“If they refuse to hear us, we will make them feel us.” Those are the words of Sybrina Fulton, the mother of slain unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, in an open letter to the family of Michael Brown.
They have particular meaning to Constance Malcolm, the mother of slain Bronx teen Ramarley Graham; Collete Flanigan, mother of murdered Dallas youth, Clinton Allen; Martinez Sutton, the brother of 22-year-old Rekiya Boyd in Chicago; and countless others. We know that they resonate with the parents and neighbors of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
They should have particular meaning to all of us. Unfortunately, they don’t.
A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reveals glaring racial divisions in the way Americans view what I regard as the murder of Michael Brown. According to the poll, 80 percent of blacks surveyed believe Brown’s death raises or is connected to racial issues, while only 37 percent of whites also believe that to be true. Similarly, 65 percent of African Americans say the police have gone too far in responding to the shooting’s aftermath. Whites are divided. Some 33 percent say the police have gone too far, while 32 percent agreed that “the police response has been about right.”
What allows fatal police shootings of unarmed young black people to continue unchecked is something pervasive and ugly. In this country, black bodies and lives are regularly devalued and criminalized.
This dynamic was made clear in 2013 and again this year when Florida juries failed to convict armed civilians who cited a sense of grave danger when they shot and killed unarmed black teens.
Similar sentiments have been glaringly revealed in New York City, where in 2011 alone the so-called Stop and Frisk policy allowed police to stop 685,724 people, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. Of those stopped, patted down, and at least temporarily detained, 84 percent were black or Latino. New York’s police managed to do so despite the fact that blacks comprise only 23 percent of the city’s population and Latinos another 29 percent. Similarly, as New York’s police force has ramped up the so-called “Broken Windows” strategy—aggressively patrolling and policing communities in search of low-level crimes to allegedly discourage more serious ones—97,487 misdemeanor arrests were made between January and May of this year. Some 86 percent of those taken into custody were black or Latino.
In much the same way that the actions of juries and police departments around the country have made plain just how little regard really exists for so many people of color, so too do the dynamics in Ferguson.
In the 2010 census, 29 percent of Ferguson’s population was white and 67 percent African American. Almost one-quarter of Ferguson’s total population lives below the poverty line, but 28 percent of the city’s Black population does the same. The police department includes fewer than five black police officers, and white residents hold all the city’s major elected offices.
The numbers are clear. Ferguson’s black residents have been systemically marginalized and disempowered in a city where they comprise the majority long before a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown. In that sense, the community’s response to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a local white police officer should have been predictable. America is deeply attentive to black anger but only marginally interested in black deaths.
But the international community has begun to weigh in on the police response to the situation in Ferguson. For this brief moment, the contradictions between what the United States practices and what it demands from other governments across the world are glaring. This week, an Egyptian government representative called on the United States to exercise restraint towards Missouri protestors. Palestinians in Gaza have sent messages of support and tips on handling tear gas. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has also called on called on our country’s authorities to protect of the rights of protesters in Ferguson.
For those who can remember, the images coming out of Ferguson look awfully similar to those of government officials suppressing and containing anti-Apartheid protesters in South Africa. Young South Africans armed with stones, bottles and the like stood against a militarized force equipped with armored vehicles, automatic weapons and tear gas. Like the long-oppressed majority in South Africa, black people in Ferguson simply want to live as human beings.
What exactly do the protestors and those calling for justice in Ferguson want?
The Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), a St. Louis-based nonprofit social justice organization and leading force in Ferguson, has set forth a number of demands. (The following list has been edited for clarity and length.)
- A swift and impartial Department of Justice investigation into Michael Brown’s shooting death
- The immediate arrest of Officer Darren Wilson.
- Appoint an impartial special prosecutor who will take over the local investigation currently led by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough.
- The firing of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.
- The immediate deescalation of the militarized policing of peaceful protestors, protection of the rights of people to assemble and peacefully protest, and holding law enforcement officers accountable for excessive use of force on peaceful protests.
- Release individuals who have been arrested while exercising their right to assemble and peacefully protest.
In a letter sent to the Department of Justice last week, The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) also called on the nation’s top law enforcement agency to take four specific actions.
- Undertake a comprehensive review of police-involved assaults and killings of unarmed individuals, with a focus on the deaths of unarmed African-Americans;
- Provide strong incentives for racial bias training and avoiding the use of force in DOJ grants made to law enforcement and other state and local agencies;
- Hold police officers accountable to the full extent of the law if they violate it; and
- Encourage the use of body-worn cameras by police.
Models of police accountability are being pushed in some parts of the country. In 2013, Communities United for Police Reform, a diverse New York City-based police reform organization, coordinated a comprehensive campaign. In January, their work lead the New York City Council to override a mayoral veto and pass the Community Safety Act. The Community Safety Act includes an enforceable ban on discriminatory profiling by the New York Police Department. New York City also now has its first ever Police Department Inspector General, based in the city’s Department of Investigations.
A desire to heal emotional wounds is understandable, but it can often times be a distraction. Healthy relationships in this context are rooted in the responsible use of power, legal behavior and accountability. If that dynamic is not present, any healing conversation can be misleading and short-lived. Communities must then rely on the intentions and supposed goodwill of the police force. An undue focus on feelings can make finding and using respectful language the reform effort’s primary goal rather than real public safety.
Communities must have the ability to greatly influence—if not determine—the policies and practices of law enforcement agencies policing their communities. That is what makes any police/community relationship-building effort genuine and effective.
Cities across the country are watching Ferguson and, hopefully, taking notes on what not to do. Government agencies at every level can recognize that violence and force do not foster safety, healthy avenues for communication, or build accountability into the system. And if they do not recognize these lessons, the truth of Fulton’s words will soon be underscored on the streets of another American city.
Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele is an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and serves as the Senior Community Organizer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF).
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