As tensions flare over yesterday’s Ferguson decision, as an Aussie abroad Xavier Toby makes some observations about the Michael Brown case and race relations in the USA.
Right now I’m sitting in a share-house in Bushwick, Brooklyn – a predominately African-American neighbourhood, and if it weren’t for the images appearing all over my newsfeed I wouldn’t think that much of anything was up.
Considering what’s just happened in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s a wonder that all of America isn’t on fire right now following the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson over the death of Michael Brown.
The President, Brown’s family and other prominent figures have all called for peaceful protests, and most of the protests have remained non-violent. Despite what has happened, people aren’t losing their shit. Although it’d be very difficult to blame them if they did.
As a white, middle-class, university-educated male Australian now living in New York, the racial tensions I’ve experienced here in the USA are at a completely different level to those I have experienced in Australia.
I’m not saying things are better or worse, as both countries have a long way to go. It’s just that the colour of your skin is a daily issue in the USA, while in Australia it’s not…as long as you’re white.
For example, last week I walked past four security officers and into a New York office building while wearing a penguin suit.
When asked where I was going, I said, “I’m not sure? Second floor I think.”
Security nodded, and let me through.
Two black men in proper business suits were then stopped, aggressively quizzed and had to sign in.
Let me just restate: I was in a penguin suit.
I’ve been living in America barely three months, and things like this happen to me every day, regardless of whether or not I’m dressed as a penguin. However, I’m hesitant to draw too much from my limited personal experience, so back to Ferguson.
Some Facts about Ferguson
On 9 August 2014, Officer Darren Wilson fired twelve shots at unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, resulting in his death. On 24 November, a Grand Jury decided Wilson would face no criminal charges.
This Grand Jury of twelve people was made up of nine whites and three blacks. The decision of the Grand Jury did not have to be unanimous to indict – only nine out of the twelve have to agree. It remains unknown how each member of the Grand Jury voted, or the total votes.
The Grand Jury verdict does not mean that Darren Wilson is innocent. It means that the Grand Jury decided that, based on the evidence, not to proceed to a trial, or charge Wilson with anything.
Who was Michael Brown?
An 18-year-old African American man who had graduated from Normandy High School in St. Louis, and was scheduled to start classes at a Missouri trade college, two days after he was killed. Prior to this incident, Michael Brown had committed no felonies and had no criminal record.
So, what happened exactly?
Ferguson police have footage of Brown shoplifting, but, at least by some accounts, Officer Wilson had no knowledge of this when he stopped Brown. The eyewitnesses who went public have said Brown and Officer Wilson had an initial confrontation at the police officer’s SUV. Then Brown ran and Wilson chased after him, shooting at the teenager 12 times, hitting him six times, as Brown allegedly attempted to surrender.
Officer Wilson claims that Brown didn’t attempt to surrender, and instead charged at him as he fired the final shots, a story that some eyewitnesses have apparently corroborated. Wilson also claimed that Brown reached for his handgun during the initial confrontation. It is believed that Wilson initially stopped Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, for jaywalking.
So what exactly is everyone so upset about?
According to the US Census Bureau, Ferguson is 67 percent black, while the mayor and police chief are white. Just one of six city council members is black, zero school board members are black and only three out of 53 commissioned police officers are black.
People around America, in particular black people, are aware that even if Wilson was indicted, it is extremely unlikely that he’d ever go to jail. An indictment would have, however, showed that Brown’s life mattered, and communities deserve answers and explanations for police violence.
Which all seems like a pretty reasonable request if you think about it for more than a microsecond.
Oh and those images you see of a heavily-armed police force in Ferguson?
Apparently they’re hand-me-downs from the US Military, that the police have never been trained how to properly use.
There is also the small issue of the underlying feeling that what happened to Michael Brown could happen to any of the black person in not just this area, but almost anywhere in America.
In summary, this chain of events brings to the surface a whole lot of massive, ongoing and unresolved issues around the differences between the way whites and blacks are treated in America.
If you don’t believe me, the proof is everywhere. Check out this The Atlantic article for a start.
When people feel that the government and legal system has failed them, they protest.
When the people feel that nobody is listening to their protests, they riot.
When violent action becomes widespread it is not because the majority of those involved are inherently violent, and merely waiting for excuse. Rather, they are giving their extreme frustration an outlet after all other outlets have failed.
Until this situation drastically changes, and it will take time and hard work, people will continue protesting.
So they should.