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More Reflections on Ferguson and Racism
by Marc Jampole
ACCORDING TO FERGUSON, MISSOURI POLICE OFFICER Darren Wilson, the altercation that led to him pulling the trigger of his gun and killing Michael Brown last August started when either Brown or his friend said “Fuck what you have to say.”
Let’s be clear: everyone in the United States has the right to say “Fuck you” to a police officer. I’ve done it myself a time or two, and every single time, the police officer has stood there passively and taken it, or returned the conversation to the subject, likely my jay-walking or breaching of a police barrier.
At the point at which Brown or his friend “fuck-you’d” Wilson, no one had committed a crime. All these kids had done was walk in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk, something I remember doing all the time when I was a teenager in Miami, Florida.
There seemed to be no reason for the interaction to turn into an altercation, just as there seemed to be no reason for the altercation to have turned into the killing. We can only imagine the deeply felt emotions both Wilson and Brown must have had inside them that spurred this deadly incident.
But as no crime was committed and Wilson proved clueless as to how to cool down the situation, he should at the very least have lost his job or been suspended for using poor judgment. Except for one thing — hassling black youths is a tried-and-tried-again police tactic throughout the United States. Everywhere it seems as if young black men have targets on their backs when it comes to being stopped in the streets by the local constabulary.
Our indictment should start, then, not with Wilson, but with the Ferguson police department and the exceedingly racist if widespread idea that hassling young black men helps to prevent crime.
AS TO THE GRAND JURY, I’m inclined to believe that the members did a proper job of weighing the evidence before them and that they bent over backwards not to reach a knee-jerk decision in favor of Wilson. But even if the grand jury appears to have come to a proper decision given all the evidence, Michael Brown remains a victim of institutional racism. Even if the grand jury had indicted Wilson for manslaughter, Brown would still be dead, still a victim of a system that treats minorities and the poor much more harshly than it treats whites and rich folk.
The protests in the wake of the decision not to indict were thus not about the decision not to pursue a criminal case against Darren Wilson. The uprisings, both those planned and those spontaneous, were about the system that routinely produces police shootings and beatings, virtually always of minorities.
Sadly, since the Michael Brown case there have been incidents of police shooting innocent bystanders in Los Angeles, Cleveland, and New York. In the Cleveland case, a child was killed after he pulled out a fake gun. In a New York case, someone late at night in a public housing complex entered a darkened stairwell at the very moment a rookie police officer was walking up the steps. The police officer saw the body — but no gun — and shot. In what looks like a complete whitewash, the New York police department is calling it an “unfortunate accident.” Funny, the panicking rookie still had the presence of mind to shoot to kill. In fact, the ironic but tragic coincidence in all these cases is that the police officers are good enough shots to kill but not good enough shots to hit the leg or arm or in some other way disable the victim. Perhaps police departments should not teach their officers to shoot to kill.
THERE IS, OF COURSE, THE POSSIBILITY that the incidence of police violence is actually low when you take into account the large number of guns on the streets and the crime rate, which by the way has been falling steadily for the past twenty-five years. For all we know, a hypothetical study might prove that the number of police killing of innocent victims was actually quite low. That still wouldn’t explain the fact that the innocent victims are almost always minorities.
To say that more African-Americans are involved in violent altercations with police because more of them commit crimes is a crude lie based on a misreading of statistics. More whites than Blacks commit crimes, just as more whites than Blacks are on welfare. Even if the percentage of criminals is higher among Blacks than whites (to be expected since there are always more criminals among impoverished groups), there are still more white criminals committing more crimes.
So how come the victims of these police shootings or other acts of violence such as death by chokehold are virtually always African-American? For the same reason that I can say “fuck you” to a cop after crossing the street on the red and my African-American male friends (all professionals and graduates of Ivy League or Ivy League level schools) routinely get stopped by police while driving their late model cars by for absolutely no reason.
It’s called racism. And people of all social, ethnic and racial backgrounds are sick of it. That’s why people protested last night and why they’ll return to the streets next time a police officer mistakenly kills an African-American, be it by gunfire, chokehold, or beating.
Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.