The hard truths about American racism exposed by Ferguson aren’t going away. That’s the case, even as the first African-American president, Barack Obama, responding to Monday’s renewed rioting, said, “Nothing of significance, nothing of benefit, results from destructive acts.” Racism is real, Obama said, and he urged Americans to “mobilize,” “organize,” find the “best policies,” and “vote.”
Yet on the ground in Ferguson, where the white policeman who shot an unarmed black man was exonerated by a local grand jury and went on national television and said he would do the same thing again, Obama’s words stung. There are specific and surprising reasons why the rage over Ferguson isn’t going away. In the St. Louis suburb and across America, blacks and other people of color still face embedded racism and second-class treatment. Political leaders have not brought change; they have failed to curb excessive policing and incarceration rates or create economic opportunities and hope people can believe in.
“The uprising in Ferguson was an inevitable reaction to the institutional racism coursing through the area for decades,” wrote HandsUpDontShoot.com, citing the example of police padding municipal budgets by going overboard with issuing traffic tickets to the poor, followed by even more punitive arrest warrants if people have not paid their fines.
Here are eight terrible facts and trends about abusive policing and institutional racism laid bare by the Ferguson uprising.
1. Darren Wilson was trained to kill and did. It was shocking that a local grand jury did not indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. But no one predicted Wilson would go on TV and say he did as he was trained, and tell the nation he would do it again. Wilson told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he has a “clear conscience” and that he would have done the same thing if he had faced a white assailant.
His lack of remorse is not just maddening, but points to a problem that is much bigger than Ferguson: how local police have become paramilitary machines with officers trained, equipped and expected to shoot if they lose control of a situation. Across America, one result is that victims of police killings disproportionately look like Michael Brown and not like Darren Wilson.
2. More black Americans are killed by cops. Police shoot and kill blacks almost twice as frequently as any other racial group, MotherJones.org reported, after examining piles of federal crime data. “Black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.” MoJo said the majority of local police departments do not report police killing figures to the FBI. “It’s also not clear that Brown’s death—the circumstances of which remain in dispute—would show up in the FBI’s data in the first place.”
3. Police are armed and trained to kill. The militarization of local police has been growing ever since the Pentagon and U.S. Department of Justice decided to give away surplus weaponry from Iraq and Afghanistan. The heaviest weaponry is often used by SWAT teams during drug raids, where as the ACLU has noted, communities of color are targeted for nighttime raids. They face few consequences for making mistakes, such as maiming or killing people and pets and ransacking homes and personal property. These same teams were deployed in Ferguson to confront protesters after Brown’s killing in August, exacerbating violence instead of quelling it.
As an ACLU report found, the rampant over-militarization is a national problem, not a few “bad apple” local departments. The ACLU called it a “war without public support,” filled with too many “unnecessary tragedies." Non-whites were primary targets of SWAT raids. Blacks were targeted in 39 percent of raids, Latinos in 11 percent, whites in 20 percent. There is little transparency about tactics, nor accountability for mistakes.
4. Life in black America isn’t getting better. The Ferguson protests are not in a vacuum, but come against a backdrop of ongoing societal hardship, especially in black communities. Obama has said that the U.S. is making progress on race issues, yet it’s hard, if not impossible, to separate issues of race and class.
RawStory.com cited a long list of disparities that factor into the simmering rage that boiled over in Ferguson and across the country. “The black-white disparity in infant mortality has grown since 1950. Whereas 72.9 percent of whites are homeowners, only 43.5 percent of blacks are. Blacks constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million people incarcerated. According to Pew, white median household wealth is $91,405; black median household wealth is $6,446—the gap has tripled over the past 25 years. Since 2007, the black median income has declined 15.8 percent. In contrast, Hispanics’ median income declined 11.8 percent, Asians’ 7.7 percent and whites’ 6.3 percent.”
5. White America really doesn’t get it. These race and class divides are not widely seen as serious enough for action by white Americans. When it comes to Ferguson, whites are quicker to accept the storyline laid out by authorities. “Well-meaning whites have, on the whole, failed to appreciate the origins of racial-ethnic disparities in health, wealth, education, and incarceration—or to see them as a problem,” RawStory’s Ted Silverman wrote. “Many believe in justice, but feel perfectly comfortable when and where racial-ethnic inequality is the norm.”
6. The system defends itself, not the public. The Brown family, protesters and civil rights advocates all wanted the criminal justice system to take a fair look at what unfolded in August, but kept getting signs that was not likely to happen. In August, police leaked video footage showing Brown robbing a convenience store, which was intended to smear his character and suggest that somehow Brown deserved what happened in the subsequent confrontation with Wilson.
The grand jury proceeding was strange, legal experts noted. The prosecutor said he was being fair by bringing all the evidence to the 12 jurors. But that tactic has been interpreted as a deliberate move to overwhelm jurors and create doubts that would not lead to recommending Wilson be charged. It is curiously parallel to what unfolded in the Trayvon Martin murder case, in which experts said Florida prosecutors didn’t really want to convict George Zimmerman.
7. Evidence suggests Wilson abused his license to kill. Besides Wilson’s interview on ABC-TV, his grand jury testimony has been released to the public. At the heart of his statements is the question of why he kept firing his gun at Brown. Wilson said he was threatened because it appeared that a stricken but enraged Brown was coming toward him. Others said it appeared that Brown turned around after trying to flee and was surrendering.
While that contradiction cannot be resolved, legal experts like the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson said that Wilson’s testimony suggested he shot to kill, and not to defend himself. “What stands out is that once the second shot had been fired and Brown had started to run, he no longer represented a deadly threat to the officer or to anybody else. He was a large, bleeding, unarmed man running down the street in an attempt to get away. Wilson, who chased after Brown, was the one with the deadly weapon.”
8. If Wilson was scared, the law takes his side. That’s the bottom line in Missouri law and jury instructions, which strongly defer to the use of deadly force by on-duty police officers. Brown’s attorneys had been hoping for a second-degree murder charge, when a person knowingly causes the death of another. But grand jury instructions in Missouri, which are read to the panel before it decides whether to press charges, allow police to use deadly force if the officer believes it is “immediately necessary.” That formulation almost always protects the police from prosecution for using deadly force because they can say they felt theatened.
That’s the storyline Wilson told the grand jury and also told ABC-TV, and which underscores how the system is biased against admitting police errors even when people are unnecessarily killed. The story of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson is a prism reflecting many ugly truths about how American society operates and victimizes blacks and communities of color. That is why the nationwide protests will continue.
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