Tensions remain heightened in Ferguson, Missouri two weeks after Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown around midday on a Saturday. Rallies have spread to places like New York and Washington DC, with protesters subverting the gesture and speech of surrender – hands raised, 'Don't shoot!' – into a symbol of resistance.
The security response to these protests illuminates the conditions in which Brown was killed. The use of police dogs, land mine-resistant vehicles, rubber bullets, tear gas and sonic weapons in the streets of Ferguson is so disproportionate as to be nearly comical, except that it underlines the hostility that can turn fatal if you were black.
It is a hostility that has been internalised by blacks. In a letter published in the New York Times a week after Brown's death, 'a black mother to a mixed race child' lists the rules that she makes him recite over and over: 'Don't run after dark. Don't put your hood up. Keep your hands visible at all times. Always be scrupulously polite.' These are the rules that she hopes will keep her son safe, like being careful around a stove.
Such sentiments are eerily echoed by a Los Angeles police officer in a Washington Post opinion piece: : 'If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.' The onus of restraint, it turns out, does not rest on the man with the gun who is vested with the force of the state.
The specifics of the Ferguson incident are yet to be resolved by federal and St Louis County investigations but there are certain things that cannot be refuted. Brown and his friend were initially stopped for jaywalking. Both were unarmed. Six bullets hit Brown, four in the arm and two in the head. Wilson did not call for medical help. A dead man was left on the street for a few hours in the summer heat.
The lack of restraint on Wilson's part, the indignity that shrouded Brown's body long after his death, the disproportionate force deployed against protestors and journalists in the aftermath – this has become the canvas upon which the long grievance of racialised oppression has found vivid expression.
Inequities in the United States are often magnified by the justice system, just as they are magnified in education, health and housing. A report on Ferguson by the Missouri State General, for instance, found that 86 per cent of traffic stops last year targeted black drivers, though their contraband 'hit rate' (searches with found contraband over total searches) is lower than that of white drivers by 12 percentage points.
National data shows that black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for drug possession, though they use drugs at similar rates as white people. Their drug sentences are 13 percent longer. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), SWAT raids are more likely to occur in 'communities of colour'.
The mentality revealed in LA officer's remarks – that 'in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not the cops, but the people they stop, who can prevent detentions from turning into tragedies' – is alarming in that context. In many of the manslaughter cases in which police officers shot black men to death, victims were unarmed, not resisting arrest or had been mistakenly identified.
The killing of Michael Brown may have thus sharpened a malignant pattern, but the broader conditions that make it more likely for such incidents to occur will remain unless police departments confront the way they have perpetuated injustice rather than enforced order.
What we have seen over the past weeks is an unreconciled history of racial oppression intersecting with more contemporary features such as security theatre and heavily militarised police.
It is worth pondering whether this episode will remain unique to Ferguson and the United States for long.
Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. She tweets as @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.
Image under Creative Commons licence via flickr.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
22 August 2014
Reminds me of the Rodney King Riots in 1991.The footage of King being beaten by police while lying on the ground became a focus for media attention and a rallying point for activists in Los Angeles and around the United States. Coverage was extensive during the initial two weeks after the incident: the Los Angeles Times published forty-three articles about the incident,The New York Times published seventeen articles, and the Chicago Tribune published eleven articles. Eight stories appeared on ABC News, including a sixty-minute special on Primetime Live.
22 August 2014
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address , perhaps should have included a rider .
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." As long as they are not black.
22 August 2014
Thank you for your comments! Lucy
22 August 2014
Fatima, I had hoped the 60s were long gone. Then I watched too, too many times as police beat, used dogs, and fire hoses to hurt innocent black citizens of America. Ferguson is showing the world that racist policing is still around. They are showing that DWB is still considered criminal in some areas. DWB is 'driving while black', a phrase I first heard over forty years ago. Yes, a policeman explaining stops in a Ferguson-like town introduced me to the phrase at a dinner table as he laughingly told a story he heard at his precinct. I was amazed to hear such callous remarks from someone whom I would expect to protect and serve. Unfortunately, Ferguson proves the nonsense many politicians throw about so carelessly defining a group as undesirable really has become ingrained into the hearts and minds of way too many people. Politicians seed the minds of too many weak people into believing their nonsense and racist behaviors are planted in the minds of the next generation. Yes, power corrupts. Please continue to be a voice of reason in this troubled world.
22 August 2014
Order is the FIRST law of heaven and chaos...the first law of hell.
23 August 2014
As you say Fatima, "It is worth pondering whether this episode will remain unique to Ferguson and the United States for long." Pondering, the USSification of our health system, our education system, supporting the US with drone Flights from Pine Gap, the dress and behaviour of coppers in Australia and the incarceration rates for Aboriginal people in Australia is terrifying to me. And the more we allign ourselves with them makes us more of a target for terrorists. New Zealand seems to have a better take on this than the current Oz government. But thanks for your, as usual, great article.
25 August 2014
Ferguson is a predominantly black-persons` area with a predominantly white-person governance. That`s a breakdown in democracy which is at least one cause of this awful racist situation. Black residents should all register to vote and use it strategically to get the governance they deserve. And remembering that everyone from judge, to police sheriff , to dog-catcher in US communities is voted in! Communities in much of USA are segregated in a way Australians would not understand, but black citizens should use this evil construct to at least gain something positive: local political power! And David, Abraham Lincoln was murdered for his vision.