“America, that has been ringing the bells of the world, proclaiming to the nations and the peoples thereof that she has democracy to give to all and sundry…America that has arraigned Turkey at the bar of public opinion and public justice against the massacres of the Armenians, has herself no satisfaction to give 12,000,000 of her own citizens except the satisfaction of a farcical inquiry that will end where it begun, over the brutal murder of men, women and children for no other reason than that they are black people seeking an industrial chance in a country that they have laboured for three hundred years to make great.” Marcus Mosiah Garvey – July 8, 1917
On August 9, 2014, ninety-seven years after Marcus Garvey gave his speech in East St. Louis, IL an 18 year old African American young man named Michael Brown, Jr. was shot and killed in Ferguson, MO by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. There are still facts and details yet to be determined but we know that Michael Brown, Jr. was unarmed, was surrendering to Officer Wilson with his hands above his head and he was shot at least six times (twice in the head).
In recent history, like Eric Garner before him (July 17, 2014) in Staten Island, NY, Sean Bell (November 25, 2006) in Queens, NY and so many others, going as far back as the Rodney King beating (March 3, 1991) in Los Angeles, CA, there has been and continues to be a disproportionate or asymmetrical brutal and all too often deadly response by police towards unarmed African American teenagers and young men.
It is imperative that we honestly come to grips with why this is happening. For Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY and so many other communities, past is prologue.
Analyzing very limited FBI data, USA Today determined that a white police officer killed an African American person on average twice per week from 2005–2012. Eighteen percent of African Americans killed were under 21 years of age compared to eight percent of whites. When the police focus on their color they fail to see their humanity.
This is limited data but it indicates trends in law enforcement tactics as well as indicates which communities are targeted and victimized by them. The question is why? Are African Americans and Latinos more inclined to engage in violent criminal behavior? Numerous studies have indicated the answer that question is no.
What leads a police officer to believe that people of color are more likely to be involved with a firearm? Why do the police tend to shoot people of color first, without seeing a gun, then ask questions later? Perception and the emotional responses to these perceptions play a large part in the development of policies and the employment of tactics used by law enforcement. It is evidenced by a recent speech given by NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton at Israel’s National Conference on Personal Security in Jerusalem. Bratton told the audience:
““My country in the 1970s was just coming out of the turbulence of the 1960s in our society, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, a society that was wrestling with what we thought to be too much government control…As my country moved into the 1980s there were several additional societal trends that began to have a significant negative impact on our ability to keep our streets safe. The growth of a drug market and a drug culture, particularly the more problematic drugs of heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. The increasing number of young people coming out of a society that was no longer educating them, no longer controlling them, a dissolution of many of the families in our society, particularly among the poor and in the minority communities.”
Bratton’s articulation of “social trends” in “poor and minority communities” having a negative impact on his ability to keep streets safe, outside of the larger context of the historical racist social constructs that have created these problems takes me to the continual discussion about racism (white supremacy), its perceptions, and emotional responses that we deal with all the time. Poor people of color are the enemy that white law enforcement officials must neutralize.
Dr. Francis Cress Welsing defines racism (white supremacy) as the local and global power system structured and maintained by persons who classify themselves as white, whether consciously or subconsciously determined; this system consists of patterns of perception, logic, symbol formation, thought, speech, action and emotional response, as conducted simultaneously in all areas of activity (economics, education, law, etc.).
Too many of these communities are being policed by individuals who do not look like them and do not come from the community. As of 2010, 67.4 percent of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are African American and 29.3 percent are white. According to Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, his department has 53 officers, 50 white, 3 African American or 94 percent white and 5.6 percent African American.
These issues of racial imbalance and perceptions of threat are exacerbated by the increased militarization of our police forces. Through the DoD 1033 program that has provided “excess” military equipment such as armored personnel carriers, heavy duty weapons and gear, and sound cannons, neighborhoods are turning into occupied territories. Military-style tactics (SWAT) and training are replacing the old approach of “keeping the peace” and “to protect and serve”.
According to U.S. News and World Report recent data shows “SWAT teams were more likely to be deployed on blacks and Latinos than on whites … Often, these SWAT encounters use excessive violence, knocking down doors with battering rams, throwing flashbang grenades and sometimes injuring the people inside, shooting their dogs or destroying property.”
The late Manning Marable was correct when he wrote, “There will be no racial peace in America until millions of whites come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that black oppression, poverty, and high unemployment rates are hardly accidental, are hardly symptoms of an absence of the work ethic among blacks. Institutional racism and class domination are structural and elaborate, benefitting certain privileged classes at the cost of common misery for others.” (Black Leadership, p. 159)
The realities playing out for us every night on our televisions are modern and real-time examples that for Ferguson – past is prologue.
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer/Host of the Sirisu/XM Satellite radio channel 126 call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon”
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