We’ve reached a weird place in our race relations discussions in the United States. To speak generally, white people have completely tuned the discussions out. Everything is race-baiting, everything is playing the race card and everyone is a caricature of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Therefore, race is never part of the equation. In their quest to ensure not everything is about race, they’ve made it where nothing involves race. As if to say, we’ve eradicated the most corrosive forms of racism. It’s a done deal.
But race is absolutely part of the equation in Ferguson and as a larger commentary on our criminal justice system and policing in the United States. If you’re denying that, you’re ignoring the historical context of Ferguson, St. Louis and its history with segregation and present issues with segregation. For instance, 67% of the population is black, but 90% of its police force is white. However, blacks are more likely to be stopped and frisked, stopped at traffic stops and arrested, even though the white residents are more likely to be caught with contraband like drugs or illegal weapons, according to Radley Balko from the Post. This cannot be ignored.
What about Ferguson itself? Is it some bastion of violent crime making what’s occurred inevitable? Hardly. from the Times:
(There’s more I could bring up about the wider criminal justice system, like how blacks and whites use drugs at comparable rates, but blacks are more likely to be arrested and more likely to face harsher sentencing. Or about how SWAT teams predominantly focus on low-income black neighborhoods. Or about how the ATF specifically targeted minority groups in its drugs stings.)
An unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was killed because he was walking down the street with another friend. Jaywalking. If I’m walking down that street with a friend, am I going to be accosted? Probably not. We cannot tune out the lived experiences of what it means to be black in the United States and how those in authority, like the police, view them as compared to whites.
Ferguson isn’t just about Michael Brown; his death was just a trigger point for deep-rooted issues in Ferguson. But conservatives will point out to me, well, what about black-on-black crime? What about Michael Brown’s criminal records (and I don’t know if that’s actually true)? Black-on-black crime has nothing to do with it. What’s the relation? And even if Michael Brown had the longest rap sheet in criminal history, it doesn’t mean he deserves to be shot dead.
Now, as for the protests going on. Again, people are tuning it out because it matches their preconceived notions, if you ask me, about black people. Oh, they’re looting and rioting. Fucking thugs. Fuck that. Good, I hope the police force is strong. Let’s clarify. There was some rioting and looting, which is wholly indefensible, but there has also been a great many scenes across Ferguson that are peaceful. Did you hear about the teenagers that helped clean up after the rioting and the looting (that they didn’t have a hand in)? Oh, you didn’t? When the cops started shooting tear gas, a family gave David Carson, a photo-journalist, shelter. Did you hear about that? Did you hear Brown’s family saying no violence? No?
Did you know that two reporters, one for the Washington Post, were arrested? Going back to the question of race, Wesley Lowery for the Washington Post was shoved up against a soda fountain. He’s black. the other reporter, Ryan J. Reilly, white, wasn’t. Did you know that the police have been keeping news satellite trucks out of the area? Did you know that officers fired on an Al Jazeera news team with tear gas? Then tried to destroy their equipment? Did you know that the initial Associated Press report, which led this whole narrative, where protesters said, “Kill the cops!’ has been unsubstantiated and basically thought false now?
The police response to the protests has been categorically awful. In the United States, you have this odd First Amendment right to assemble and air your grievances. And journalists also have that odd First Amendment right to film the officers and film what’s going on. They brought in military vehicles, decked out in military camouflage (for what purpose?) and with military weaponry. An individual officer sat at the top of one of those vehicles pointing a sniper rifle at peaceful protesters. A sniper rifle.
As one protester said, “How can we feel like we have free speech if there’s a guy staring us down with a sniper rifle?”
But all of that is a part of process of police militarization that’s been going on since about the 1980s and especially since 9/11 and the wind down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. All of that excess military-grade weaponry and armor and vehicles are coming to American cities and being deployed. We’re seeing it in Ferguson and it’s troubling.
You dress like the military, you hold weapons like the military and you will see us as the enemy. The St. Louis County Police Department has refused to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting, the details of Brown’s autopsy, how many shots were fired, they’re teargassing and arresting journalists and all of this helps to further contextualize why it’s such a powder keg in Ferguson. There’s no accountability or at least, there’s a perception (and rightfully so) that there’s not.
People will say to me, well, officers have to protect themselves, right? I’d advise them to check out what Police Chief Chris Burbank did in Salt Lake City for the Occupy protests. He had to evict the protesters from where they were staying. He met with protesters one-on-one and told them to leave peacefully at night and they could return the next day. Officers showed up at night, not in riot gear, but in normal police attire. There was no violence and no rioting.
“I just don’t like the riot gear,” Burbank says. “Some say not using it exposes my officers to a little bit more risk. That could be, but risk is part of the job. I’m just convinced that when we don riot gear, it says ‘throw rocks and bottles at us.’ It invites confrontation.”
Exactly and what’s the whole point of policing if officers aren’t supposed to assume some risk? That’s the point, not the predominance of officer safety over everything else. They are our servants. They are there to ensure our rights are respected. As Radley Balko states, how safe do you think those officers in Ferguson feel right now? How free do you think those protesters and journalists feel?
Wearing riot gear and dressing like the military dehumanizes the police, which is the antithesis to community policing.
How many people have been abused or shot dead by the police? Unnecessarily? That’s a good question, but we don’t know. Even though a 1994 law made it mandatory to collect that data, it didn’t make it mandatory that local law enforcement give up that data. And they haven’t. Again, no accountability.
We and by we, I mean white people, can’t tune out what’s going on in Ferguson and its wider implications because we think its another Al Sharpton race-bait theater show. We can’t tune out what the police response has been because we worry about their safety (a valid concern).
Now, there’s been two key developments. First, the Missouri governor, Jay Nixon has taken the St. Louis County Police Department out of Ferguson and replaced them with the Missouri Highway Patrol, with Ron Johnson at the helm. Look at him here marching with protesters:
Also, compare last night with today’s in terms of police presence:
Also, just released from The Daily Beast:
According to Ferguson Chief of Police Tom Jackson, the officer, who has still not been identified, “was hit” and the “side of his face was swollen.” The chief didn’t disclose whether any bones were broken.
However, we still do not know this officer’s name. Moreover, we still have to wait for the investigation to flesh out. So I’ll withhold commentary on that new development for now.