moreover I refuse the lie that the opportunism of a few in any way justifies or excuses the murderous opportunism undertaken by this as yet anonymous officer.

I speak to this deep psychology of race, not because I am trying to engage in pop psychology but because we live in a country that is so deeply emotionally dishonest about both race and racism. When will we be honest enough to acknowledge that the police have more power than the ordinary citizen? They are supposed to. And with more power comes more responsibility.

Absolutely. Americans, to which I’m specifically speaking to the privileged white Americans, seem to encase themselves in this sort of innocence, innocence of history, innocence of the present. There’s no real honest, hardball talk about racism in America, about police power in America and about race relations as an extension of that police power.

She’s right; it’s an acceptable response to be pissed off.



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