What are your thoughts about what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri?
As some of my Facebook friends might have noticed, I have stayed away from commenting on what has happened—and continues to happen—in Ferguson, Missouri. For those who may have missed this, here’s a little bit of background:
On August 9, 2014, an unarmed 18-year-old African American named Michael Brown was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominately African American suburb of St. Louis. A private autopsy performed by Dr. Michael Baden (the former chief medical examiner for the City of New York) showed that Brown was “shot as least six times, including twice in the head.” According to the New York Times, one of the bullets “entered the top of Mr. Brown’s skull, suggesting his head was bent forward when it struck him and caused a fatal injury.” Brown was also shot four times in the right arm, and “all the bullets were fired into his front.”
Unfortunately, Brown is not the only unarmed black man to be killed by a white police officer in the last 30 days. On July 14, 2014, 43-year-old Eric Garner was killed after a cop put him in a chokehold and other officers slammed his head against a sidewalk. At least five NYPD officers took down Garner—a 400-pound asthmatic Staten Island father of six and grandfather of two—“when he balked at being handcuffed” in front of a Tompkinsville beauty supply store. (Police say that they were attempting to arrest Garner for illegally selling cigarettes.) “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner screamed at the cops, and within moments, he had “stopped struggling and appeared to be unconscious as police called paramedics to the scene.” An angry crowd recorded the incident with their smartphones.
While Garner’s death set off a series of protests against the NYPD, Brown’s killing led to two weeks of demonstrations, riots, and looting. The day after Brown’s death, demonstrators held a candlelight vigil to honor him, but instead it turned violent. More than a dozen businesses were vandalized and looted, cars were vandalized, and some 30 people were arrested and two police officers were injured. Throughout the two weeks of protests and demonstrations, police wearing riot gear used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse the large crowds that had gathered. The unrest and chaos became so untenable that on August 18, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard to Ferguson to protect the “Unified Command Center so that law enforcement officers could focus on the important work of communicating with the community, restoring trust, and protecting the people and property of Ferguson.”
There are many, many problems with what happened in Ferguson, beginning with the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman and the tomfoolery of protesters in Michael Brown’s name. The fact is that officer Darren Wilson and the mostly white police force—only 3 of the 53 officers are black in a city that is 67 percent black—are only party to blame. Rightfully so, the police in Ferguson have come under sharp criticism for their handling of the aftermath of the shooting and death. In the first days of the demonstrations, police attempted to smear Brown’s name by suggesting that he had stolen $50 worth of cigars from a convenience store, but later they had to admit that Officer Wilson did not know that Brown was a suspect in this theft. Police also made “mass arrests” and used “heavy-handed tactics and military gear widely seen as provoking more anger and violence by protesters.”
Yes, police showing up in riot gear may not have been the best strategy. Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery said one man in Ferguson told him, “When I go somewhere and see a cop in riot gear, first thing I think is, ‘Riot.’ When I see someone that looks like they’re ready to fight me, I’m going to put up my fists.” The head of Ferguson’s police department did change their tactics, and he said that officers would “facilitate” demonstrations rather than “restrict” them. “With the chaos that’s going on right now,” Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said, “I’m at least happy that nobody’s gotten seriously injured.” It is very difficult to “defuse tension in the streets” when the police are “hardened up.”
Many people blamed the violence and looting in Ferguson not on the police but on “intentional provocateurs” and “outside infiltrators.” Although members of the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam showed up to demonstrate, former leader of the New Black Panther Party Malik Zulu Shabazz said that he and his group were “peacemakers” in Ferguson. “My group and—thanks to you—my organizers, along with the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam,” Shabazz said during a news conference held by Missouri Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson. “We are the ones who put those men in the streets, and we controlled the flow of traffic.” Johnson did agree that Shabazz and his group had helped out during the demonstrations.
Too many of the protesters were from cities other than Ferguson, and too many of them lost focus about why they were there—to ask for a fair and impartial investigation for Michael Brown and his family. However, we still don’t know why Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, and speculation that Brown went for the officer’s gun is just that…speculation. Being a police officer is hard, and they have to make snap judgments that most of us will never understand. Is Officer Darren Wilson a racist simply because he shot an unarmed black teenager? I don’t know, and neither do the protesters.
What should black America do when a white police officer shoots an unarmed black person, something that happens far too often in this country? Rioting and looting and behaving like scalawags should be at the bottom of that list; asking Al Sharpton and his cronies to stay home should be at the top of that list. However, I can’t help but believe that the mostly African American crowd of protesters is simply reinforcing negative stereotypes that too many white people embrace about us. Holding demonstrations and protesting the killing of the unarmed Michael Brown is admirable and necessary; looting and vandalizing businesses and cars is destructive and counterproductive. As Jonathan Jeans, an African American graduate of Austin Peay State University, wrote on his Facebook wall in response to the events in Ferguson: “I think we should all work hard to change the minds of our fellow countrymen by casting down and proving wrong the stereotypes that plague our society. We must remain cognizant of the fact that they do exist within our society.”
I wish the media would talk more about the good things that black folks are doing, instead of focusing on the miscreants in Ferguson. Let’s spend more time talking about the 11- and 12-year-old baseball players from Jackie Robinson West, the Little League team from Chicago, Illinois, that represented the United States against Korea in the 2014 Little League World Series. The all-black squad is a member of the Urban Initiative, a program that supports Little League programs in “needy urban areas,” and its members all hail from the South Side, one of the most distressed neighborhoods in Chicago. “The city of Chicago could not be prouder of them,” Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has said. “Their positive attitude and success on the field has rallied people from every neighborhood to support these kids, and they continue to demonstrate why they are the pride of Chicago.” Although Jackie Robinson West lost to Korea 8-4, we should be spending more time and energy praising the good works and sportsmanship of these young men.
Dr. Cornel West—a professor of philosophy in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University and a prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America—has been critical of President Obama’s “slow” response to Brown’s killing. For West, Obama’s public statements on the events in Ferguson were “motivated by electoral considerations rather than moral beliefs.” “His words reek of political calculation rather than moral conviction,” he said. West also said that it was “disgusting” to have a black president who is “not able to keep up with what was going on with young black youth.”
What too often is “going on with young black youth” in this country is the antithesis to a successful life. According to the latest government statistics, African American women had the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births at 67.8 percent, though this does includes women who may be living with—but not married to—the baby’s father. CNN anchor Don Lemon, during an on-air commentary following George Zimmerman acquittal in 2013, said that in order for black people to “fix the problems in the black community,” the “most important” item to fix was the number of children born to unmarried women. “Just because you can have a baby, it doesn’t mean you should,” Lemon said. “Especially without planning for one or getting married first. More than 72 percent of children in the African-American community are born out of wedlock. That means absent fathers. And the studies show that lack of a male role model is an express train right to prison and the cycle continues.”
The black community must remain vigilant in urging young black women to wait to have children and to stay in school, and we must urge young black men to delay having children and to stay in school, too. I’ve read that people have asked students to skip class on Monday, the day of Michael Brown’s funeral and what would have been his first day of college classes. Would we not better honor Brown’s life and his tragic death by asking ALL students to go to class?
I’m not sure I’ve answered your question, Winn, mostly because I’m not really sure what my thoughts are on what happened in Ferguson. We don’t have enough information to make an informed conclusion since there has been little transparency from the Ferguson Police Department. In contrast, NYPD Training Commissioner Ben Tucker ordered a “top to bottom review of all the training that his department provides to its personnel, specifically focusing on force, how do we train our officers for a takedown, [and] how do we train them to use the various levels of force that they’re authorized to use.” “I would anticipate that coming out of this effort that there will be a re-training of every member of the New York City Police Department in the weeks, months and potential years ahead,” NY City Police Commissioner William Bratton said. Still, white America should not stand idly by when the Michael Browns and Eric Garners are tragically killed by white police officers, and they should join African Americans in demanding that a full investigation be fairly and swiftly adjudicated. The black community, too, must do a better job of making sure we hold our young men and women to high standards, and we should support them in making moral and honorable choices that will facilitate a successful transition into adulthood.
On Monday, August 25, thousands of mourners filled the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis for Michael Brown’s funeral. His father asked protesters to observe a “day of silence” so that the family could grieve their “gentle giant.” “Tomorrow all I want is peace,” Brown Sr. told hundreds of people at a festival in St. Louis that promotes peace over violence. “That’s all I ask.” Let’s hear—and heed—the cries of Michael Brown’s family, and let’s make sure that their son did not die in vain. Let Michael Brown and Eric Garner teach us how to better deal with police, and let’s hope their tragic deaths teach the police how to better deal with us.