What Ferguson is really about
Which brings us to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. As I have said many times about other issues, I'm not going to discuss day-to-day events because a weekly show is a very poor format for such an endeavor and what is said here could well be obsolete by the time you hear it.
But I will make some observations as well as, as you'll see, taking advantage of others' observations.
The first thing, the most important thing, to know about the protests and conflicts in Ferguson is that they are not because of the shooting down - the murder - of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a cop, a cop who may or may not have had an altercation with Brown before the shooting.
No, they are not. They are about everything that happened before Michael Brown was killed. The desperation; the doubling of the poverty rate in Ferguson since 2000; an unemployment rate of 22%, also doubled since 2000; the militarization of a police force so separated from its community it was like an occupying army and so unlike its community that the mayor could quite literally count the number of black cops on one hand; the frustration, the growing anger, the seething resentment: these are what the protests are about. The killing of Michael Brown, whose body lay in the street for hours as cops never called for EMTs or even checked his pulse, that was the precipitating event, the immediate cause - but it was not the cause, it was, rather, the lens through which all the causes got focused.
And yet we refuse to see it. We still refuse to see it. Even as it stares us in the face, we refuse to recognize the dramatic difference there is in the lives of blacks and whites in America, refuse to recognize that white and blacks all but live in separate nations.
A new national survey by the Pew Research Center points this out without aiming to. It found that 44% of the overall populace think Brown's shooting does raise important issues about race that require discussion, while 40% say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
So, pretty close to an even split. But then consider these other responses: On the question of if the police went gone too far in their response to the shooting’s aftermath, fully 65% of African-Americans say yes, they did. Only half as many whites, 33%, felt that way. Another 32% said the police response was appropriate, and 35% just aren't sure.
Meanwhile, whites in the survey were nearly three times as likely as blacks to express at least a fair amount of confidence in the investigations into the shooting. Just over half - 52% - of whites felt that way, compared with just 18% of blacks. Over 30% of blacks have little confidence in the investigations, with 45% saying they have no confidence at all.
With those differences in mind, it should be no surprise that going back to the original question, on the importance of race as a related issue, that while overall the public splits 47-40, 80% of blacks say the incident does raise important issues about race, while a plurality of whites, 47%, say race is getting too much attention.
Those very figures, the very dramatic differences in response to the cops and faith in an investigation, prove that race is an important issue here. Blacks and whites in this country do live in different worlds, do experience day to day life differently; we may as well not be in the same nation.
But we - and by "we" I mean white people - continue to just refuse to see it. We create a mental system of assumptions – racist assumptions – that we use to justify our willful ignorance, a system that results in the media often treating whites accused of crimes better than blacks who were victims of crime. Look at the picture to the left. The person in the bottom picture, a picture and a headline drawn from media coverage, is Michael Brown. The person in the top picture, also a photo and a headline from media coverage, is James Holmes, who killed 12 people and wounded 70 more when he shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
As others have noted, this is not standard media protocol, it's not s.o.p., but it happens frequently, consciously or unconsciously, and too frequently to be dismissed as mere coincidence.
Related to that is the question of how far, in the face of that ignorance, that blindness, have we actually come. Look at this picture. During the 1968 wildcat sanitation strike in Memphis,
Tennessee, the strike that Martin Luther King was there to support when
he was murdered, strikers declared "I am a man." Forty-six years later, a protester in Ferguson felt he had to make that same demand for basic human respect.
Cops stare down civil rights activists marching to Montgomery, AL in 1965...
...and cops stare down a group of protesters in Ferguson in 2014.
Armed National Guardsmen advance toward a little boy during the Newark Riots in 1967...
...and armed cops advance toward an unarmed protester in Ferguson in 2014.
A protester holds a sign reading "Killer cops will not go free!" during Harlem protests in 1964
...and a sign reading "No killer cops in our community" is held by a protester in Ferguson in 2014.
And if this looks like Ferguson in 2014...
it’s not: It’s Watts, 1965.
Decades of protest, decades of effort, decades of supposed advance, and we are seeing the same scenes, the same images of poverty, the same seething anger, the same injustices, the same abuses at the hands of police.
And we continue to do our damnedest to avoid facing what stares us in the face. I would call it an outrage but it strikes me more as a tragedy.
And there is one more thing that the Ferguson protests raise, illustrated by the fact that I find this to be the iconic picture of the protest in Ferguson:
Our local police forces have become so militarized that we have Iraq War veterans saying the cops in Ferguson have heavier equipment and more body armor than they did.
That is something I pledge to talk more about in the near future. But for the moment I’m going to wrap this up by going back to the top and reminding you again that the protests in Ferguson are not because Michael Brown was killed; they are because of everything that happened before that. And until we face that, there will be more Fergusons in a nation where by all that is just there should be none.
Sources cited in links:
NOTE: I have misplaced the link to the site from where I got the pictures making the comparison between the 1960s and today. If anyone knows the link, please let me know so I can include it here and give proper credit.