In the week since a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed African-American teenager in a small St. Louis suburb, the familiar demons of race and violence returned in full force to rattle the U.S. consciousness. In death, 18-year-old Michael Brown became a rallying point – even a metaphor – for broader grievances over racial profiling, the militarization of the police and the absence of minorities in positions of power. Still this was not the 1960s, or even the 1990s. The fury in this corner of Missouri sparked clashes and peaceful vigils, while social media proved itself a powerful venue for protest.
Militarization: Police departments, even in small towns, are armed to the hilt
Some of the most disturbing images to emerge from Ferguson feature police officers sporting equipment that would be right at home in a war zone. The clashes in Missouri underscore the progressive militarization of America’s police forces since the 1980s, a trend spurred by several government programs.
For decades, the U.S. Defense Department has handed off unneeded military equipment to local police forces at no cost. The Department of Homeland Security has also provided grants to police to purchase various types of equipment under the broad rubric of fighting terrorism. The allure of free stuff has proved irresistible. The town of Dundee, Michigan, (population 3,900), acquired an armoured mine-resistant vehicle weighing roughly 20 tons from the U.S. military in 2013; so, too, did the campus police force of Ohio State University. The town of Keene, New Hampshire, (population 23,000), successfully applied for federal anti-terrorism funds to purchase an armoured personnel carrier.
The increasing availability of such equipment has coincided with a growing reliance on military-style tactics. In a report released earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union found that police forces increasingly deployed paramilitary units – or SWAT teams – to carry out routine tasks such as “serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs.” When heavily-armed teams arrive with assault weapons, flash bang grenades and battering rams, the author of the report said, it sends “the clear message that the families being raided are the enemy.”
Ferguson was part of the surplus equipment program, and received two tactical vehicles – both Humvees – along with other equipment, according to a spokesman for thee Defence Logistics Agency, the government’s combat logistics support agency. A few congressional Democrats have vowed to introduce legislation to rein in the program.
Diversity: Police forces still don’t look like the communities they serve
For decades, police forces in the U.S. have sought to diversify their ranks as a way to bolster their legitimacy among the varied communities in which they work. It turns out that process is moving very slowly indeed. The town of Ferguson, for instance, has 53 police officers; 50 of them, or 94 per cent, are white. The population, by contrast, is 67 per cent black. (The demographic change in the town was sudden: In 1990, whites made up nearly three-quarters of the population; by 2010, they were less than one-third.)
Major U.S. cities fare better and have made significant strides, but there’s still a long way to go. According to an analysis of census data by The Washington Post, the 22 largest American cities all have a greater percentage of whites on their police forces than in their respective populations. The big city with the best numbers: Los Angeles, where the 32 per cent white police force almost matches its 29 per cent white population.
Skeptics point out that women and minorities have found it harder to advance to the upper ranks of police forces, which means they have less sway over broader policies and procedures. Several large police departments are attempting to change that situation. Earlier this year, for instance, the Boston Police Department appointed an African-American as its second-in-command for the first time.
Pattern: Shooting adds to list of incidents of violence toward unarmed African-Americans
Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. Renisha McBride. Jonathan Ferrell. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. These killings, all of which took place over the past two years, represent a shameful litany: instances where police or others inflicted violence on unarmed African Americans with fatal consequences.
These deaths have sparked protests and vigils, but also a sense of despair. In each case, a relatively ordinary behaviour – walking on a street, seeking help after a car accident, returning from a convenience store – took a lethal turn. Mr. Garner, a 43-year old Staten Island man, died in July. New York police put him in a chokehold after he protested their accusations that he was illegally selling cigarettes. Handcuffed and forced to the ground, Mr. Garner kept repeating, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” The officers did not release him and provided no medical aid as he lay unresponsive.
The reaction in Ferguson is not only about Mr. Brown. “It is about the bitter sense of siege that lives in African-American men, a sense that it is perpetually open season on us,” wrote Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, earlier this week. “And that too few people outside of African America really notice, much less care.”
Politics: First black president prefers to walk softly in racially charged situations
When he was first running for president, Barack Obama gave a landmark speech on race in America. But as the country’s first black president, he has hesitated to address the issue in any major way, to the frustration of some in the African-American community. His preferred method for addressing racially-charged situations is with an abundance of caution, an appeal to shared American values, and a call to respect the common humanity of all those involved.
But the killings of two unarmed black teenagers – Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 and Michael Brown in Missouri – have challenged Mr. Obama’s careful approach. The President spoke in unusually personal terms about Mr. Martin, saying the teenager could have been his own son. He has made two public statements about Mr. Brown’s killing and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson. He also instructed federal prosecutors to pursue their own probe of the shooting and promised to follow up on that process.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama took care to be even-handed in his description of events. He paid tribute to the loss of a young man in “heartbreaking and tragic circumstances” while acknowledging that there are “passionate differences” about what happened in Ferguson.
“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” he added. “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests.”
Online: Social media has proved to be an effective tool for mobilizing protest
Ferguson was defined for people outside St. Louis County largely by images being shared on social media – on the one hand of white police aiming weapons at black protesters, on the other of black protesters looting or throwing Molotov cocktails. Images, for their immediacy and as references to the past, remain incredibly powerful even in an age of hyper-skepticism and mistrust of the media. Interest in Ferguson first intensified on social media via a Twitter campaign that objected to the media’s use of an informal photo of Mr. Brown with his fingers extended, in what was called either a gang sign or a peace sign. Thousands of young black people posted photos of themselves in formal settings, such as a graduation, and then joking around with friends, asking whether they’d be portrayed as a thug if they were killed by police. The campaign aimed to expose racial stereotyping and its slogan, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, was used more than 168,000 times on Twitter, the New York Times reported. The size of the response suggests that the informal network that refers to itself as “black twitter” has considerable clout in the online world and can effectively push back against media messages that it sees as discriminatory.
Social media interest peaked Wednesday evening, four days after Mr. Brown’s death, just as some journalists and at least one local elected official were arrested. The images and accounts of these arrests were shared widely and tens of thousands tuned in to watch live streams from the protest site, many of which focused on the array of weaponry trained on the protesters. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote that the way broad interest in Ferguson grew on Twitter shows why net neutrality is important, because Twitter feeds are not subject to algorithms that decide which items should be brought to a user’s attention.
Social theory: Race is a persistent and inescapable undercurrent in U.S. history
Despite the high hopes that accompanied the election of a black president, the United States is still haunted by an ugly racial history and fixated on the its meaning, and consequences. More than class or gender, race is the first and most important expression of its divisions, and it instantly became the lens through which the shooting of Michael Brown would be understood.
“We have this unwritten social theory that says we’ve come such a long way. … People think we’re a post-racial society,” says Garrett Albert Duncan, a professor of education and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He describes the U.S. social landscape as, instead, something much less settled, with race lying always just below the surface of any debate or public conversation. “It’s more like a tug of war that goes back and forth. When there’s economic crisis, there’s racial crisis.”
Prof. Duncan is originally from California. He was shocked by the rigid racial divides he found when he moved to the St. Louis area, which he describes “hyper-segregated.” “North,” where Ferguson is located, is a code for black; “South” is synonymous with white. He says that even he, a middle-aged professor, would not be surprised to be pulled over by police without reason if he were to venture into South St. Louis. In his racially mixed neighbourhood on the northern edge of St. Louis, none of his neighbours seem to be talking about what’s going on in Ferguson. That sense of invisible lines and competing realities is prevalent across the country. A 2013 Pew Research Center study that found 70 per cent of blacks said black people are treated less fairly by police; only 37 per cent of whites surveyed agreed.
Profiling: Minorities feel like they’re being singled out, and statistics back them up
The question of whether Michael Brown posed a threat to the police officer who shot him may never be answered to the satisfaction of everyone, or anyone. But what is sure is that there will be an abiding suspicion that here, as in so many recent cases, racial profiling played a part in the unarmed teenager’s killing. Profiling is a reality in the United States, one that has prompted lawsuits on behalf of African-Americans and also Latinos, Muslims and other groups, and forced changes in police training. President Obama has highlighted it; in one speech he described a personal experience that he said would be familiar to many black men – that is, being followed by security in a department store. (Only last week, there was an echo: the upscale store Barneys paid $525,000 to settle claims that it singled out minorities for surveillance.)
“All too often, young black men in our society are viewed as potential criminals,” Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, wrote this week. “They are targeted for arrest and incarceration more than anyone else. In schools, they are disproportionately subjected to harsh discipline. They fill our overcrowded prisons, often for crimes associated with the failed war on drugs. They are arrested for drug offences at three to five times the rate of whites, even though drug use among whites is comparable.”
Ferguson’s police statistics tell that story: In 2013, 86 per cent of stops and 92 per cent of searches involved black people. While a minority in Missouri, blacks were also 66 per cent more likely to be stopped by police than others, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, and the disparity has grown steadily for the past 14 years.