Police brutality against black men has become a shockingly common phenomenon in the U.S. The names of those who have died at the hands of law enforcement or their unofficial vigilante deputies over the past few years are too numerous to count. Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Kendrec McDade, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin are just a handful of names on the list of victims.
On Aug. 9, 18-year-old Michael Brown joined the list when he died from gunshot wounds at the hands of Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson. The subsequent protests and police response in Ferguson have thrust the long-simmering issue of police brutality against black men into the national spotlight.
To make sense of the crisis, I spoke with three African-American men who have strong opinions on the unfolding situation in Ferguson. One of them is Tommie Pierson, a pastor at the Greater St. Mark Family Church just outside Ferguson. His church has become a popular site for community meetings since Brown’s death. In an interview on Uprising last week, Pierson did not hesitate to decry Ferguson police officers’ attitudes toward residents, saying, “The police don’t like us. And we’re developing that attitude against them that we don’t like them.” He explained, giving a personal example: “The police have this ‘us against them’ mentality, and they provoke young people into doing something so that they can punish them or hurt them. I have a straight-A student here who was detained by the police because he was running home. And they stopped him, handcuffed him and threw him in the car.”
De Lacy Davis is a former member of law enforcement who served for years in New Jersey’s East Orange Police Department before retiring and founding the group Black Cops Against Police Brutality. He told me in an interview last week that Ferguson’s residents and protesters are “people who have been oppressed, people who have been beat down and will not take it any longer.” Davis pointed out that police tend to have double standards in communities of color, saying, “It is unfortunate that law enforcement still does not get it, post-Rodney King, post-Emmett Till. And they don’t recognize that we don’t police white America the way we police black, Latino and poor America. And we don’t tolerate it in white America, yet we tolerate it in our communities.”
Kevin Alexander Gray is a longtime political activist and author. He has written such books as “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.” He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming book “Killing Trayvon.” In an interview Monday, Gray echoed the sentiments of Pierson and Davis on the events in Ferguson, saying, “This isn’t just something that happens as an anomaly. This has happened all the time, even beyond Emmett Till. And I think it’s at the point now with the militarization of police departments and using racial profiling, and the war on drugs, and the age-old stereotypes that black people have no rights that whites or anybody in authority are bound to respect. I think that people have had enough.”
The three men, who are from widely diverse professional backgrounds—the pastor, the police officer and the political activist—all see common patterns of police impunity against blacks. This should come as no surprise to us. African-Americans view police brutality quite differently from white Americans. A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll on the situation in Ferguson found that blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to view Brown’s killing as raising issues of race.
Ferguson seems like a tipping point for a community that has been in the crosshairs of law enforcement for far too long. “We’ve been treated like second-class citizens by the police for years, and now it’s time to stop it,” Pierson said. Gray went further, describing the police treatment of blacks in “low and moderate income communities as predators and enemies.” He added, “In this country, black people, but in particular black men, throughout their history of living in this country are viewed as being something more violent, less than a human, expendable.”
Despite communities of color saying through their protests that enough is enough, the police response to activism in Ferguson has only escalated the situation and has shocked even mainstream journalists, some of whom have been inadvertently caught in the crossfire of a military-style operation. The words “war zone” have been appropriately used to describe scenes from Ferguson. Davis explained to me that law enforcement has access to wartime weaponry that comes from “surplus equipment that police departments can apply for, and it’s a pretty easy process. And we see small American police departments with very little crime, if any at all, arming themselves to the teeth.”
The military equipment in Ferguson has been used to try to quell a situation that offers no easy answer to the question of why so many young black men are killed by police. It brings to the forefront the uncomfortable notion that black men’s lives are simply worth less in American society. Pierson responded to the decision by Ferguson police to delay releasing the name of Brown’s shooter for a week, saying Wilson “wasn’t concerned about Michael Brown’s life. Why should they be so concerned about his life now and not do what is right by law? The man killed somebody, and we should know who it is.”
The unrest in Ferguson is also proving to be a headache for President Obama who, as the nation’s first black president, is under a strong spotlight. But in his early statements on Ferguson, Obama completely avoided the issue of race. It appears as though the president is more uncomfortable discussing racial tensions in the U.S. than say, foreign policy, as this analysis pointed out. Gray had a theory as to why, telling me, “The president is a politician. At the end of the day, the president is going to yield to law and order. He is not a resident of Ferguson. He is a resident of the White House. ... If you look at President Obama, a person who uses extrajudicial killings himself through the use of drones, then he has no moral authority to say anything.”
If the president has no moral authority, who does? Davis, who conducts workshops for police departments regularly, had a strong message for police officers themselves, questioning what they would do if confronted by a situation like the uprising in Ferguson. He asked, “You as an officer of consciousness, of color, black, brown, white, what will you do in terms of making a decision? There will come a time when you will meet the fork in the road, and you’ll have to either stand for what is right and just, which very often in communities of color would be with the community, or you’ll have to hide behind the blue wall of silence and forever live in shame.” But that “blue wall of silence” is far too seductive for some police officers to give up, as we have seen.
People rightfully want justice for what Gray described as the countless “extrajudicial killings” of black men in the U.S. He explained that even if it was true that Brown was involved in a convenience store robbery (we now know that Wilson was not aware that Brown was a robbery suspect when the shooting took place), “the penalty for that crime wasn’t the death penalty. All these killings by police officers across the country, usually the suspect is unarmed and usually they’re being accused of a crime in which if they were adjudicated, it would not warrant the death penalty.” Reflecting the collective frustration felt in Ferguson, Gray exclaimed, “Enough is enough. That officer stopped brother Brown, supposedly for jaywalking. Now when does the punishment for jaywalking result in someone being executed?”
The anger felt by African-Americans who are asking such questions has fueled the Ferguson protests. It is significant that the suburb’s residents and their allies from around the country have chosen to rise up in August. Activists have long commemorated “Black August” as a symbolic month to reflect on the history of resistance to white supremacy. The prison abolitionist group Critical Resistance lists the reasons why August has come to be seen as significant:
The month of August bursts at the seams with histories of Black resistance—from the Haitian Revolution to the Nat Turner Rebellion, from the Fugitive Slave Law Convention and the foundation of the Underground Railroad to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, from the March on Washington to the Watts Uprising, from the births of Marcus Garvey, Russell Maroon Shoatz, and Fred Hampton to the deaths of W.E.B. Du Bois and George Jackson’s own younger brother Jonathon killed while attempting to free the Soledad Brothers from prison.
Clearly Ferguson is a turning point in the narrative of race and racism in America. Although we don’t yet know how this story will end, it is likely that the Ferguson uprising will indeed become a central part of the annual commemorations of Black August.