Today, out of the desired order of nature, a mother and father laid their teenage son to rest. Another young African American life cut short. Despite having grown up in an urban setting, Michael Brown wasn’t part of a gang and had no history of violent behavior. He just celebrated graduating high school and was looking forward to a full life ahead of him. Gunned down on August 9 by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, his body lie on the pavement in the middle of his neighborhood for four hours before authorities properly responded.
The crime? Walking in the middle of street. Eyewitness accounts are consistent that though there was a tussle by the squad car, Brown’s hands were in the air (the universal position of surrender) at the time he was shot six times, according to autopsy reports.
The weekend following the incident, crowds gathered in the streets as tension brewed over whether the officer would be charged in what many are calling an unjust killing. What were moderately tense yet calm demonstrations quickly escalated into full blown riots, a virtual war zone- a standoff between police and angry mobs of predominantly black young people eager to avenge Brown’s death. The Ferguson police department has come under scrutiny for their militarized approach in quelling the riots with tear gas, rubber bullets, and battle tanks. The department even employed the Missouri National Guard to protect the police command center against the angry demonstrators.
The righteous anger is justified considering this country’s troubled past concerning the black body. Recent headlines involving police brutality, racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and the George Zimmerman trial are precipitating factors in a place like Ferguson, where reports suggest that African- Americans accounted for 96% of arrests last year. The citizens have had enough. Civil rights giants like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and John Lewis joined the crowds urging that they peacefully protest. Yet, the looting, violence, and arrests continued. As the community gathered to remember Brown today, a grand jury investigation into the evidence surrounding the case is underway, and Attorney General Eric Holder has requested patience and peace as the judicial process unfolds.
However, the problem in Ferguson transcends Missouri. For decades, communities inhabited by black and brown families, have come under siege by brutal cops. We can trace this epidemic back as far as President Nixon and the beginning of the “War on Drugs” policies instituted during his term in office. These policies targeted black and Hispanic communities and, in some cases, incentivized police departments based on their efforts to crack down on drug sales and drug use in these urban areas. That era birthed pervasive stereotypes of the rifle-wielding thug and the welfare queen, selling drugs while collecting welfare checks. These stereotypes inform the way law enforcement relates to members of the community, while members of the community have come to resent law enforcement agents.
Fundamentally, both sides of the struggle just want one thing- respect. The people of Ferguson want their space, their community, and their lives to be respected and police officers want to be respected for the badge they courageously wear each day. So, how does respect begin? With callousness and indifference on both sides, how do we begin to cultivate respect and courtesy? How do we move forward?
This is a tough pill to swallow. It’s impossible to respect authority when authority doesn’t respect you. This isn’t to say that all cops are disrespectful, but far too often young black men are met with unjustified aggression from police officers and excessive force when being confronted and questioned. There is a presumption of guilt on the part of police officers when dealing with black men. Young black men are often criminalized and assumed to be up to no good. On the other end of the spectrum, young black men often resort to aggression in an effort to defend themselves and assert the manhood that is so frequently challenged. Both parties see the other as a threat and it’s that insecurity that causes dangerous, violent, and often deadly confrontations.
The police force bears the lion’s share of this burden, simply because transgressions are too great and too numerous. The force, as servants of the community, and employees of the government must work visibly and diligently to earn the respect of the constituents. “Protect and serve” has become “confront and harass.”
Whatever happened to police officers exhibiting a positive presence in the community? Most of the time, you only see a police officer when you’ve done something wrong. What if police presence was a benign part of the everyday? What if officers put forth a conscious effort to peacefully integrate the community they serve in a more delicate and supportive way. Regular patrolling would facilitate familiarity among officers and the community.
Ferguson, like so many American communities, is lacking consistent and valid space for dialogue that would bridge the ever-widening gap between officers and constituents. Let’s hope that this incident will be chronicled as one that broke this pattern and started our country on a path toward redemption.