After the murder of several unarmed black citizens by police officers in the US, Martin Healy looks at how little justice is being served.
The campaign and subsequent election of Barack Obama was painted as “Change” for the people of the United States. The election of the first ever black President was a watershed moment in a nation with a tense racial history. Obama’s inauguration was portrayed as a sign that the US was moving beyond its old racial divides. It showed how far the nation had progressed. While the electoral success of Obama was indeed a powerful moment in American race history, the United States is far from reaching complete racial equality. The events of 2014 have borne out this theory, as racial tensions have reached a high not seen in years.
This flaring of tensions erupted around the return of coverage depicting police brutality against people of colour to the mainstream media. A huge public backlash has emerged since the shooting of Michael Brown in last August in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. This anger continued during Wilson’s subsequent Grand Jury acquittal as well as during the acquittal of Officer Daniel Pataleo, who choked a man, Eric Garner, to death in New York last July. Both of these victims were African-American and unarmed. Further backlash came with the shooting of unarmed Tamir Rice, a 12 year-old boy who was shot last November in Cleveland, Ohio. He was armed – but with an Airsoft gun.
Debate over why the first two men were killed has been intense. Some witnesses claim that Brown went for Wilson’s gun, and it was an act of self-defence on Wilson’s part. Others claim the opposite. Regardless, these incidents have helped to dissolve the relationship between people of colour and the police force in many parts of the United States. Police brutality has affected many people for years. In light of these events some questions have to be raised. Why are people only now taking a stand against these actions? Why are things not changing? Why are women being left out of this? How can the families of these victims receive no justice? What does this say about modern American society?
For the American media, especially the more conservative outlets, these riots were further evidence to support the “us versus them” mentality against people of colour
For years, there have been uneasy relationships between sections of the African-American community and the police force. Much of this comes from the years of “racial profiling” and other racist stereotyping utilised by some officers of the law. A year prior to the events in Ferguson, a census report noted how black citizens were almost twice as likely to be searched (12.13%) than white citizens (6.85%), despite the fact that whites have a higher “contraband hit rate” than blacks (34.04% versus 21.71% respectively). This is not aided by police officers having to adhere to search-and-arrest quotas in order to keep their numbers consistent with the rest of the state or nation.
Beyond the policing of its citizens, such statistics speak to the structure of American society. A report by the Washington Post in 2010 discovered that of the 755 cities in the US that have census data on police, three–quarters of them have a higher proportion of white officers than white citizens. This is partially due to the number of African-Americans suffering from social disadvantages (according to the census 27.4% of the black population in the US qualify as living in poverty). As such, more-financially secure white citizens have a higher chance of gaining the education and financing necessary to become a police officer. This creates a disconnect between civilians and police officers. For Ferguson, we see an area with a very high black population living under the authority of a police force run by white people, most of whom are men.
From this angle, we can see how the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have not received the justice they deserve. The New York Times noted how the grand jury trial in Ferguson differed from regular trials. The Ferguson case took 25 days over three months, called sixty witnesses, saw the defendant testify and all evidence and testimony were released after the decision was made. Typical grand juries in Missouri take place over a day, call few witnesses, the defendant is not heard from and the evidence is kept secret. The release of evidence in this case is key, making the jury appear defensive and uncertain in their decision-making.
The lack of convictions handed out by grand juries is even more apparent with the Eric Garner case. His murder was caught on video. His dying words “I can’t breathe”, which have become a slogan for protesters holding “die-ins”, place blame of his death onto Officer Pataleo. This denial of justice is a continuation of the stereotyping of the black community; a burgeoning “us versus them” mentality. Young black youths have a very poor reputation in American media. Grand juries appear to be invoking protectionism around these police officers, trying to keep strength in the old adage that the police are a moral force of good. While there are undoubtedly many officers adhering to the ideals of their job, there are many who do not. These supposed “miscarriages of justice” represent how the policing system is protecting itself to keep itself from reform and to assure citizens that their taxed dollars are going toward a productive police force. So long as a black person can be stereotyped as a criminal, the police force may continue relatively unchecked by external forces with no comprise of their power.
Sadly, there are internal forces working against peaceful protestors’ quest for justice. While many are rallying peacefully against the police for their actions, it is the violent actions of a minority which is getting its voice heard. Instead of protesting peacefully, a violent minority is lashing out against society, using the protests as an excuse to cause anarchy.
Any potential change demanded by the family of Michael Brown was immediately diluted by the mass riots that took place on the streets of Ferguson after Officer Wilson’s acquittal. Dozens of buildings were set ablaze in the town as a number of people were injured or arrested. It’s a preverbal melting pot: the extreme minority looking to cause violence for violence’s sake, clashing against a police force that is mostly united behind Officer Wilson. This resulted in mass violence. Pictures of a battle-torn Ferguson were broadcasted across the globe.
Anarchy takes all the attention away from peaceful intentions of Michael Brown’s family and supporters. It restrains any potential that they may have had for justice or reform amongst the police force. For the American media, especially the more conservative outlets, these riots were further evidence to support the “us versus them” mentality against people of colour. News outlets could point at the violence engulfing Ferguson and ask “why do these people deserve justice?” despite the ample evidence for their cause. The dominant image of Ferguson was rioting. It’s the most eye-catching image for the news cycle. Such criticisms were levelled at the 2011 London Riots, where media purposefully concentrated on violence instead of the original peaceful protests. The original protests around the death of Mark Duggan received a fraction of the media attention that would surround the violent clashes that emerged in the following days.
Injustice will continue because the message is being lost. The same applies to the death of Eric Garner. The entire message of the peaceful protesters is being unravelled due to an extreme minority. The main crimes of the extreme minority being the “revenge” murders committed by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsely who killed two police officers in late December before committing suicide. Such an act takes all the attention away from the thousands peacefully protesting around the boroughs of New York City. What captures the media’s attention, what captures our attention is action and violence. The New York protests have been successful in their own right, due to the eye-catching nature of the “die-ins”. Ultimately however, the message of peace and reform is lost in the murder of two police officers. Riots and violence by a small few destroys public opinion of the wider topic at hand.
We find ourselves questioning why it is now that police brutality has become such a hot issue. As was the case with a number of uprisings and events over the last couple of years (such as the London Riots or the Arab Spring in 2011), social media has become a catalyst for this fight for justice. The hashtags #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter have spread through social media.
With cameras everywhere now, and with our phones allowing us to upload videos at any time we choose, it becomes so easy for civilians on the street to highlight the issues behind #BlackLivesMatter. Any moment of conflict between individuals and police can be captured and shared around the world just as the murder of Eric Garner was captured on video and posted online. Every inch of a protest can be recorded meaning the most popular images of protest are no longer controlled by the news. This technological movement has allowed people to come together over a common cause. An American issue has become incendiary across the Western world. A quick search of #BlackLivesMatter instantly gives you opinions (like-minded or otherwise) of people from around the globe. Images and slogans of recent events are constantly revolving around the internet and in the minds of online users.
Even with all this attention being placed on these boys and men, there is still an aspect to this narrative which is missing: women. Last summer, American writer Kirsten West Savali pointed at how “black people becomes black men by default”. Racist violence is so commonly associated with men, that the idea of a woman being subjected to such violence appears rare. Even with there being an emotional outpour for men like Garner and Brown, no female victims have experienced such support.
Such is the case with Yvette Brown. The mother from Texas was fatally shot by a police officer in February 2014. Initial reports stated that she was armed, but these were later retracted. Yvette Smith was black and unarmed, but where were the protests? The rallying cries? Tarika Wilson, another example, was shot, unarmed, by a police officer in 2008. One of her children, one year-old Sincere Wilson was also shot. Men like Brown, Garner, and John Crawford have become symbols for change. Women like Smith and Wilson have no such cache. They don’t even have a Wikipedia page – a modern example of their obscurity. If advocates and protesters of the #BlackLivesMatter group wish to see change in American law enforcement, moving beyond the gender divide is a key barrier to be overcome.
It is becoming clear that this issue is not going away. Even though this racial issue has entered the American mainstream by force, there is little evidence of change. The African-American community is fifty years removed from the civil rights movement. It is a time for reflection. The social inequality gap is only getting larger in the US and using expenditure to contain a social divide is becoming less viable. Police officers have treated black men and women as threats due to such social divisions. The few disadvantaged ones who turn to criminality have scared the community-at-large, allowing the system to create this “us versus them” reality. It could be said that people of colour have become, to the US police force, something to contain.
With Obama’s rise to power change was promised, but ultimately this promise was not fulfilled. There is a deep schism in American society, one that seems very likely to continue in the years ahead. It is clear that the police view people of colour as a threat. People are standing up and saying “enough”, but are these voices loud enough to break the cycle?