Thinking about Ferguson: Beyond the fire

Thinking about Ferguson: Beyond the fire

The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the deluge of commentary trying to make sense of things thereafter, nudges J. BROOKS SPECTOR into thinking about the likely effects of this death on some of his friends in America.

Some years ago, while the writer was working in Washington, DC, he attended one of those many conferences that deal with the weighty problems in the world. Following all the speeches and panels at the conference, the organisers had laid on a lavish dinner buffet spread that offered smoked salmon, live oysters, beautifully carved filet mignon, sushi made to order, and similar delicacies.

I had attended this event with an office colleague, an urbane man who was an established scholar of East Asian languages and literature and an experienced diplomat. He was a devout fan of Oscar Peterson. In his professional life, he was a soft-spoken but enormously effective manager. He is retired now and living in one of the states in the northern tier of the US rather than one of the country’s big cities. As a result, one can only assume he enjoys skiing, boating, and fishing – as a contrast to a leisurely round of translating some ancient Chinese philosophical tract, just for the fun of it.

While we were at the buffet, loading up our respective plates with favoured treats, my colleague somehow found himself on the other side of that groaning board. At that moment, we locked eyes, and his face showed a small, sad smile. There was a flicker of understanding – my colleague had suddenly realised that despite his social and professional standing, and given his dark suit and sombre neckwear, it was inevitable that, eventually, as long as he was standing there, someone would mistake him for one of the many servers on duty and they would ask him to cut them another slice of that great roast beef, or hand them some of the other lovely comestibles on offer. He said to me softly that it was probably best he move away from that spot. Oh – did I forget to mention that my colleague (and office supervisor) was an African American man?

In that moment, the peculiar burden that almost every black American eventually comes to bear, and the risk they might come to suffer at the hands of the bearers of stereotypes, became real to the writer as well. And, by extension, those infamous tropes and consequences of “driving while black”, or “walking while black” will come into conscious thought as well. And so, in contemplating the death of Michael Brown and the unwillingness of a Missouri grand jury to report out an indictment of the Ferguson policeman, Darren Wilson, who had killed him, those other bitter phrases, as well as the memory of my colleague’s moment of existential sadness, all come into focus.

In fact, what we actually know about the circumstances of the death of Michael Brown seems rather skimpy. It is clear that there was a scuffle, at, near or inside the police car; that there was some confusing blood evidence at the car; and the policeman fired a large volley of shots, of which four struck Brown, fatally wounding him. Witnesses offered contradictory testimony about whether Brown was coming towards or moving away from Wilson at the time of incident and whether he had his hands up or in his pockets. There was some – but by no means compelling – evidence (most especially in his own personal testimony) that Wilson felt he was in direct danger from Brown. And that is about it.

Meanwhile, the grand jury that had been tasked to determine whether or not to charge Wilson with murder, or a lesser crime, chose not to return any indictment for any charge at all. There are also circumstantial indications the prosecutor presenting the evidence to the grand jury was emotionally compromised by his own personal history (his father was a policeman who died on the job) or about his rather reluctant commitment for pursuing an indictment as a result of Wilson’s behaviour.

But when the grand jury’s determination was announced, it set off a explosion of outrage and anger that resulted in street demonstrations, rioting, some significant property damage in the commercial heart of Ferguson, Missouri, as well as large, vociferous demonstrations in a number of big cities across the country – mostly peaceful, but some not quite so orderly. It has apparently not been until the national holiday of Thanksgiving arrived on Thursday that relative calm returned to Ferguson – as a result of some 2,000 National Guard troops sent in to impose a firmer brand of civil order than what had come from the deployments of local and state police units in Ferguson.

But what is so deep in the American psyche that a fatal shooting by police of a citizen prompts such wide anger, frustration, and sometimes some striking street violence? And so, to think about this, in the mind of the writer, he convenes a gathering of some black American friends to discuss the matter. One is that former diplomat and Asian linguist; one is another former diplomat with a very different background. The latter grew up hardscrabble in a small town in the Midwest, joining the Navy in the midst of the Vietnam War and eventually earning his diplomat’s stripes in Africa, Cuba and Eastern Europe. A third is an architect who, in addition to some real talent at his profession, has taken astute advantage of federal procurement policies to gain some financially rewarding commissions. Yet another is a rising young actor, while his brother is a multimedia entrepreneur. Finally, also in that circle of conversation are two teachers, one now a principal in a fancy private school, the other an arts specialist in various schools in Washington, DC. It’s a good middle-class gathering – and they are solid citizens, all of them.

And it is clear, as they nibble at the snacks and sip their drinks, that the evening’s topic is Michael Brown/Darren Wilson. Each of them can picture a moment when they could easily have been a news story that, boiled down to its essentials, was their own respective engagements with the police in yet another one of those “driving (or walking) while black” toxic playlets. And, that the outcome of such a chance encounter might well have led to an argument, an arrest or, ultimately, even lethal consequences. And these are the very circumstances the writer was likely to avoid in his own very similar life.

Of course things have changed since some really bad times in history. It is true mob lynching to keep blacks in line is no longer the order of the day and so the song, Strange Fruit, is no longer the wry, angry musical commentary on that wretched circumstance. Legally imposed racial rule via legalised disenfranchisement is no longer the norm, and public amenities, schools, economic opportunities and employment are no longer ruthlessly segregated by race.

Meanwhile, over the years, with the country’s many police departments, the use of force – even lethal force – has been given conspicuously wide latitude by the courts. This has come under the assumption police forces are the frontline agents of social order and stability. If they must engage in violence in order to contain other yet violence and criminal behaviour, this has, effectively, been deemed a reasonable risk to take and an acceptable cost for the stability of the larger social order.

The problems from this, of course, are two-fold. The first is that with the wide distribution of firearms in the hands of criminals and would-be criminals (as well as in the hands of citizens more generally), police forces routinely take the view that someone stopped in the commission of a crime, someone apparently poised to carry out a crime, or someone stopped on the assumption they are in the wrong place at the wrong time is also likely to be packing some heat. As a result, the cops are ready to use their own weapons as well. And that is precisely what they do.

The second point is that, as the writer’s imaginary gathering of friends would undoubtedly have noted with a general and vigorous nodding of heads, across the country, the police’s ideas of carrying out such activities are almost certainly skewed along racial lines – or, at the very minimum, almost universally believed to be so. In thinking of Michael Brown, someone would have inevitably also mentioned Trayvon Martin. Then the sorry circumstances of Rodney King would come up, and then, eventually, the comments would reach back to Emmet Till – all of these demonstrations that this mix of race and policing is both longstanding and on display across the country. It is a source of discontent and anger, even among (or perhaps especially among) that imaginary middle class gathering in the writer’s study.

Of course while Michael Brown’s death, and Darren Wilson’s responsibility for it, will, now, not be the subject of a criminal trial, the subject is not closed. Yet. At the federal level, the justice department is still investigating whether to charge Wilson with denying Michael Brown his civil rights, and there will also be investigations into how the Ferguson police department is run, staffed and directed. And the Brown family still has the right to sue Wilson and his employers in a wrongful death civil suit. For this, there will be more attorneys than you can shake a stick at, all eager for a chance to make a name out of that opportunity.

Brown, of course, will still be dead, and the smouldering anger over police behaviour generally, and towards African Americans in particular, will not go away until such people – such as those gathered in the writer’s imaginary cocktail party – truly believe public order policing is racially neutral. That sea change would seem to be a tall order, right about now.

In the meantime, is there anything good that can come out of this anger around the death of Michael Brown? One thing, of course, would be for police forces more generally to move towards non-lethal means of stopping a criminal, or a would-be criminal. But this, of course, won’t work unless the police believe they are not going to be outgunned by the criminals out there. That’s a tough one, right about now as well.

But what about equipping every policeman (and woman) on patrol with a miniature video camera that captures all of the actions of a full day’s duty tour? In fact, a growing number of US police departments (and there are, of course, hundreds of different jurisdictions across the country) already equip their patrol cars with dashboard video cameras for just that purpose. The next logical step would be to equip each officer with a miniature recorder as well, pinned somewhere on their person. This would not solely be to prosecute police officers who go way beyond the appropriate behaviour in their activities. It could just as easily serve to verify an officer’s report of what happened, especially when there is a violent or even fatal encounter with a civilian.

Eventually, in many minds, Michael Brown’s death will just join that long list of other civilians killed by the police as they go about their tasks. The broken glass from the looted stores will be swept up; most of those stores will be refitted; and, eventually, everyone will go about their business – with their angers and fears stored away until the fire next time. And the writer’s (imaginary) cocktail party guests will continue to wonder if they or someone in their families will eventually meet the same fate. In that sense, Michael Brown’s circumstances resonate so cruelly with African Americans because it is impossible to separate the quotidian from the contingent – a life ends in a minute and it reverberates across the nation and the cycle of anger and resentment begins yet again. DM

Photo: A protester covered in a US flag stands in front of Ferguson Police Department as the snow falls, in Ferguson, Missouri, USA, 26 November 2014. Hundreds of protesters returned to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, late 25 November to renew protests of a controversial verdict in the police shooting case, but authorities said damage was kept to a minimum thanks to a strong police presence. EPA/ALEXEY FURMAN


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