Ferguson in the Light of the Following DayPosted: November 25, 2014
November 25, 2014
The grand jury inquiry into the killing of Michael Brown ended with no indictment. The ashes of burnt out buildings are still smoldering in Ferguson, MO. Pundits are trying to put a rational face on the outcome of a procedure that was rigged from the beginning, one that put on trial the one person who could not give evidence: the dead 18 year old. Its goal was to exonerate the killer, police officer Darren Wilson, whose testimony was accepted as definitive. Wilson described Brown’s facial expression as that of “a demon” and described a protracted struggle in the entry to his police car in which Brown tried to take his gun, likening the situation to a baby (Wilson) fighting Hulk Hogan (Brown).
I wasn’t at the scene. I have no first hand evidence to share. What I know is that a policeman shot to death an unarmed young black man and that the policeman claims, and probably believes, that he had no choice but to fire his weapon again and again until the young man stopped moving. And breathing.
If this were an isolated incident, we might leave it there. We could condemn the rioters and looters and sign on to the meme (most recently tweeted by Rudy Giuliani) that the greatest threat to black lives is other black people (notwithstanding that the most frequent murderers of white people are other white people). But this is not an isolated incident. Since the killing of Michael Brown, police shootings of unarmed black men have continued unabated, as the following examples indicate:
- In August, Ezell Ford was fatally shot in Los Angeles by police officers who claim that the unarmed, possibly mentally ill, man struggled with them.
- Also in August, John Crawford III was shot dead in a Wal-Mart store in Beavercreek, OH, when police were called because he was supposedly waving a rifle and threatening shoppers. (Ironically Ohio is an open carry state.) Crawford was actually holding an unloaded BB gun.
- In September, Lavar Jones was shot and wounded by a South Carolina state trooper as he attempted to show his driver’s license after being stopped for a seatbelt violation.
- In November, Akai Gurley, was shot to death in a dark New York City housing project stairway by a rookie police office.
- On November 23, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by Cleveland, OH, police when he was reported to be threatening children in a playground with a handgun that turned out to be a toy replica.
I am not suggesting a sinister ploy by police departments or police officers around the country. I am also not suggesting that the police are not acting out of a sense of threat. I believe that they do feel threatened. And that’s the problem. In the context of the history of racism in the US, accentuated by the so-called “war on drugs” and the isolation of many black Americans in impoverished communities, many police officers – white and nonwhite – have accepted the inverted narrative of the black male as violent aggressor. He is to be feared out of all proportion to his capacity for harm because, devoid of human mental capacity and unrestrained by the boundaries imposed by reason, his instinctive violent responses can only be neutralized by deadly force.
I am reminded of a defining scene in the 1988 film Alien Nation. The story concerns a spaceship full of refugees – former slaves – from another planet who are granted refuge on earth and take up residence in Los Angeles. They have some human characteristics, but are also markedly different. The plot focuses on a team of police detectives, one human, the other a Newcomer (as the aliens are called). A Newcomer has set up a criminal enterprise manufacturing a drug that uniquely affects the aliens. In the scene to which I am referring, the detectives have cornered a Newcomer suspect. The alien doses himself with the drug and is immediately imbued with strength and speed that overpowers his would-be captors and allows him to escape, much to their astonishment and fear.
I am also reminded of a story, almost certainly apocryphal, that explains why cocaine was made illegal. We must remember that in the 19th century, cocaine use was popular in many parts of the US. However, in the early 20th century, states, beginning with Georgia in 1902, began outlawing cocaine use. By 1917, the federal government placed cocaine on a list of what would later be known as “controlled substances.” But, as the story goes, it was the use of cocaine by blacks that led to its prohibition, first in the southern states and subsequently nationwide. In the “race riots” (attacks by whites on black communities) of the 1900’s, it was rumored that when blacks were high on cocaine they could be shot but would not go down. Cocaine had to be taken out of circulation.
These two examples, one the plot of a fictional film and the other historically based folklore, illustrate a pervasive narrative that is central to racist ideology. This narrative holds that the black man is not a person but an alien phenomenon, whose actions are dictated by uncontrolled impulses that are foreign to normal (nonblack) people, and who must be viewed with fear and suspicion.
Most people who are not black seldom come into contact with black people. And most never encounter a black male in a setting in which he is not overwhelmingly outnumbered by nonblack people. But police officers (and most police departments are overwhelmingly white) routinely encounter black people, under circumstances not altogether different than those in which they encounter most people. Police officers interact with people in extreme situations: people are angry, frustrated, frightened, incoherent, confused, under the influence of mind altering substances, and often belligerent. However, the police rarely confront these people with weapons in hand. However, if officers encounter a black man under these circumstances, there is likely the added assumption that he is a threat to be met with preemptive force.
In the aftermath of the events in Ferguson, many commentators have argued and continue to argue that what is needed – in Ferguson and elsewhere – is better training for police officers so that they are better prepared to deal with perceived threats and exercise restraint in the use of deadly force.
However, in my opinion, such training is useless unless it is preceded by an inoculation against the virus of racism, to which we are all constantly exposed and to which we are all susceptible.