There are few metropolitan areas in America more burdened by racial tension and suspicion than the St. Louis area. The racial and economic problems that have beset America’s cities are particularly intense there. Most white affluent denizens’ only contact with their black fellow citizens are through service industry interactions. St. Louis is the city that produced Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and Josephine Baker. Despite advances made over the past few decades, when Michael Brown died, white and black residents quickly drew back to their default positions of mutual distrust. Black people took to the streets of Ferguson to express their anger, while white citizens expressed dismay at the chaos. There are echoes of this throughout the city’s history.
The outrage of the black community can only be argued against by the most blinkered of partisans. The suburb of Ferguson, where the working-class, majority-black population has been clashing with law enforcement since the killing of Michael Brown, has 53 commissioned police officers. According to the city’s police chief, three of them are black. That is approximately 5.7% of the force, partrolling a population that is 60% black. These numbers matter, and not just for the disturbing sights of white officers clutching tear gas canisters and white officers in paramilitary gear menacing black residents with their hands in the air. They talk about a fundamental problem rooted deep in the history of this area and driving the injustice in Ferguson today. This community simply isn’t represented in its own institutions of power.
The images and stories from Ferguson, Missouri involving policemen with dogs and AR-15 rifles advancing through a light-diffusing cloud of tear gas, crowds of protesters with their hands in the air and screaming “Hands up, don’t shoot”, members of the press being removed from the scene and blocked from the airspace overhead in violation of the First Amendment… These do not look like America. These do not belong in America. Officers dressed and outfitted as if they were storming into an ISIS safe house in Iraq have no place on the streets of an American city. A handful of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have reportedly thrown rocks at police, a wholly unjustified act that ought to result in their arrest and prosecution, if the perpetrators can be identified. But the camouflage pants and assault rifles are hardly there to protect against thrown rocks. If the police were dressed as civilians, but with helmets and shields, that would be more understandable.
As mostly black protesters in Ferguson faced these pseudo-military officers to protest what they believe to be a civil rights violation, they’re also staring at another police excess that disproportionately affects people like them. The United States should be better. We have a Constitution that protects its citizens from violent excesses, despite the country’s racial history. Our rights are more than the right of white people to bear arms and expect to live. But after the militarized reaction to the protesters in Ferguson, it’s worth considering whether the typical ending to the issue, where the outrage of the community is met with silence and victim-blaming on the part of the authorities, has changed for the worse.
This is by no means a problem limited to Missouri. A short time ago, Eric Garner died as the result of NYPD officers placing him in a banned choke hold following a confrontation over selling loose cigarettes. His death echoed that of Renisha McBride, the nineteen-year-old who was killed when she knocked on a stranger’s door following a car accident. This, in turn, conjured memories of Jonathan Ferrell, who was shot ten times and killed by officers in North Carolina soon after the death in Florida of Jordan Davis, shot by a man who wanted him to turn down his music, which in turn paralleled the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s demise. For those who have a memory for these matters, those names have been inducted into a grim roll call that includes Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and Eleanor Bumpurs. These are all distinct incidents that took place under particular circumstances in differing locales. Yet what happened on Staten Island, in Dearborn Heights, Charlotte, Jacksonville, and Sanford share a trend with these past events, in the form of a repeated refrain of familial grief, a familiar strain of outrage, and an accompanying sense that, had the victims been white, they would not have been the victims.
This is borne out by other events in our nation. A few weeks ago, white teenager Steve Lohner toted a gun around in Aurora, Colorado (where in 2012 James Holmes gunned 12 people to death and injured 70 others), practically taunting law enforcement to mess with him, in a quest to make a showy point about gun rights. He lived through his encounter with law enforcement. Who can rationally pretend that, if a black kid was doing the same thing, he wouldn’t be much more likely to wind up killed? Those so lost to reality to pretend otherwise might note that, meanwhile, black 22-year-old John Crawford was killed two weeks later for holding a toy gun at a Wal-Mart in Ohio. Recently, a white sovereign citizen broke into a home, threatened the woman and child in residence, set traps, ambushed first responders, and shot at law enforcement… and nothing happened to him except arrest. When a white domestic terrorist gets handled with kid gloves, and a black man trying to engage in basic commerce is shot dead BEFORE being told to surrender, we have a real problem.
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