For those living under a rock, take heart: almost none of us had heard of this suburb of St. Louis before August 9, 2014. On that date police officer Dennis Wilson responded to a call of a young black man stealing cigarillos from a local store. Arriving on the scene Officer Wilson found two young men walking in the street, one of whom (Michael Brown) fit the description of the man who stole the cigarillos. Two minutes later Officer Brown had redness and swelling on his right cheek and Mr. Brown was dead from at least six gunshot wounds.
Protests began almost immediately. Many in Ferguson, and elsewhere, believed Mr. Brown was killed by law enforcement because he was a young black man. Had he been white he would still be with us.
This perception was exacerbated by the fact that the city of Ferguson is 69% black (according to the 2010 census) while the police force is 6% black. This is due, in no small part, to the changing demographics in Ferguson. In 1980 the population of Ferguson was 85% white, but by 2010 it had plummeted to 30% (I got this from a New York Times article).
This led to a perfect storm where the majority of the population was black while the majority of law enforcement was white. I call this a perfect storm because it brings back reminders of the history of slavery. From 1630 to 1865 the majority of Africans experienced America as a place of enslavement. From 1865 to the present day many of them have experienced America as a place of discrimination.
This is not universal and the fact that our President is African American gives us proof that we live in a nation that accepts people of different races.
That said we should never forget that discrimination continues to exist and seemingly random events focus us toward this reality.
The events of August 9th gives us just this reality. In the last few days I’ve read some of the testimony of the grand jury (and I encourage you to do the same. You can access much of the testimony on this New York Times article).
It’s a complicated series of events but after reading Officer Wilson’s testimony I believe he acted properly. I think he had a reasonable fear for his life and did what he had to do.
At the same time I continue to understand that much of the protest is justified. This isn’t about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson: it’s about the state of race relations in the United States. And it has to be talked about.
All of my experience of law enforcement have been positive but mine is not everyone’s experience. People of color (of all ages) recognize “the look.” They know that they come under extra scrutiny when they walk into a convenience store and countless of them have had experiences with law enforcement that I would find more bewildering than offensive.
And when someone like Michael Brown is shot to death it feels like an attack on an entire community. I briefly lived in Memphis several years ago, less than a mile from the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. I remember speaking with people from the neighborhood who lived there then. They felt that his assassination was the first shot in a war against them and this feeling was exacerbated when they saw National Guard troops in tanks rolling into the neighborhood. The residents of Ferguson certainly had the same feeling when they saw the National Guard roll into their town with weapons from the 1033 program. The 1033 program provides local police departments with weapons designed for warfare. If you’re in law enforcement it’s free stuff; if you’re a minority it looks like you’re unarmed and at war with someone who wants you dead.
We also need to view these events against another reality: race relations in this country are riddled with crimes against people of color where justice was promised but not delivered. In 1963 the civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers was shot to death in his own front yard. His killer was not convicted until 1994. That same year four young girls were killed when dynamite was placed under the washroom of their church. The first of the bombers was not convicted until 1977; two more were convicted in 2001 and 2002 (a fourth died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial). In 1964 three civil rights workers were slain in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1967 seven men were convicted but none of them served more than six years.
All these cases involved lies from law enforcement that these crimes would be investigated. I ambivalent about this, but I’ve been reading about the charge that the district attorney in Ferguson convened the grand jury with no interest in indicting Officer Wilson.
I write this with a certain amount of discomfort, and maybe that’s the point. The events of Ferguson in the last three months has shown a light on a topic many of us would like to ignore: we’re not done working to achieve true harmony of skin color.
As long as I don’t get “the look” when I walk into a store but someone else does, we’re not done. As long as I see a peace officer and feel protected while another looks at the same peace officer and feels unsafe, we’re not done. And as long as anyone believes the end of slavery 149 years ago means we’re done, we’re not done.