Why the Fires in Ferguson Won’t End Soon

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Aug. 19 2014 6:42 PM

Why the Fires in Ferguson Won’t End Soon

The tensions have been building for a long time, and even justice for Michael Brown won’t change that.

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During the first Great Migration of blacks in the early 20th century, a nascent group of black academics, lawyers, and other professionals began to study and report police violence toward blacks, prompted by the growing use of crime statistics to justify urban segregation—like the kind we see in St. Louis.

“They saw police officers as a form of state authority, and the most consistent form of government interaction for African-Americans,” says Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. For them, police weren’t civil servants as much as they were vectors for brutality, meant to isolate and contain black communities. “Blacks were the easiest targets of the police; their rights were the least respected, and they had only a modicum of political influence to hold officers accountable,” Muhammad wrote in his book. Criminality was well-distributed among the ethnic and racial groups of the North, but blacks were disproportionate targets for police. The result was a perception of black criminality despite the lack of clear evidence it actually existed.

Alabama police attack Selma-to-Montgomery marchers on March 7, 1965.
Alabama police attack Selma-to-Montgomery marchers on March 7, 1965.

Photo by FBI viaWikimedia Commons

That trend continued into the middle of the century. “African-Americans throughout the country confronted repressive police departments that were threatened by black demands for equality after World War II and intimidated by an expanded black populace as whites fled to the suburbs,” University of Texas professor Leonard N. Moore noted in Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism From World War II to Hurricane Katrina. He continued: “[A] cursory examination of black newspapers in the postwar period reveals articles … detailing cases of police brutality. Likewise, the archives of local and national civil rights organizations are filled with thousands of affidavits and letters relaying first-person experiences of police brutality.”

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One incident, the 1961 killing of 11-year-old Allen Bruce Foster in New Orleans, stands out for its brutality. As one witness described it, “I saw the child running toward a red automobile. Just as he reached it he was shaken violently as bullets tore into his body. The boy let out a piercing scream—one I shall never forget and fell to the ground. A policeman then stooped over the boy and said, ‘Why didn’t you stop when I told you to halt?’ The boy never answered, never moved. I never heard anyone tell the boy to halt.”

What’s important to understand is that these incidents and interactions reflect upon themselves. “Too often the policeman’s club is the only instrument of the law with which the Negro comes into contact,” wrote Howard University criminologist Kelly Miller in a 1935 op-ed. “This engenders in him a distrust and resentful attitude toward all public authorities and law officers.”

If you’re trying to grasp the looting that has struck Ferguson throughout the demonstrations, there’s some of your answer. For as much as there are bad apples and provocateurs in any mass gathering, it’s also true that there’s a deep distrust of law enforcement across the black community that stems from decades of unfair treatment. “That’s our life. We black. We get pulled over everyday,” said two young demonstrators who declined to give their names, but were adamant—as chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot” filled the air—that they were “out here for Michael Brown” and “they would do it however they [the police] wanted to do it.”

Perhaps the closest analogue to the Michael Brown shooting is the Trayvon Martin killing. Both were young men in their teens, and both sparked discussions of profiling and racism.

Trayvon Martin rally
LeTasha Brown stands with her arms around Anthony Dixon Jr. during an NAACP march and rally for Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on March 31, 2012.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

But there’s a key difference. Martin wasn’t killed by a police officer; his shooter was George Zimmerman, a neighbor. Which meant that, for supporters of Martin, there was a concrete goal and a clear hope: Bring Zimmerman to trial and hope he’s convicted. Zimmerman wasn’t convicted, but his trial brought a measure of closure to the situation.

It’s possible that Darren Wilson will also be arrested and go to trial. But even if he’s convicted—even if the Brown family finds a measure of procedural justice—we will still be left with an unequal, segregated Ferguson in an unequal, segregated St. Louis County. The underlying problems of white flight, discrimination, and disinvestment will remain, and—absent a dramatic and unexpected change—they’ll persist into the next generation. We may never see another “Trayvon Martin” in Sanford, Florida, but I’m positive we’ll see another “Michael Brown” in Ferguson, Missouri.

Or somewhere else. Soon enough, demonstrators will be chanting the name of another young black man killed by another agent of the state charged with containing blacks, not protecting them. We want it to be one way—a world where the police are here to serve us all—but it’s the other way, a world where black bodies are the chief targets of American fear.

On last Thursday, the scene West Florissant, the main site of the demonstrations, was jubilant. The streets were thick with people chanting slogans and demanding “justice,” while cars drove by honking in support. A gospel choir sang, and Capt. Ron Johnson—the Missouri Highway Patrol chief tasked with maintaining order—mingled with the crowd, going so far as to march with the demonstrators.

Ferguson, Missouri August 17, 2014
Tear gas falls on a woman kneeling in the street with her hands in the air after a demonstration on Aug. 17, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

By the next night, everything had fallen apart. Despite Johnson’s promise, police used tear gas against protesters, prompting more anger and more destruction.

On Sunday and Monday, the chaos repeated itself, with more gas and more rubber bullets. In all of the live streams and videos, one scene caught my eye. A mother stands with her son, who has just been hit with tear gas. He’s 8 years old.

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