WASHINGTON – Because of the killing of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, by a White policeman, in Ferguson, (Missouri), Black residents and many others coming from other localities are venting (often in a violent way) their frustration and resentment against a White establishment that they perceive as biassed and repressive. It is abundantly clear that the Black community sees the mostly White and excessively well armed local police force as a bunch of attack dogs used by Whites to intimidate Blacks.
The killing proves the larger point
Whatever the official investigation may come up with, most Blacks immediately bought the reconstruction of the sad event that proves their point. The White policeman for no reason harassed the Black boy walking in the street. The Black boy had his hands up in the air, in a clear gesture of surrender. But the policeman shot him anyway –at least six times.
So, there we go again. This is what is to be expected from White cops whose main job is to instill fear among Blacks. A gratuitous killing here and there is simply meant to reinforce the hard reality that Blacks have no chance in a White dominated society.
Yes, police brutality directed at Blacks is just the most visible manifestation of a fundamentally racist America. You may tell us that segregation may be illegal now. Theoretically Blacks and Whites have equal rights. But, in practice, we know that nothing has changed. And, in case you had any illusions, just look at the Ferguson killing, and you’ll understand what is really going on.
US flag upside down
For me, the saddest manifestation of what amounts to a feeling of total Black alienation was TV footage about the daily protest showing a Black young man carrying the US flag upside down, with the stars at the bottom.
That really jolted me. The American Flag, “Old Glory”, the Stars and Stripes banner that should symbolize national unity based on our shared values and beliefs, treated instead as the symbol of a horribly unjust nation. By carrying the US Flag upside down, that young man tells us that he does not belong to this America, an America that –he firmly believes– treats him and all other Blacks as second class citizens, or worse.
Too many stereotypes
So, is this the real story? Is the Ferguson killing yet another reminder that America is still fundamentally racist?
Well, yes and no, we are told by Juan Williams. Williams is an African American, and a very thoughtful commentator capable to look at American racial and civil rights issues and dynamics with uncommon fairness and objectivity.
In an excellent WSJ piece, (Ferguson and America’s Racist Fears, August 20, 2014), Williams provides needed context. Beyond the specific facts that led to the Ferguson tragic killing, there are layers and layers of perceptions and misperceptions on both sides of what still remains a racial divide. These misperceptions prevent both Blacks and Whites to confront the real issues, while hiding behind self-serving, stereotypical interpretations.
Yes, Blacks feel persecuted, and many times with cause. There are many recorded instances of White police brutality. But Whites, also with cause, in many instances feel threatened by Black crime and violence. Hence their fears, often exaggerated, that unfortunately lead to a collective indictment: “All young Black males are violent criminals. If you see a group of them approaching you in the street, run. If you have a gun, you may have to use it to protect yourself.”
And Williams argues that White fears are not unfounded. The statistics related to Black crime and Black violence, often gratuitous, are staggering. In America most homicides are carried out by young Black males. Although African Americans are only 13% of the total US population, about 50% of all people killed in America are Blacks, in most cases killed by other Blacks.
Hence the White stereotype: “Most Blacks are violent criminals. We need a well armed, tough police force to protect us against them”.
Most White policemen are racist
And you can see what effect the policies inspired by this perception produced on the other side of the racial divide. The fact that White policemen routinely treat so many Blacks as suspects, far too often using rough methods and/or unneeded violence, proves the point held almost universally by Blacks: “We are the innocent victims of White police brutality. And police brutality is just the most visible aspect of persistent White racism”.
Both sides have a point, while both sides exaggerate.
Ferguson tragedy provides ammunition to both sides
If we go down to the known details of the Ferguson tragedy, (sadly we still do not have the whole picture), there is enough material there for both sides to prove that their stereotypes are in fact the truth.
The convenience store video of Michael Brown, (the young man later on killed by the police officer), confirms any and all White stereotypes about the average young Black criminal.
In the video we see a 6-foot-3 inch, almost 300 pounds Michael Brown entering the store and quite openly, in fact almost casually, stealing a box of cigars. When confronted by the (smallish) store clerk who demanded payment, Brown simply pushed him aside and walked out, as if nothing had happened.
Now, this is not your idea of “shoplifting”, a type of petty robbery in which the perpetrator, hoping to hide his actions, is concealing something he has taken from the store in a bag or in one of his pockets. Your typical shoplifter knows he is doing something bad and tries to hide his theft, while hoping to get away with it.
Michael Brown did nothing of the above. In broad daylight he gets into a store, helps himself, quite openly, and then he walks out, shoving aside the protesting store clerk. Did he know that his illegal act had been caught on camera? Probably yes, but obviously he did not care.
Well, any White person watching this video will tell you that this is typical thuggish behavior, revealing a Black young man who does not care about rules, laws, potential risks, or anything else. He steals something, and that’s OK. As far as he is concerned, laws do not exist; or at least they do not apply to him.
But then let’s fast forward to Brown’s confrontation with the police officer that ended with the gunshots that killed him. We do not know what happened. We only know that the White policeman shot Brown, repeatedly, and killed him.
And this shooting is enough evidence to allow Black community members to conclude that this is just another instance of police brutality targeting Blacks, something believed to be absolutely true by most Blacks.
And in this death we find the reason for repeated protests: “There is no justification for gunning down an unarmed person. Whatever Michael Brown might have done, his alleged crime certainly did not mandate killing him. The fact is that Brown was killed because he was Black. We all know that”.
Too much force
And so we get into the difficult issue of “excessive violence”, often used by police in questionable circumstances. Indeed, why is it OK for policemen to shoot and often kill any suspect not complying with their orders? We all know that there are means other than guns –I think of pepper spray or tasers– to temporarily incapacitate an unarmed suspect resisting arrest without shooting him. Why aren’t they used?
Indeed, even assuming that the White policeman was trying to arrest Brown because he knew about the convenience store robbery, certainly there is no proportion between stealing a $ 50 box of cigars and being killed because of this theft.
Misperceptions feed bias
Well, we could go and on. Beyond the specific circumstances of this sad case, the real issue is the persistent racial divide fueled on both sides by stereotypes, exaggerations and misperceptions. And it is clear that these unchallenged stereotypes create the screens through which Blacks and Whites see and then judge tragic events like the Ferguson killing. And, sadly, the same stereotypes are used to justify police aggressive law enforcement, and Black resentment against it.
As Williams pointed out in his WSJ piece, no, it is not true that all young Black males are criminals, although it is true that far too many are. No, it is not true that all policemen are racists thugs using any pretext to wound or kill Blacks. But there are many instances of excessive force used by police, for no apparent reasons.
Always blame the other side
The persistent American racial divide will continue until both Blacks and Whites will abandon their encrusted prejudices and honestly look at real and complicated facts –Why so much Black crime? Why so many trigger happy cops?– and try to find real avenues for improvement.
So far, the two communities are trapped by their own biases that can be summarized in this simple sentence: “Whatever we are doing, and some of it may be excessive, it is clearly caused by the other side. It is obvious to all that it is their horrible behavior that forces us to react”.