SANTA CRUZ, August 18, 2014 — Just over a week has passed since Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. There have been protests, mostly peaceful, but also chaos, looting, and a general sense of social decay.
Brown’s autopsy revealed he was shot six times. No charges have been filed against the officer who shot him, and accounts of the incident are varied and unconfirmed.
There is now a narrative which seeks to isolate the events unfolding in Ferguson, to make it all about one man’s confrontation with another, in a suburb which was simmering with racial tensions even before the shooting. New movements, spawned and thriving on social networks, are seeking to further divide the mostly white police force and largely black population of Ferguson. The important lesson is that this is not a Ferguson, Missouri problem; it is an American problem.
Harassment by law enforcement is an everyday reality for people of color in the U.S., and when these incidents flare up, they should be welcomed as opportunities for us to talk to each other about racial and social inequality. Too often, though, the news focuses on the personalities involved, treating it as a remote event which occurred in a societal vacuum, requiring no deeper discussion. Until we are able to fully face and address our deeper divisions, events like those unfolding in Ferguson will continue to plague us.
Aside from the racial dynamic which drives the Michael Brown incident, the events outside St. Louis are also alarming with regard to police actions immediately after the shooting. The aggression and impunity of a police force, which looked and acted more like an army, ought to alarm every American concerned with civil liberties. Equally unsettling have been the numerous reports of police openly threatening members of the press, in some cases even arresting clearly credentialed media without charge, only to release them a short time later.
There are national voices decrying the excessive force used to disperse protesters, and there are opposing opinions as well, news outlets that defend the police and their tactics. There is an online petition of people who support the officer who shot Michael Brown, and the governor of Missouri seems unsure how to proceed. Everyone involved, either directly or indirectly, has retreated to their safe, dogmatic foxholes to lob insults at each other rather than coming together to address the causes and conditions which incited the event in the first place.
One voice Americans must hear is that of law enforcement officers condemning the shooting. Americans who have come of age in the last few decades of television and movie drama have seen and heard numerous fictionalized accounts of the so-called blue wall, where police will back each other up and defend each other’s behavior, no matter how abhorrent. Events in Ferguson are a chance for the vast majority (we hope) of law enforcement officers who are fair and just to separate themselves from those who are shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters in Missouri.
For order to prevail, Americans must be able to trust those empowered with their protection. When the police force oversteps its purview, when its actions become arbitrary and lack accountability, it ought to surprise nobody that ordinary citizens will lose their faith in law enforcement as a whole.
Someone must assure Americans that this is not law enforcement, but a rogue batch of bigots, too heavily armed and unprepared to deal with reality, pretending to play army on the streets of Ferguson. Blue wall or not, unless they are assured otherwise, people will paint every cop with the Ferguson brush, and they can be certain that these events will repeat themselves somewhere else in America before long.