The killing of Michael Brown and the events that immediately followed, and continue still, in Ferguson, Missouri, raise a multitude of questions. Unarmed black Americans being killed by white police officers is, as MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry points out, far from what you’d call a recent development. The model of law enforcement in urban environments has gone wayward from its original motto of serving and protecting its community, and its steady militarisation has exacerbated its relation not just with citizens, protestors, and journalists, but with the people it is supposed to serve and protect as a whole. Join the Urchin Movement in examining the many sides of the events surrounding Ferguson, and take a side of your own.
Ferguson, and the rest of the nation for that matter, waited six days before the Ferguson Police Department officially released the identity of the police officer who killed Michael Brown. Police Chief Thomas Jackson stated previously that the identity of Darren Wilson, who had been put on paid administrative leave since the shooting, was withheld out of concerns for the officer’s safety, ‘citing death threats made to Ferguson police and on social media.’
Meanwhile, the Ferguson community began rallying at the site of Brown’s death, coming together not only to protest the injustice and racism of the death of another unarmed black person at the hands of a white police officer, but also in an attempt to get answers. The Ferguson Police Dept.’s continued withholding of information surrounding the event, all in the name of protecting not only one of their own but their image in general, felt to many like a stiff-arm toward justice regarding an already unjust circumstance.
After six days, Police Chief Jackson held a press conference to reveal the officer’s name. Jackson did not mention much else about Wilson, other than the fact that he had been serving as a police officer for six years without a single disciplinary mark on his record. (As far as I know, the Ferguson Police Dept. has not even released an official photograph of Wilson.)
However, after that brief unveiling, Police Chief Jackson, in the very same press conference, without so much as a transition, informed the public that the unarmed shooting victim, Michael Brown, was considered the main suspect in a strong-arm robbery of a box of cigars from a convenience store that very day. Members of the Brown family responded almost immediately, calling the Police Dept.’s actions ‘strategic and aimed at destroying the character’ of their son. The decision to bring up the robbery in light of Brown’s killing, which the victim’s family charged as character assassination, was so tactless and infuriating a move that the family has urged protesters not to ‘take that bait and begin to riot.’ In times like these, of course, it is important for at least one group to keep their heads, and right now it definitely isn’t the police.
Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for people on Twitter to address the lopsidedness with #iftheygunnedmedown, where users tweet ‘juxtapos[ing]… images of the same person in very different contexts—reading a book in one, say, while blowing smoke and flashing a hand gesture in another. The paired images effectively but implicitly present many questions about how we choose the images that come to represent the individuals we cover, and the effects of those choices.’
The fact of the matter, however, remains this: Darren Wilson was completely unaware of the robbery when he killed Michael Brown. Police Chief Jackson confirmed this himself, saying in the press conference, ‘This robbery does not relate to the initial contact between the officer and Michael Brown. […] It had nothing to do with the stop.’
So why bring it up in the first place? Jackson claims that he chose to release the information of the robbery under the pressure of Freedom of Information Act requests from the media. Even if that were true, was the decision to announce those details in the same breath as the identity of Darren Wilson simply coincidental then?
Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, along with the support of fellow protesters in Ferguson and in nationwide solidarity protests, sums it up best: ‘It doesn’t matter if Michael Brown committed theft or not. That’s not the issue. The issue is what happened when Darren Wilson encountered Michael Brown, and when he died—when he was killed. Those are the only facts that are necessary.’
If only slightly, the sight of tear gas, armoured vehicles, and camouflaged police with assault rifles turned against protestors—in what can only be described as a police state—is bizarrely dystopian. The recent violence in Ferguson following the shooting of Michael Brown gives the impression that the police define their role in the community as that of gamekeepers. Free thought must naturally lead to an upset of the status quo, therefore it must be quelled.
Okay, perhaps that’s a bit over the top, but check out these statistics:
In the last eight years, state and local law enforcement across the US have acquired 435 armoured vehicles, 533 military aircraft and 93,763 machine guns. At least.
Under a Department of Defense programme, more than $4.3 billion of excess military goods have been transferred to the police since 1997.
Between 1980 and 2000, there was a 1400% increase in SWAT teams around the nation.
It begs the question: are the police here to keep us safe or keep the masses at bay? (Please note: I’m not speaking of individual police officers who have one of the most difficult jobs I can imagine, but rather the system as a whole.)
So why do police departments around the nation have access to military gear? For the Wars on Terror and Drugs, naturally. And yet, in a recent article, Amanda Taub is quick to point out that while the police receive as much gear as they need, they receive no training on how to use it.
Can I just point out that $4.3 billion of military equipment have failed to prevent how many mass shootings in the last ten years? As with so many of our resources, this one has been poorly mismanaged. Perhaps Ferguson will be a wake-up call to communities around the nation—after all, those armoured vehicles aren’t just in Missouri.
When 28-year-old white police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown six times last Saturday afternoon, the US entered a new era of race relations. In the 50 short years since the Civil Rights Movement that finally gave black Americans the right to vote and ended segregation, the rest of America has let the centuries of oppression they faced slip conveniently from the public consciousness. After generations of slavery, discrimination, and laws that prevented them from enjoying basic human rights, black Americans have been expected to ‘move on’ in the span of a few decades. And no doubt they would have liked to. But the reality is that an entire institutionalised system of racism and oppression exists in the US today. It is the rest of America’s refusal to acknowledge the systemic racism facing black communities that led to the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri. It is the reason Michael Brown is dead.
According to an article by Adam Hudson,
While African Americans constitute 13.1% of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. Even though African-Americans use or sell drugs about the same rate as whites, they are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than whites. Black offenders also receive longer sentences compared to whites. Most offenders are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.
The prison-industrial complex is just one example of the institutionalised racism rampant through the US. The rate at which black men are killed by police (one every 28 hours) is another.
But it seems as though people might finally be starting to take notice. The public response to Michael Brown’s murder has been massive. The reality of what it means to be black in this country is becoming too dire to ignore.
Perhaps most demonstratively telling were the two articles released by satire news site The Onion. Renowned for their hilarious satire of both current events and everyday life, The Onion published two of the most moving and honest pieces written about the shooting and its implications.
In ‘Tips For Being An Unarmed Black Teen’, The Onion provides the following advice to young black men in America, sobering for its stark revelations of truth:
- Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
- Be sure not to pick up any object that could be perceived by a police officer as a firearm, such as a cell phone, a food item, or nothing.
- Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view: You may be unarmed, but you’re also black.
- Avoid wearing clothing associated with the gang lifestyle, such as shirts and pants.
- Revel in the fact that by simply existing, you exert a threatening presence over the nation’s police force.
In ‘Sometimes Unfortunate Things Happen In The Heat Of A 400-Year-Old Legacy Of Racism’, The Onion provides a mock letter from Thomas Jackson, Ferguson’s Chief of Police, justifying Brown’s murder as a heat-of-the-moment act of self and public defence by police officer Darren Wilson:
It’s a situation every officer of the law will inevitably face: tensions escalate during questioning or an arrest when, suddenly, in the commotion of four centuries of bias against racial minorities in the United States, the situation takes a violent turn. When emotions run high, it just takes two seconds following dozens of generations of systemic social, economic, and political discrimination toward non-whites—particularly African-Americans—for things to get way out of hand.
We train our officers to behave professionally and respectfully toward the communities that they serve. But no matter how much training and experience they may have, they are human beings who, in the bedlam of decade upon decade of racist enculturation and deeply institutionalized systems of inequality, may be involved in a tragic situation.
The Onion is famous for humour that stems from funny takes on basic truths. In the case of these articles, there is no humour. They are brilliant and devastating because of their truth. What is satirised is our refusal to acknowledge the role underlying discrimination plays in our country today.
But the public’s reaction to both Brown’s murder and the protests in Ferguson seem to indicate that the country is ready to make a change. It has been nine days and momentum is still high. Now is the time. Everyone must act.
In 1961, groups of black and white Freedom Riders took buses to the southern US to protest those states’ refusal to uphold laws banning the segregation of public buses. When black Americans weren’t allowed to vote or drink out of the same water fountains as white Americans, people took to the streets. Blacks and whites alike joined protests, marches, and rallies, and they didn’t stop until there was change.
As Jelani Cobb wrote for The New Yorker, a movement is growing in Ferguson. A ‘People’s Park’ has been set up outside a local gas station. Groups of volunteers, organisers, and citizens are congregating to see how they can join the cause and make a difference. For the first time ever on US soil, Amnesty International has deployed a human rights delegation to ‘observe police and protestor activity, gather testimony, seek meetings with officials, and offer support to the community.’
Still, Cobb noted only about 20 white supporters in attendance. Solidarity rallies have been held in cities like New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., but where are the buses? Where are the people travelling to Ferguson and standing, actually physically standing, with the community? Protestors there are being teargassed, shot with rubber bullets, and bullied into submission with ambiguous curfew laws. They cannot, and should not, have to face that alone. And if they have to, there is a greater likelihood that the system will once again succeed in suppressing their voices.
We have to take advantage of the momentum in Ferguson and across the country to address the systematic oppression of black communities in the US. Don’t let the moment pass. Get on a bus.