“Ferguson October” and the Effect of Militarized Police Forces on Minority Communities

IMG_20141013_223223One of the main reasons I wanted to travel the 16-plus hours to St. Louis, Missouri, to participate in this month’s weekend of national resistance called “Ferguson October” was to make a visible stand against the militarization of our police forces.

I could have stayed home in Rochester, New York (the site of the 1964 “race rebellion” that marked a period of racial justice-rooted violent confrontations nationwide) to do this, but the national spotlight has been on Ferguson; so, off I went.

When I use the term “militarization,” what I mean is the systematic deployment of chemical weapons like pepper spray and tear gas; the routine use of terror tactics like sound cannons, armored tanks and attack dogs; the tendency to repress civil rights in moments of conflict; and interrogation policies which intentionally, and unintentionally, lead to the mass incarceration of minorities.

Police brutality is hardly a new phenomenon. The 1968 Democratic Convention, in Chicago, graphically exposed the militaristic underpinnings of policing whenever the status quo had been seriously challenged.

And, in recent years, the nation has witnessed nightly raids in urban neighborhoods such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and Miami; the execution-style killings of alleged looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; “Stop and Frisk” programs in New York City; and the swift takeover of an entire metropolis in the grisly wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.

So, for anyone paying attention to the callous shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a victim whose body lay dormant on the cold pavement for more than four hours on August 9, it was the logical outcome of a vicious trend which has been allowed to escalate and proliferate for decades.

What we are dealing with today is structural violence on a major scale.

Over two million people in this country, 60 percent of them black or Latino, are in prison, which is by far the highest number in the world. And there is widespread use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, a form of punishment that many argue is torture under the framework of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

There are also five million formerly-incarcerated people who have been denied the right to engage with the political system through voting. In addition, many of those who have been able to stay out of prison once they have been released have faced stigmatization by almost every sector of the job market.

As a result of this systemic oppression, many youth and women of color live in fatherless homes and face chronic harassment within a society which views them as pariahs. With so many friends, and family members, treated as second-class citizens, it has been nearly impossible for many people to overcome self-loathing and other addictive coping mechanisms.

This structural violence has also disproportionately targeted immigrants. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there have been two million deportations in the last six years alone. More than 200,000 undocumented workers have been detained in facilities the size of small towns along the U.S. Mexico border.

Is it extreme to call this a slow genocide? When does such a word become applicable to what is happening?

Black teenagers are 31 more times likely to be shot by police than white. Between 2010 and 2012, black males between the ages of 15 and 19 were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, according to an analysis by ProPublica. For white teenagers, the rate dropped to 1.47 deaths per million, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

And after spending three days with demonstrators directly impacted by police brutality in St. Louis, I came to discover I had traveled halfway across the country because I do not have the means, or relevant training, to be present in the same capacity in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, I discovered I came to St. Louis to bear witness to crimes against humanity which have been no less, or no more evil, than the killing we have heard about overseas.

I dare to be even more graphic; I do not see how the beheading of a journalist by militant Jihadists in Iraq is less inhumane than the merciless killing at point blank range of an unarmed college-bound student from the Canfield Neighborhood in Ferguson, Missouri.

One of Gandhi’s most challenging quotes considers the possibility that these acts of brutality could be morally equivalent. The Mahatma was not afraid to ask the question: “What difference does it make to the victimized children of war if the bombs are dropped from planes in the name of Democracy or Totalitarianism? The results are exactly the same.”

I believe that we must ask the same question today.

What difference does it make to young black men if the bullets are shot from machine guns fired by fanatic Muslims in Baghdad, or enraged police officers in the heartland of America? The results have been exactly the same.

Because of this, people who advocate for peace and justice must denounce violence no matter what uniform it wears, nation it represents, or creed it follows.

As King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In the case of Michael Brown’s execution, there are also immediate demands that have been made by the residents of Ferguson who have been most affected by the dark legacy of policing in that fragile community. Denouncing structural violence is important. But, working to prevent violence from becoming pervasive is even more important.

First and foremost, the people of Ferguson most impacted by police repression demand a swift and impartial investigation by the Department of Justice, the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson, and for county prosecutor Robert McCullough to step down, and allow a special prosecutor to be appointed.

On a national level, the people of Ferguson demand U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder use the full resources and power of the Department of Justice to implement a nationwide investigation of systemic police brutality, and harassment, in black and brown communities.

And, to ensure transparency, accountability, and safety in these communities, they are calling for front-facing cameras in police departments with records of racial disparities in stops, arrests, killings, and excessive-force complaints.

It should be noted that 75 percent of Ferguson is African American, while 90 percent of its police department is white. It should also be noted that, in Ferguson, blacks have been stopped 86 percent of the time and searched 92 percent, though few have been found with contraband. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 90 percent of the people who have been stopped were innocent.

Lastly, the people of Ferguson have been calling for the immediate suspension, without pay, of law enforcement officers who have used, or approved, excessive use of force. Along with this, they’ve said their personal information and policing history should be made available to the public.

Although this struggle appears fraught with anger, misunderstanding, and fear on both sides; this is a significant opportunity to reform the way policing has been conducted in minority communities all over the country. The more we hold our law enforcement officers accountable for excessive use of force, the stronger they will be as public servants, upholders of the Constitution, and defenders of justice. After all, the police are not an extension of the federal government; nor are they a domestic branch of the Armed Forces. American citizens pay sales taxes, property taxes, excise taxes, utility taxes, estate taxes, and, in the majority of cases, income taxes. Some of this money has been designated for the important task of recruiting, training, and enlisting police officers who swear an oath to serve and protect taxpayers. They are our first line of protection in times of natural emergency, political instability, and criminal behavior.

By and large, the police respond in moments of crisis with professionalism, expertise, and courageous compassion. I have family members who belong to the shield, and I would trust them with my life. However, what I believe is truly being called for in Ferguson is for a culture of professionalism and compassion to be a fixed reality between community members and their safety officers.

Michael Brown’s death has the potential to be a catalyst for systemic change, which may have the transforming power to save countless lives, and enhance the quality of life for citizens standing on both sides of the thin blue line.

If the nation is ready to transcend the tragic circumstances of this singular death, we can begin to move toward a future where the next Michael Brown lives a long and extraordinary life.

This future may redeem the sins of the past.

In the prophetic, if slightly amended, words of Lila Watson, “If we have come to help each other, then we are wasting our time. But, if we have come because our liberation is bound together, then let us work together.”

My hope is that Ferguson October will be the birth pang of a new and radical possibility for redemption which will not only bring immediate justice to the oppressed, but an everlasting infusion of hope for generations unborn.

George Payne, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, is the founder and director of Gandhi Earth Keepers International, a grassroots environmental justice organization dedicated to the principles of deep ecology and the practices of Gandhian nonviolence. He lives in Rochester, New York.

Photo: Police sharpshooter at Ferguson protest on August 13, 2014 by Jamelle Bouie [CCBY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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