On 9 August 2014, the world was shocked by the senseless killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson Missouri, by a white police officer. The killing sparked protests in Ferguson and neighbouring American cities, and even inspired a recent episode of the popular American TV show Scandal (season 4 episode 14 “the Lawn Chair” for those of you interested in comparing notes), drawing the world’s attention to the issue of social injustice and racism in one of the world’s most advanced democracies.
What happened in Ferguson?
On the ill-fated day of 9 August 2014, Michael Brown an 18 year old unarmed man from Ferguson, Missouri, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Brown who was with a friend—Dorian Johnson at the time of his death, sustained six gunshot wounds which proved fatal and ended his life. In the aftermath of the shooting, different accounts of what led to Brown’s death emerged. The account narrated by Officer Wilson, detailed the actions of a belligerent black teenager who refused to move from a main road, (where he was disrupting traffic), to the pavement when instructed to do so by Wilson. Instead Wilson alleges that Brown attacked him and ran off, causing him (Wilson) to pursue him, after which Brown refused to surrender even though Wilson had requested him to do so. Brown then proceeded to charge at him while trying to reach at “”something” under the waistband of him shirt. At this, Wilson proceeded to fire a total of 12 shots at the teenager, although only six gun shots were found on his body. But Johnson (Brown’s friend who was with him at the time of the shooting), detailed the actions of a white police officer eager to use a disproportionate amount of force, to get his point across. According to Johnson, after Wilson had asked them to move to the pavement, the officer then proceeded to attack Brown by the neck, at this, a scuffle broke out between Brown and Wilson. The officer then threatened to shoot, so Brown stopped and held up his hands in a sign of surrender. But Officer Wilson still proceeded to shoot the teenager. Johnson alleges that Brown was shot in a position of surrender rather than attack. Despite what really happened on that ill-fated day, the fact remains that a teenage boy lost his life due to the excessive use of force and unwarranted police brutality targeted at the black community of Ferguson.
Having said this, you might ask what makes me think that the black community of Ferguson was (and is) disproportionally targeted by the police? Well in the weeks following the shooting of Michael Brown, the US department of justice decided (after protests caused civil unrest in the area, due to the decision by a Grand Jury not to indict Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown), to conduct an inquiry into the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) and found that they were racially-bias in their conduct with black residents of Ferguson. Statistics showed that 67 percent of Ferguson’s population is black, yet 93 percent of people arrested are African-American and 86 percent of vehicles stopped in the area also belong to African-Americans. 96 percent of people arrested for outstanding municipal warrants were African-American, 95 percent of people charged with J-walking were African-Americans, 90 percent of documented force was against African-Americans, while 30 percent of searches of white suspects resulted in contra-band finding, compared with 24 percent of black suspects. In 2013, a fifth of Ferguson’s revenues (an estimated USD 2.6 million, in a city of 21,000) was accrued from fines and asset confiscation, from the black population. This makes police and law enforcement officers view black residents as sources of income, which worsens the plight of poverty among the black population, because a significant portion of their income goes towards city fines. Ferguson’s political institutions also fail to reflect the city’s wider demographic distribution. For instance, only 1 from the city’s six member council is black. The mayor, James Knowles is a white republican, who is in charge of the police force in which only 3 out of the 53 officers are black. This disproportional representation of the black community within the political and legal structures worsens distrust levels between black residents and law enforcement officials, as the former sees the latter as a force of social oppression and economic exploitation, thus failing to represent black interest. In the weeks following Michael Brown’s death, protests in Ferguson turned violent causing widespread civil disobedience and unrest and in the city. Protests even spread to neighbouring cities in solidarity against the killing of Brown. On 12 March 2014, demonstrations outside the Ferguson police station turned violent, when two police officers were shot and injured. While the actions of the perpetrators cannot be justified, it shows the palpable rage of the people of Ferguson at the miscarriage of justice against one of its own. These defiant acts of violence carry a strong message about perceived social injustices and racism towards the black community of Ferguson and the broader mistreatment of African-Americans across the United States.
The case of Michael Brown, draws striking resemblance to that of Rodney King, an African-American who in 1991 at the age of 25, gained wide publicity for being brutally beaten by four Los Angeles police officers, after a high speed car chase. A video recording of the beating went viral across the world, highlighting racism and police brutality against American minorities. Following the incident, the four police officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force which they claimed was necessary because King was trying to attack them. The four were eventually acquitted of all charges. But the verdict sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots in which 53 people were killed and more than 2000 injured. Luckily for King, the injuries he sustained were not fatal.
However, in 2012, Trayvon Martin a 17 year old African-American from Florida suffered a more fatal destiny, when he was shot to death by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman who had identified Martin as being “suspicious in nature” trailed him (despite being instructed by the police not to do so). Following this, an altercation broke out between the two, and Trayvon was killed by a gunshot to the chest. Zimmerman who was also injured in the incident would later claim that he shot the teenager in self-defence. Due to Zimmerman’s account of events, he was not initially arrested or charged with murder. But Martin’s death would lead to nationwide protests calling for Zimmerman’s prosecution. Zimmerman was later tried but found not guilty and acquitted of all charges by a jury.
Were Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown given a fair and just trial?
In the Trayvon Martin case, the initial hesitation by the police to arrest or charge Zimmerman with murder led to popular belief among the black population that “black lives count nothing”. This non-action by police and law enforcement officers led to seething anger within black communities across the United States. Further to this the demographic poll of jurors selected to preside over the Zimmerman trial failed to reflect the demographic population of America as a whole or even the parties involved. Among the six female jurors selected, none of them was black, which made many question the possible verdict of an all white jury, before the trial even began. Similarly, in the Michael Brown case, the jury consisted of a panel of 12 members, 6 of them were white males, 3 white females, 1 black male and 2 black females. The panel once again failed to reflect the demographic distribution of Ferguson, with an estimated 9 out of the 12 possible votes already tipping in favour of the white demographic. And further to this, the prosecutor—Robert McCulloch did not recommend any changes to the composition of the jury which was interpreted by many in the black community as unusual, reflecting an unwillingness to prosecute and hand down a guilty verdict to Officer Wilson. Also, the prosecutor, McCulloch had an unfortunate history with the black community as his father a police man was shot dead by a black man in the 1960’s. Further to this, it was identified that McCulloch had a friendly relationship with the Ferguson Police force. As such this brought to the fore-front a conflict of interest and the issue of possible racial bias by McCulloch and his legal team. Given these facts, it is safe to say that both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were not given a fair and just trial because more should have been done to ensure that the process was inclusive, including the reassessment of the demographic composition of the jury in both cases, as well as the initial arrest of George Zimmerman, with a view to allowing the legal process take its course and determine whether he is guilty or innocent. Further to this, in all three cases (Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown), I see striking similarities with regards to the maltreatment of blacks by white police and law enforcement officers. I see excessive and unwarranted use of force, in the name of self-defence against unarmed black men. I see the initial non-action or the miscarriage of justice by law enforcement led to nationwide protests which eventually caused the government to give the matter the attention it deserved. This makes me question whether the issue would have been “swept under the carpet”, if protests had not erupted. I also see that the law enforcement officer(s) responsible for the crime were all acquitted of all wrong doing which makes me question the impartiality of the legal system in America that seems to work in favour of the white population. While the cases of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown occurred at different times in American’s recent past, they are all tied together by a tale of social injustice and racism in modern day America.
A few last words
It is clear that race remains a palpable issue in modern day America. It is the proverbial dividing line that puts “us” against “them”. It is the one single factor that dictates perceptions, views and public policies in modern day America. With the election of the first black President—Barack Obama in 2008, came renewed hope in the American dream, one devoid of racially-tense narratives and replaced by a post-racial mindset. Slogans such as “Yes We Can” and “Rosa sat, so that Martin could walk, so that Barack could fly” captivated American sentiments, leading to renewed belief in racial equality in a country that for so long had been divided by racial politics. But this hope was short lived, or shall I rather say, a “dream deferred”. And this, is Ferguson’s rage.
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