How a prejudiced system can create a powerful backlash
On August 9, in Ferguson, Missouri, 18 year-old Michael Brown was shot several times in a struggle with a police officer. It is relatively-unclear exactly how the struggle began, however, what is obvious is that Brown was unarmed, and that witnesses say he made a seeming gesture of voluntary “surrender” to the officer before being killed.
The shooting has become a race issue, as Michael Brown was a member of the local African American community. Almost immediately after the shooting, protests spread outward from the site where Brown’s body was left unattended in the street by police for hours.
Widespread riots and looting have resulted from the immense public backlash (overwhelmingly in the African American community, but also composing individuals representing all aspects of the demographic spectrum) to this shooting. Many see this as a race issue. In reality, it probably is, at least in part, although there are always numerous variables to take into account. One of the many results of the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent, resulting trial, is a fairly-pervasive perception that racism is still a disease that infects the American public.
The truth is that the shooting and the riots are both entirely-separate and, paradoxically, completely-intertwined. The socio-economic picture in this part of the country indicates that African American residents (as well as opportunistic out-of-towners) feel like their voices are not being heard. Demographic statistics of the police department in Ferguson as well as overall demographic statistics for the state of Missouri (and much of the American south) also indicate a gross negligence with respect to true, equal representation.
Michael Brown SR., father of the victim, who has spoken out fervently against the violence and looting (saying that this is not the reaction that Michael would have wanted in any way), was quoted recently as saying with respect to the pending case, “We need justice for our son.” Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden lamented that “He just graduated and was on his way to college,” continuing that, “We can’t even celebrate; we’ve got to plan a funeral.” Neighbors who knew Brown have attested to his moral character. Markese Mull, a nearby homeowner stated of Brown that “He was never a person who liked confrontation.”
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson has stated that the department has delayed the release of the name of the officer responsible for the shooting due to a large volume of death threats on social media. The department has also have refused to release the race of the officer, although witnesses claim that he was white. The officer is also allegedly a six- year veteran of the force, who should have known better. Chief Jackson was quoted as saying, “I really believe we can get to the truth of what happened here.”
The police response to the protests has been swift and vicious. Officers have even fired tear gas grenades at individuals who were yelling, “You go home! You go home!,” while standing on their own property. Riot squads, canine units, and even tanks have been brought in to combat those individuals, who find it necessary to make their voices heard. Richie West, aged 24, stated of this overbearing police presence, “I pay property taxes here. I should be able to be in my backyard any time.”
One must ask, especially in light of the outspokenness of Michael Brown’s parents against the violence and looting, why exactly it is happening. Certainly, at least from a logical perspective, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these things beyond the fact that they cause serious harm to the community as a whole as well as to economic and physical infrastructure.
Due to the endemic violence consuming central Missouri, the FAA has even issued a flight restriction for the dates August 12-18, because some among the rioters have allegedly (according to police) even taken to shooting at helicopters in their rage-induced furor. So far, 32 people have been arrested on suspicion of violent crimes and looting, and two police officers have been injured. On Sunday night alone, several dozen businesses were robbed, damaged, or set on fire by the rioters.
Whenever racially-motivated crimes like this occur, there are always leaders in the African American community who speak out against this sort of senseless violence. In spite of this, many individuals take it upon themselves to use whatever tragedy has occurred to the ends of personal gain. One could hypothesize that there is a growing resentment in the African American community as a whole, which may feel like it is underrepresented and under-supported by a state in which other (mainly white) individuals do fairly well in comparison. This looting could be construed as a subconscious means for some to justify taking property from those better off than they are. The inequality of the system (which is still very apparent) is also generally more so in states, like Missouri, which still feel the ripples of slavery and reconstruction.
An FBI probe has been launched by Attorney General Eric Holder into possible race-related abuses of power. On Monday, demonstrators gathered at the Ferguson Police Station to demand prosecution of the officer in question, as well as a release of all information related to his identity. A question of merit then arises: Would this FBI probe have been launched without the massive, violent reaction? Probably not. Does this crime, therefore, represent prevalent racism within the criminal justice system (at the very least in Missouri)? To a certain extent, yes.
Out of the 53 members of the Ferguson Police Department, 3 are African American. Groups who have gathered to protest the shooting, like the New Black Panther Party have made demands that the department must adjust its racial demographics to reflect the community which it serves. Approximately two-thirds of the community of some 21,000 individuals are African American.
Terry Jones, professor of political science at the University of Missouri, St. Louis said of this issue that, “There’s a long history of racial injustice.” Jones continued to state that, “Slowly and not so surely, the St. Louis metropolitan area has been trying to figure out a way forward. As the Michael Brown shooting indicates, there are often setbacks.” This is also not to mention that the median yearly household income in Ferguson, Missouri is approximately $10,000 less than other areas in the state.
Those who have taken to the streets in violent protest likely do not represent the will of Michael Brown, or the respective wills of either of his parents. To do violence in his name is a display that leaves the rioters with little moral authority. With that being said, one can definitely understand the frustration that often boils over in situations like these, although it is seldom recognized as an excuse or a justification.
There is still a long way to go in the reformation of America’s prejudiced criminal justice system. Clearly, with respect to the shooting of Michael Brown, the surrounding material and demographic circumstances show this. In the quest for economic, legal, and social equality, violence cannot be seen as an ultimate answer, as it only serves to turn the vast majority of the public against whatever movement has sprung up.
Leaders in the African American community must persevere in their effort to stem senseless destruction of property and violence. In the immortal words of Dr. King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”