‘We do this for Mike Brown’: Ferguson is a wound that won’t heal
Even as police officers elsewhere are charged with crimes for the killings of Samuel DuBose and Freddie Gray, unthinkable only a year ago, much remains unresolved – and therefore unchanged – in the eyes of activists
An unarmed black man is shot dead by a white police officer following a brief struggle at a car in a midwestern American city in the summertime. The police tell one version; his friends and family give another.
But this year the script was not the same. The reaction to the killing last month of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, Ohio, suggested that so much had changed since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August.
Officer Ray Tensing’s false claim that DuBose dragged him along the street with his car before being shot in the head was met with public scepticism and cautious media coverage. Authorities promptly released damning video footage from police body cameras . And county prosecutor Joe Deters announced criminal charges against the officer with a bracing candour . “We’re going to treat him as a murderer,” he said.
By then, Cincinnati police chief Jeffrey Blackwell had articulated the thinking behind this brisk and apologetic response. Warning residents of potential protests or riots, he said: “We’re concerned about what could happen in our city.”
Their swift action followed the similarly rapid unveiling of murder charges against police officers in Maryland and South Carolina over the killings of Freddie Gray and Walter Scott, two more African American men. In Baltimore, the shock announcement by state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby halted a period of intense unrest . In North Charleston, the decision answered protesters’ demands practically before their feet reached the pavement.
Such responses would have been unthinkable a year ago, before the extraordinary fallout from the fatal shooting in Ferguson of 18-year-old Brown, the first anniversary of which falls on Sunday. The loud and dogged protests of activists who chanted “from sun up to sun down, we do this for Mike Brown” – and kept their word – have put American cities on notice that their streets could be next.
And yet a year later, the events in Ferguson on the afternoon of 9 August 2014 themselves seem doomed to remain suspended in permanent dispute. Tragically lacking in the decisive video evidence that would have settled the ambiguity at their centre, Brown’s killing has instead been claimed as a banner by both sides in a battle whose lines continue to be predicted largely and troublingly by race among the wider American public.
For a predominantly African American protest movement, even as police officers elsewhere are charged with crimes for other killings , Ferguson remains a deep wound, whose refusal to heal serves both as a reason to fight on and as an emblem of systematic racial persecution by American authorities that they perceive as persisting virtually unmolested 50 years after the bloody Sunday of Selma, Alabama.
Among mostly white police leaders and their supporters, however, Ferguson is the creation myth of the Black Lives Matter movement – a sadly necessary and grossly misrepresented shooting by an officer who felt his life threatened by a physically stronger rival, and who was then cleared by both a state grand jury and a federal civil rights inquiry by investigators from the Obama administration’s Justice Department.
A renaissance in racial debate, to Washington and beyond
Change has, in any case, crept in. Ferguson’s criminal justice system, blamed by residents for the simmering anger brought to boil by Brown’s shooting, was condemned as institutionally racist in a scathing report by the US Department of Justice , which will soon demand a detailed overhaul under threat of legal action. The city’s police chief, city manager and municipal judge, among others, have been removed from their jobs. City authorities project that revenues from hated court fines will roughly halve this year.
Elsewhere, Baltimore’s police commissioner was fired following sharp criticism of his handling of riots and a crime spike after Gray’s death. Cleveland agreed its own contract with the federal government to overhaul its policing after a series of shocking incidents of brutality. An officer in Texas promptly resigned after footage of him manhandling a black teenage girl and pointing his gun at two boys outside a pool party dominated TV news for days. Improvements to training were introduced in New York and other cities.
Moreover, the militarised response by police led by St Louis County to the demonstrations following Brown’s shooting, which saw nightly televised barrages of teargas, smoke and stun grenades shot at young black Americans by a largely white police force shipped around in armoured vehicles intended for the streets of Iraq, was roundly condemned from the political left and right as excessive and dangerous.
A White House policing taskforce convened by Obama following the unrest, meanwhile, produced a 63-point list of recommendations for more reform , including better training on the de-escalation of confrontations, improved collection of data on police encounters with civilians, and independent inquiries into deaths caused by officers. Obama secured $20m for police body cameras and announced some restrictions on the much-criticised program by which surplus US military equipment is transferred to police departments.
The rise of Black Lives Matter has also latterly coincided with – and perhaps encouraged – Obama’s political liberation. Freed from the constraints of potential re-election, the president has begun speaking with a frankness about race that he had earlier eschewed out of an apparent fear that the first black president might be defined by nothing else.
Even before he broke into Amazing Grace , Obama’s eulogy at the funeral in Charleston, South Carolina, for a pastor and statesman who was among nine African Americans murdered by a white supremacist at a prayer meeting became his most strident speech on racial justice since entering the White House . He spoke of his hope that the US could “embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure”.
The president also described the confederate civil war battle flag, which the church gunman had fetishised, as “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation” for African Americans. Within weeks governor Nikki Haley had signed an order removing the flag from the South Carolina state capitol, where it had continued to be flown – but not before the Black Lives Matter activist Bree Newsome had scaled the pole and torn it down herself in a vivid display of the group’s impact .
A Pew poll released this week amid this renaissance in racial debate discovered a sharp increase in the proportion of Americans who said the country needed to make changes to give black people equal rights. That figure rose from 46% a little more than a year ago to 59% in July. Those who thought by contrast that sufficient change had been made fell from 49% to just 32%. For the first time since the question was polled in 2009, more white people were in the “more change” camp than in the satisfied group.
Obama’s newfound voice has in turn heaped pressure on those vying to be his successor as the Democratic presidential nominee to prove their credentials among the protest movement. When protesters last month interrupted a liberal convention featuring former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, O’Malley antagonised them further by responding with the remark “all lives matter”, a phrase loathed by the protest movement for minimising the particular emergency they argue is facing African Americans.
Under pressure after using the phrase herself earlier in the year, Hillary Clinton used a campaign stop in South Carolina to condemn “systematic racism” in American law enforcement and said: “I think it is essential that we all stand up and say loudly and clearly, ‘Yes, black lives matter’.”
Protests and the public: a stubborn stasis in white America
Yet despite all the signs that opinion on racial equality in general has shifted, and an intense media focus on the actions of police officers during the past year, there has in fact been remarkably little movement in the view of law enforcement among white Americans.
A CBS/New York Times poll published at the end of July found 58% of white people thought police were no more likely to use deadly force against black people than against white people – the same figure recorded shortly after Brown’s death in Ferguson. It also found 51% of white people thought the criminal justice system either treated black people fairly or was even biased in their favour – a fall of only two percentage points since 2013.
A Pew poll published at the end of April found the proportion of white Americans reporting a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the police to treat black and white people equally had actually risen slightly since 2009, while falling among black Americans. And while the share of white Americans with very little confidence in the police applying equal treatment rose slightly as well, it jumped sharply by 12 points among black people to a level approaching half of all respondents.
Despite being so sharply criticised, militarised policing made a teargas fog return to American streets in April in response to furious protests and riots in Baltimore following the death of Gray from a broken neck sustained in the back of a police van during a so-called “rough ride” with no seatbelt.
With the White House policing taskforce effectively toothless , regional agencies have been free to ignore its suggestions and continue, for instance, to blight investigations into controversial killings by police officers with the potential for serious conflicts of interest for local prosecutors who work closely alongside the same officers. Obama’s rollback of the Pentagon’s equipment transfer program left police departments free to continue receiving many of the sort of guns, body armour and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) seen on the streets of Ferguson.
Meanwhile, continued support in the White House – and continued victories – are no sure thing. Donald Trump, the current frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary, has played down the relevance of the protests. “We have to give strength and power back to the police,” he said. “You’re always going to have bad apples.” Asked about the issue on Thursday Jeb Bush, the establishment favourite to become the party’s nominee, insisted that injustices were limited to “isolated cases” and said: “I don’t think that’s the norm.”
Much else remains unresolved – and therefore unchanged – in the eyes of activists. In the only the most prominent among dozens of cases, the $5.9m paid by New York City to avert a lawsuit from the family of Eric Garner, who died on video after a chokehold by an officer on Staten Island last July, was dismissed as insignificant next to a grand jury’s decision there to bring no criminal charges against the officer whose actions killed him.
Silence still prevails over whether an officer in Cleveland will face criminal charges for shooting dead Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old, for playing with a toy gun in a park. This despite the passage of more than eight months and a municipal judge declaring himself “thunderstruck” by surveillance footage of the killing , which, as Judge Ronald Adrine said, showed the child was given “little if any time” to respond to any kind of police command before being gunned down.
Across Ohio in Beavercreek, near Dayton, a 22-year-old African American man called John Crawford had in August been shot dead with similar haste inside a Walmart for handling a bigger pellet gun, which he dared to pick up from a store shelf. A white shopper called 911 and claimed Crawford was pointing the gun at people, including children, before later altering his account in an interview with the Guardian . The officer who fired the fatal shot, who had also been responsible for his department’s only other fatal shooting, was cleared by a grand jury.
And the seething response to the death in jail of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, last month laid bare the extent to which little alleged by police in contentious circumstances is believed or taken in good faith by thousands of young people around the US. The official finding of suicide has been dismissed by activists convinced she was murdered by the officers smarting at her objections to being jailed following a small-fry traffic stop.
Jamal Bryant, a Baltimore pastor and activist who delivered the eulogy at Gray’s funeral before hurrying to the scene when Bland died, described her case as “an exclamation point on the reasoning of why it is that black Americans feel disdain and distrust for police.” A year after Ferguson, Bryant told the Guardian: “People simply do not believe them.”
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