What we must remember after Ferguson

photo via slate.com
photo via slate.com

Every time there is a tragedy like the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we are reminded of the many lessons our society has sadly failed to learn. It’s wrenching to watch yet another family grieve a young person who paid the ultimate price thanks to racism and institutional failure. As we fight for justice for Michael Brown and others, we must also highlight the lessons that will help our country prevent these tragedies in the future. 

Don’t get distracted from the core issue: racist violence.

It’s very common in the coverage of events like the shooting of Brown for people to fixate on other issues that lay blame on the victim or shift focus onto protesters. Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous offers a list of things to stop being distracted by in discussion of these injustices. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Here’s her take on one of the issues that always pulls attention in these situations (we saw it a lot here in Oakland after the killing of Oscar Grant), looting:

Looting, too, is about power. When people have nothing and something happens to remind them, in a big way, that what little they do have can be taken away in an instant, including their lives and the lives of their children, they may reach for any semblance of power or control they can get. That might mean breaking a window or even starting a fire. It may mean taking something. Something you’ve been told you can’t have because you’re not human enough to live, let alone prosper.

Also (and this important), looting as a crime is NOT on par with the taking of someone’s life. Property is not a life. In this country, police protect property while killing human beings. Sometimes they, as well as civilians, kill human beings in order to protect property. That’s wrong. That’s savagery.

Ta-Nehisi Coates takes on another media hobby horse in these situation, decrying the lack of focus on black-on-black crime:

The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject—the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts—they evidence them.

This history presents us with a suite of hard choices. We do not like hard choices. Here’s a better idea: Let’s all get together and talk about how Mike Brown would still be alive if Beyoncé would make more wholesome music, followed by a national forum on how the charge of “acting white” contributes to mass incarceration. We can conclude with a keynote lecture on “Kids Today” and a shrug.

Another common angle that is picking up steam now that McKenzie and others have addressed is discussing the victim’s past as away to impugn their innocence. The Ferguson police are coming under new criticism for releasing a video allegedly linking Brown to a minor robbery, an incident that had nothing to do with the shooting. The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown offered powerful examples of how easy it is for the media to cherry pick photos that fit people’s stereotypes and a preexisting narrative about young men of color.

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McKenzie sums the debate up nicely with the refrain at the end of each section of her post: “The issue is yet another unarmed Black teenager murdered by cops. His name was Mike Brown.”

Violence against black youth is a feminist issue.

Seeing the connections between struggles for social justice is a key part of building power and making real, inclusive progress. Dani McClain at The Nation makes the case that the killing of Brown and others needs to be seen as a reproductive justice issue:

Often such events are covered as a story about race, police violence, white supremacy or laws that protect murderers from prosecution. But the killing of Michael Brown, like the killing of many young black people before him, is rarely framed as a feminist issue or as an issue of pressing importance to those who advocate for choice, self-determination and dignity as they relate to family life. With this most recent killing, I am wondering what it would take for more people in feminist and reproductive rights circles to begin to think of parents such as Lesley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton and Angela Leisure (a mother whose ordeal I’m especially reminded of in the wake of this latest tragedy) as women they advocate for just as passionately and vigorously as they advocate for a young woman’s right to contraception or an overwhelmed mother of three’s right to an abortion.

This broader perspective has long been that of the reproductive justice movement, whose participants support “the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.” And some writers, mostly black women, are explaining why the death of Michael Brown terrifies and infuriates them as mothers.

I can’t begin to imagine how it would feel to look at your beautiful child and know that society will come to fear him, and to worry that this unfounded fear could cost him his life. As feminists, we need to get behind the calls for justice for Brown and for parents to be able to raise their children without this fear.

Pentagon bloat has trickled down to police forces, and we need to stop it.

photo via nytimes.com
photo via nytimes.com

By now, everyone has seen the haunting pictures of heavily armed police officers who look like they belong in a war zone facing unarmed protesters. This didn’t grow out of some need expressed by local police forces. This is yet another product of our out-of-control military-industrial complex. As Elizabeth Beavers and Michael Shank write in the New York Times:

Ferguson’s police force got equipped this way thanks to the Pentagon, and it’s happening all over the country. The Department of Defense provides military-grade weapons and equipment to local law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program, enacted by Congress in 1997 to expand the practice of dispensing extra military gear. Due to the defense industry’s bloated contracts, there is a huge surplus. To date, the Pentagon has donated military equipment worth more than $4 billion to local law enforcement agencies. And the giving goes on, to police forces in all 50 states in the union.

It’s not a big surprise that when police departments get fancy new toys, they want to use them (here’s an interactive map of how surplus military gear has spread around the country). All it leads to is fear, mistrust, injury and death–which leads to another key point.

It’s time to re-envision what effective policing looks like.

David Simon, who brought a lot of these issues to life vividly in The Wire, wrote about the problems with the initial refusal to identify the officer who shot Brown and what it says about how the police force relates to the community:

But the cost to our society is not abstract — and the currency in which that cost is paid is trust.  Your department has shown that you do not trust the public with the basic information about who specifically has, in the performance of his or her duties, been required to take a human life in Ferguson. And that same public is now in the street demonstrating that they do not believe that Ferguson law enforcement can therefore be relied upon for anything remotely resembling justice.  How could it be otherwise?

It’s no small task to rebuild trust with communities that have been so abused by the police. The mainstream conversation offers little in the way of an alternative vision of what truly effective policing would look like. While there’s a seemingly infinite amount of work to be done on this issue (and surely there is great thinking out there that is not getting the attention it should), there was a glimpse of a different way of operating when the state Highway Patrol took over the situation in Ferguson.

A stunning change in tone radiated through the suburban streets where protests had turned violent each of the last four evenings following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

But Thursday night, when more than a thousand protesters descended on the remains of QuikTrip – which was burned during riots on Sunday – they had a new leader.

The man at the front of the march, was Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, a Ferguson native.

“I’m not afraid to be in this crowd,” Johnson declared to reporters…

…“When I see a young lady cry because of fear of this uniform, that’s a problem.” Johnson said. “We’ve got to solve that.”

And the difference from protests at similar times in the evening on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday was massive. By this time on Wednesday, police had detained protesters, by this point on Monday officers had begun deploying tear-gas canisters at residents who would not disperse.

Johnson hugged and kissed community members as they passed, slapping backs and sharing laughs.

One man stopped, telling Capt. Johnson that his niece had been tear gassed earlier this week – “What would you say to her?”

Johnson reached out his hand and replied: “Tell her Capt. Johnson is sorry and he apologizes.”

Johnson spoke movingly at a rally for Michael Brown on Sunday:

“The last 24 hours have been tough for me,” he said. “My heart is heavy because last night I met some members of Michael Brown’s family.”

 

“They brought tears to my eyes and shame to my heart,” he continued.

Johnson promised transparency as he continues to manage police presence in Ferguson during protests.

He then drew parallels between Michael Brown and his own son.

“Because when this is over, I’m going to go in my son’s room, my black son, who wears his pants sagging, wears his hat cocked to the side, tattoos on his arms,” he said. “But that’s my baby.”

Ultimately, we can never really make sense of the tragic loss of life seen in Ferguson and in far too many cities around this country. But we can at least resist the forces that perpetuate this violence, and push people to recognize the lessons we need to learn to get to the point where these incidents aren’t so sadly common.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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