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By now, we’ve all heard about the shooting of Mike Brown, the protests and the lack of indictment for Officer Darren Wilson. In a post-civil rights movement, post-We-Elected-a-Black-President world, here we stand with race at the forefront of our consciousness yet again.
And let me just give you a spoiler alert, in case you didn’t know: Racism is still a thing. The Fox News-fueled sentiments about how we need to stop playing the “race card,” and how if we all just ignored race, it wouldn’t be an issue, are just convenient ways to justify looking away from the problems at hand. The reason why people even have to play the “race card” and bring race up as a topic is because it’s still a problem, and waving our hands and pretending that we’re all treated equal in this country isn’t going to make it true.
Just from looking around on social media this week, it is clear to me that people are still missing the point about race in Ferguson. If you’re complaining about looters, riots and violence, you’re complaining about the wrong thing.
We need to remember that the reason why we even have a huge negative reaction to police in Ferguson is because this country’s police force has had racially-charged problems for decades — you don’t have to know about Mike Brown to know that. Ever since the 1960s, when police were unleashing fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful black protesters, black people have had the message branded into their heads: the police are not your friend.
You may be thinking, “But not all policemen are bad! And it’s 2014! Racist police aren’t an issue today!” Sure, it would clearly be wrong to say that all policemen are crooked; the majority of them do their job. But when a militarized police force gets sent in to forcefully stifle peaceful protests in Ferguson, when you have armored vehicles and military grade weapons pointed at innocent civilians — when Ferguson after Mike Brown’s death gets treated like a war zone instead of a city full of people exercising their constitutional and human right to be heard — that’s when you get people who see the police as the enemy because the police force, as a whole, has treated them as the enemy.
We’ve had buildings burning, we’ve had flags burning, we’ve had riots. And many people would like to turn to the minority of protesters who’ve gotten violent (and yes, they are the minority) and say “Look! Those black people over there are acting like animals.” How can black people demand rights and justice when they’re breaking the law themselves?
By focusing on the minority of protesters who have resorted to violence, we are completely missing the point. When a group of people stands up together and riots in anger because of the way they’re being treated, the rioting is not the real problem. The problem is the fact that they have anything to riot about in the first place.
You say act right, and then maybe cops will respect you. Stay tame, and then the justice system will acknowledge your rights. We have to remember: the disrespect preceded the lawbreaking. The flagrant disregard of rights for black people came long before a black person ever burned an American flag. The injustice comes before the anger, and if we cannot understand that, we will never truly understand racism in America.
When black people in Watts, California rioted in 1965, it was because they were fed up with consistent discrimination by the police, not to mention decades — centuries — of disrespect and second-class treatment by their government. When Los Angeles exploded after Rodney King was beaten by police, it was because the normal expectation that a police officer is someone who protects you had been repeatedly turned on its head for years. The average white American can count on the police to, at the very least, refrain from physically and legally harming them. The average black American has had to fear the police.
While it almost goes without saying that white people have probably had altercations with police officers, it has not been as systematic, as constant, and as pervasive as what black Americans have faced. The St. Louis County prosecutor, the person in charge of presenting the evidence that would determine whether the grand jury would indict Darren Wilson and bring him to trial, came from a family of police officers. The man’s father was killed while responding to a call about black suspects. He had a clear bias and yet the county chose to let him handle the case. The Ferguson police force itself has a history of racial bias toward its black citizens, stopping and searching them at twice the rate of white citizens despite the fact that black citizens in Ferguson are less likely to be carrying contraband. And the disparity in arrest rates is higher than that.
Darren Wilson erred from the path that a police officer should take at multiple points. First, he radioed for backup in a situation where he encountered two teenagers in the middle of a street. And no, Wilson was not aware that Brown had stolen cigars from a convenience store minutes earlier — the Ferguson police chief confirmed this. Second, no matter how the altercation between him and Brown actually happened (which left Wilson with no visible injuries), Wilson got out of the car and pursued Brown after firing the initial shots. The following shots included one to Brown’s head. Brown died 148 feet away from the car.
Brown, whether he had stolen cigars or stolen a new Mercedes Benz, was not armed, and even if he had threatened Wilson, there is no evidence to support the idea that Wilson was in fear of his life. You don’t shoot an unarmed teenager six times if you’re a trained officer. You just don’t.
Wilson’s actions were a continuation of the racial bias in Ferguson, in St. Louis, and in this entire country. Yes, in 2014. Yes, in the age when we value diversity and vote for non-white candidates and have black friends and neighbors. Racism is here, and if you don’t believe it, you need to look around a little harder. To be honest, I don’t know if I can fully identify with what people in Ferguson have gone through, not only now, but all their lives. When I meet a person, I know that person doesn’t categorize me as black; I don’t speak in the way that the world has stereotypically defined as “black,” I don’t come from a place that treats its black people like Ferguson, Missouri does, and my skin doesn’t look like Mike Brown’s skin. I’m only part black, and that part isn’t even the majority of me. But this is where I come from, these are my people, and when our half-African President told the world that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin, he was aware that no matter how “black” you are, you’ve felt the oppression in some way, you’ve been labeled as the “other,” you’ve been prejudged before people even know your name.
And that is why I need to talk about Ferguson. That is why you need to talk about Ferguson, because if we want to call ourselves citizens in a just nation — if we want to call ourselves human beings — we need to treat each other equally. We need to stop acting like racism is something that was defeated back when they passed the Civil Rights Act. I don’t know how many Fergusons the world needs to see before we realize that racism never left. For the sake of people everywhere, I hope this is the last one. I don’t want to see another Mike Brown die. And if we care at all, we must keep his memory alive — when we vote, when we teach our children, when we go out on the street and interact with black people, white people, Hispanic, Asian, Native American people, any people. Not only must we treat each other equally, we must not forget that some people have been treated differently all their lives. And it’s time to turn that around.
Contact Opinion Section Editor Ellis Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org.