The death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was a tragedy. But, it is also the pivot point of a series of errors, both before and after the fatal shooting, that are tragic in their own right.
Long before Brown took that walk down the street where his body laid for hours after he was shot down, events in his town helped form a culture where an emboldened police force found itself at odds with the citizens it was tasked to protect.
These events began with the segregationist policies that resulted in a town where most of its populace is black and nearly all of its police force is white. On its own, this may not seem problematic, but couple these demographics with the high unemployment, disproportionate targeting by law enforcement, and greater health risks among the African-American community, and the beginnings of unrest can be seen.
As Steven W Thrasher writes at the Guardian:
The symptoms of structural racism stain America everywhere, but its execution is particularly perverse in places like Ferguson. It’s not just that black drivers are stopped more often for alleged crimes than white drivers, despite the Missouri attorney general’s report that white people break the law more often. It’s not that Ferguson’s police force is 94% white in a town that’s two-thirds black. It’s not even, as Jeff Smith wrote in Monday’s New York Times, that black people – many unemployed – “do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites” by way of those stops and the subsequent fines.
The real perversion of justice by way of modern American racism is that black people in Ferguson – like black people in the greater St Louis metropolitan area and nationally – are marginalized economically and physically from day one. That is the real looting of Ferguson.
We are consistently twice as likely to be unemployed – and in and near St Louis, “47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed”. Our men are more likely to be convicted and our women are more likely to be evicted. We are more likely to be victims of predatory loans. Our children are twice as likely to have asthma (even before you teargas them). Our babies are twice as likely to die before the age of one – and their mothers are three or four times more likely to die as a result of bearing them.
The people of Ferguson could have used some help, but none was coming for them. Yet, at the same time, their police force was being showered with fancy new toys from the federal government. This is how the cops found themselves armed with the same kind of weapons and armor the American military used in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, like anyone with new toys, they were eager to use them.
The community in Ferguson has suffered. Then, one of their own was gunned down in the street, unarmed and with his hands up in submission to a police officer who then shot him dead. And, nothing was being done. That was simply more than the community could bear. So, they took to the streets.
It is unfortunate that some used the protests that followed as an excuse for looting and vandalism. And, a police response to these actions would have been justified. But, the police were largely occupied by the peaceful protests taking place across the town. They drove out their armored vehicles and parked them in the street. They pointed their military-style rifles at protesters. They threw tear gas. They arrested protesters and journalists. And, they fired their weapons at the citizens of the town they served. And, though the rounds they fired were “non-lethal,” they were certainly still capable of injuring and intimidating the people who wanted nothing more than to show their grief and frustration to the world.
This parade of tragic errors, from arming the police like the army, to the economic and legal oppression of a community, to the murder of a young black man, to looting, to violent suppression of peaceful protest, has brought the city of Ferguson to where it is today. The question is, what now?
Errors just like these have taken place all across the country, and each of them can be learned from. We should be motivated to examine policies that have led to segregated towns and the oppression of minorities. We should examine how we have armed our police and empowered them to use tools of war against their own communities. We should examine how we respond to peaceful protest. We can listen to the people of Ferguson and we can change our ways. Mistakes have been made and tragedies have resulted, but these mistakes do not have to be repeated. We can learn from them and we can be better.