On Saturday night, in a suburb north of St. Louis, another unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot to death by law enforcement. Maybe this story has gotten too old and familiar and worn for the media, because rather than focusing on the injustice of cops targeting and killing children barely old enough to legally smoke, the media put a spotlight on justifiably angry neighbors in a mostly-black community.
Rather than asking why some residents loot, it’s long past time we should ask why it’s gotten to this point in the first place and what injustices need to be interrogated.
A little background: The police in Ferguson, Missouri, have been doing a horrible job in investigating the death and honoring the body of Michael Brown. We don’t know, as of yet, what the “official” statement of Brown’s apparent crime was. What the police initially said was that Brown was reaching for the officer’s gun – but by all accounts the officer was in a police vehicle. Even the police had said that Michael had pushed the cop into his car to retrieve his gun. How does that make the least bit of sense? Sitting down, where the gun is least likely to be grabbed? Nobody is foolhardy enough to try that and so taking the police department’s word is a little beyond incomprehensible at this point.
If we get to the heart of this incident, we’ll need to go to the eye-witnesses, many of whom were not officially recorded by the police. In fact, the police refused to let Brown’s own mother at the crime scene to identify the body, which apparently had been left uncovered after the shooting for several hours. Michael Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, was with him when he was gunned down and gives a harrowing, blood-chilling account with MSNBC. If the slightest bit of his testimony is true – and there is good reason to believe him over the official account – then the Ferguson PD has severely failed its citizens in the initial murder and cover-up.
Dorian Johnson recounts that he was walking with Michael Brown when a cop told them to get off the street. Brown answered that they are right by their house and kept walking. According to Johnson, the police truck backed up and almost ran over the pair. The officer, who is still unidentified, grabs Michael by the throat and then shoots him. At this point, both Michael and Dorian run and the officer continues after them and shoots Michael again. Michael says, “Stop! I don’t have a gun! Stop shooting at me.” According to a few witnesses, he raises his hands over his head as the cop unloads his bullets on him.
This raising of the head over the hands is one thing a few black friends have told me is one of the first things they learned about interacting with the police – from their parents. And yet it didn’t work here. Protesters have recognized this tragic irony – which replays itself again and again in Black spaces – and used it as a point of protest and ridicule, shaming the police in this action .
At first, the media only reported on the negatives and seemed to frame it as if the anger of the residents, the “Fuck the police” shouts, the looting the day after, was the actual story. And yet, a community stood outside and demanded answers from reticent authorities for why this killing took one of their own, why his body was left uncovered for several hours, why another unarmed black young man was taken long before his time, why nothing seemed to match up. This on top of years, decades, generations of mistreatment. They demanded answers and the police come back with a show of power.
First off, we should acknowledge that anger is a perfectly legitimate response to inaction and injustice. It is both a part of grief but also a call to much needed attention and action – much as how pain works in the body. It can be a rallying point for the good of the community. Anger is not evil and is never wrong – how one approaches the energy of that anger, on the other hand, can be wrong. But we should understand why people become angry primarily before heaping judgment on them for a reaction that we may not understand.
As we noted here a couple weeks ago, black people in predominately black and poor communities already feel under siege by the police. The police are not a safety force for many, but an occupying one. And it doesn’t matter if many officers are trying the best they can to help, that the majority aren’t corrupt – there has been for far too long too much mistrust of law enforcement in African-American spaces.
The larger objective, as Black people see it through generations of experience, for law enforcement and the criminal justice system in Black communities and with Black individuals isn’t so much serving and protecting, isn’t fighting crime. It is containment. Keeping those people under control, keeping them from encroaching on White areas, and especially areas of White wealth. Lock them up under any pretense. Start fights over petty crimes like jay-walking and carrying small amounts of marijuana.
Those who have been involved in mass protests against the status quo such as in the Occupy movements and against NATO, G8, and WTO have been able to experience this containment policy first-hand for stretches of time, but it’s a constant reality in Black and POC communities. That many POC activists come out so strongly on the side of Palestinians should not shock anyone, for in their occupation and containment – in this space of non-citizenship – they see their own.
In fact, the media, in further covering the story and demonstrations, have joined in a moment of solidarity with residents and other protesters in multiracial demonstrations. After being ordered home during a peaceful vigil near the FPD, residents responded that they were home. Journalists were also threatened with arrest if they did not leave, and guns were aimed at many, including a St. Louis alderman. When some stayed, they got hit with rubber bullets and tear gas. Later, journalists noticed the area around the suburb was declared a no-fly zone to “provide a safe place for police activities.”
Why would anybody trust this police department anymore, if it was ever to be trusted in the first place?
What year and what country is this when citizens are put under lockdown and curfews in their own communities, fear the face of police attack dogs, and get hit with tear gas and rubber bullets? News helicopters are denied access to the area so that the police can feel “safe” doing their business.
To be honest, there are no easy answers. In coming into contact with widespread, systemic, generational, historic and ongoing abuse of entire populations, sometimes it’s best to sit and ponder and ask questions not of the abused but of the system that allows such abuse. This is beyond one police officer and even beyond one police department and will require a thoughtful lament from American society.
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As I am finishing up this edit, I am watching a live stream (in DVR form) from Ferguson and the St Louis police are ordering demonstrators and the media to shut off their camera. It is a peaceful march, surrounded by the police. Quite literally surrounded. The crowd is now chanting “Won’t be no police brutality / When the revolution comes!” Rubber bullets and tear gas and ear-piercing sound canons.
Peaceful demonstration. “We have innocent victims fired upon by the police.” The police are advancing into the crowd who respond with raised arms “We are peaceful marchers” . The protesters are being shot at with rubber bullets. The violence is coming from the police. “Firing into the neighborhoods – into the back of people’s houses.” “Into people’s houses.”
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