Missourians are internationally known for their slogan, “I’m from Missouri; show me.” What happened in the state to African-American teenager Michael Brown last August has resulted in two sharply differing versions of what occurred. Significantly better race relations for residents of Missouri and America as a whole will require both sides to show a new willingness to reconcile and an iron determination to avoid similar tragedies in future.
The protester view is that the unarmed Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white policeman, while his hands were held up. His body was left in the street for 4-1/2 hours. The outrage was compounded when a grand jury refused to indict Wilson for any crime.
The other side says that Brown had stolen cigarillos from a store just before being confronted by the officer. When ordered to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street, he charged and was attempting to seize Wilson’s gun when the officer fired in self-defence.
In the background are Trayvon Martin and other victims of alleged reckless policing across the country. As Pittsburgh journalist David Shribman notes, the Justice Department is now looking at whether the police department in the Ferguson suburb (two-thirds black) has a culture of racial prejudice. The Financial Times reports that on the day of Brown’s death, there were only three black officers on duty out of a force of 53.
Opposing viewpoint: David Jones
Wilson’s recent resignation from the police force came as residents were leaving on a seven-day march from Ferguson to Jefferson City, the state capital, to protest the killing and the grand jury’s decision. The marchers are calling for a reform of police practices, a new police chief in Ferguson, and a national law to prevent racial profiling by police.
Brown’s death has already resulted in months of protests and simmering tensions across Ferguson and has reignited the national debate over race relations and the use of police force across the U.S, particularly the tactics and tools used by some law enforcement agencies.
Some protestors,chanting "No justice, no peace" and "We have nothing to lose but our chains," are descendants of African-Americans who suffered generations of injustice. Despite the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, low-income African-Americans appear still to be disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs and the law enforcement agencies enforcing those laws.
Law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, notes that African-Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for similar crimes. Once arrested, they are more likely to be formally charged. Once charged, they are more likely to be convicted. Once convicted, they are more likely to receive sentences of incarceration.
May Quinn, Director of the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri, feels that the work of reconciliation should begin with the local government because the lives of so many of Ferguson’s young people have been negatively impacted by the municipal court systems and their ongoing cycle of prosecution, financial penalty, warrant, arrest and jail.
After meetings with cabinet members, law enforcement officials, young activists and others to discuss the mistrust between law enforcement and communities of colour, Barack Obama proposed new funding meant to help improve relations between police departments and minorities:
[This is] not a problem simply of Ferguson, this is a problem that is national. It is a solvable problem.... What we need is a sustained conversation ... to move forward in a constructive fashion.
Obama proposes a three-year, $263-million spending package to increase the use of small, lapel-mounted body cameras, expand training of law enforcement, and adding more resources for police reform. It’s a step in a better direction.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "A riot is the language of the unheard." To his credit, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder launched a series of ‘nationwide conversations’ by stating that he plans to announce "rigorous new standards" for federal law enforcement "to help end racial profiling, once and for all."
Ferguson reminds many of us that some Americans still do not respect one another as neighbors, and are failing to act and speak with respect as members of one national family. Alexander says that until Americans confront and conquer the underlying issue of racism, its curse will continue to manifest itself in insidious new ways in attitudes and institutions.
Many of us across both America and the world are waiting for Americans to find ways to build trust between communities and law enforcement, so that they can live up to such stated ideals as “all people are created equal” and “justice for all.”
David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.