Note: this entry emphatically subject to my privilege disclaimer.
There is so much to say about the events that have been unfolding over the last week in Ferguson that I don’t know where to begin, but I feel a responsibility, particularly as a white person, to do what I can to talk about what has happened and is happening there.
Authors note: this ended up being a piece outlining what I feel is the practically incontrovertible evidence that Mike Brown’s shooting had no justifiable cause and that the police department’s actions and statements speak to a long history of extremely racist beliefs and actions. Knowing my usual readership, I imagine this is not a case it is necessary for me to make to most of you, but it is my hope that for any who still need the case made, this will help.
Let’s start with the beginning: a police officer shooting Mike Brown, an unarmed young black man, multiple times until he was dead. No one disputes that basic summary. Not even the police.
The police account suggests that Mike Brown struggled to grab the officer’s weapon. The witness accounts thus far released uniformly contradict that story. Witness accounts that the Ferguson PD have not felt it necessary to include in their investigation, even in spite of at least one witness explicitly volunteering their testimony to the police department.
The Ferguson PD have also said in a statement that Mike Brown was a robbery suspect.
Let’s start just with the above. The robbery suspect statement is bewildering. Why that matters in the slightest in situation like this is beyond me. Robbery is not a crime that carries the death penalty, and even if it was, the police are not in any way permitted to kill people suspected of committing crimes that might potentially carry the death penalty. The best possible spin you could put on the police department releasing this information is this:
“The officer did not kill an unarmed civilian for nothing, the officer killed an unarmed civilian because there was a possibility they had stolen something.”
This isn’t a defense. The killing is still illegal – it is still murder, and it reads like “we didn’t murder for nothing, we murdered for shoplifting”. The fact that they think this will work as a defense is, in my opinion, a testimony to their faith in the power of systemic racism. It is, by any reasonable standard, an appalling defense. It becomes even more so considering that the Ferguson police chief has stated that the officer who shot Mike Brown did not know he was a robbery suspect.
This begs the question: why even bring it up, if it has no bearing on how the police officer made his decision to kill? Why bring it up unless you somehow think that robbery suspect status retroactively justifies the extrajudicial killing of an unarmed citizen?
Then there is the fact that they have apparently no interest in interviewing witnesses to the shooting. It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether or not they think the witness accounts are likely to be true or false; if you genuinely want to find out the truth about an event, you interview the witnesses. The only reason for them not to do that, especially when witnesses have explicitly volunteered themselves to you, as far as I can see, is that they are not actually interested in the truth coming out.
Let’s take a step back, now, and look at the Ferguson Police Department’s record with respect to race. First, based on statistics provided by the Missouri State Atty. Gen.’s office, black people in Ferguson are much more likely to be subject to stops, searches, and arrests than white people in the same area. The rate of searches is particularly telling, because black people are searched proportionately more in spite of the fact that the data shows that searches of black people have yielded proportionately fewer discoveries of contraband than searches of white people.
These more frequent searches of black people in Ferguson are not happening because they are more likely to yield results. The data in fact show that they are less likely to yield results than searches of white people.
Outside of the hard numbers that suggest racism, we have past scandals in the area. We have the whistleblower originally known as “Lonewolf”, who was subject to continual harassment after revealing his identity to the public in order to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about a police sergeant. The sergeant, Hayes, “used ‘inappropriate racial references’ while issuing…orders”. He would reportedly do things like ordering officers to arrest black people in and around the S. County Shopping Ctr. as well as a nearby Walmart, and instituting “black days” where officers were specifically encouraged to “fill the jails” with black people. The whistleblower’s story was eventually corroborated by nine people interviewed in the subsequent investigation of Sgt. Hayes.
There is also the story in 2009 of the Ferguson police arresting a black man for a crime he didn’t commit. After they realized their mistake, the booking officer, instead of releasing him, escorted him to an already-occupied one-man cell, and refused to provide him with one of the unused sleeping mats (the sole bed being already occupied). The booking officer subsequently summoned some other cops, who proceeded to beat the man bloody, and then charge him with destruction of property for bleeding on their uniforms. As if that wasn’t horrifying enough on its own, it later transpired that the cops involved had apparently lost the security footage of the incident, and all of them testified in court that they had not, in fact, even gotten any blood on any of their uniforms (not that the situation wouldn’t have looked horrifying if they had, but I think the fact that they lied about even that illustrates the lengths they were willing to go to hold and abuse the victim).
In summary, without even getting to later police responses to vigils and protests in Ferguson, we have these facts about the shooting of Mike Brown: a documented history, both in government-provided data and in previous incidents with the local police that are matters of public record, of a culture of racism by the local police. We have the fact that the police have claimed to be investigating the shooting of Mike Brown in spite of not having made any effort at all to interview key witnesses. We have the fact that the witnesses that have come forward have consistently represented the incident differently than the police department. We have the fact that there are documented incidents of the local police lying in order to excuse or falsify justifications for the actions they take against black citizens, even when they know that they have no reason to take any action whatsoever against those citizens.
If you believe the Police Department’s accounts of recent events given the above, you are being mind-bogglingly naïve at best, though I would contend that a more sensible and more complete explanation is a combination of naïveté and racism. Even if you do believe police accounts of recent events, if you believe anything that they have said justifies the killing of an unarmed citizen, I can think of no explanation for that stance that isn’t steeped in racism. Personally, I believe that the fact that writing a post like this is even necessary, given everything that has happened in the last week, is a testament to the incredible power of implicit racism and the irrational fear that we as white people so often experience about black people. I hope all of this has given us all reason to ask serious questions about our own biases with respect to race; I know it has for me.
There is a lot more to say about everything that has happened in Ferguson over the last week, but I’m not going to try to fit it all in one post, in order to keep this the length of a blog post instead of the length of a book.