On Saturday the 9th of August 2014, 18 year old Michael Brown was shot 6 times by Officer Darren Wilson 28. Brown was unarmed. The last shot, through the top of his skull would be the fatal blow, and once again a young black man’s life was cut short.
The protests and racial divides that have followed his death now enter in to their second week and are for the USA, a problem which has existed for over 500 years and seems to roll on with each generation.
The shooting took place in Ferguson, St Louis in the state of Missouri. The community has a majority of black people but by the State Governors own admission, is policed by a mainly white police force. 50 of the 53 police officers are white.
Michael Brown was out walking with his friend Dorian Johnson when the police drove up and Officer Wilson asked Michael to stop walking. They were allegedly seen walking away from a convenience store that had been robbed.
According to police reports, Brown wouldn’t stop walking towards them and Officer Wilson thought Brown might be going for his gun. However Johnson claims that his friend was shot whilst surrendering to Wilson. These crucial facts still remain disputed.
Peaceful protests showed the immediate emotions of a community mourning the loss of a member. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist, told a congregation, made up of mainly Michael Brown’s family, friends, campaigners and the general public at Great race Church that they should "Prepare for difficult days ahead" and that "this is a defining moment in this country." However as more details of the shooting broke, those emotions became heightened, sparking fractions between local residents and law enforcement.
US Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a second autopsy at the request of the family. This time the medical examiner would be a federal one rather than state authorities'. The investigation in to Michael Browns shooting will remain with St Louis County Force but the US Department of Justice has already announced that it will be holding its own investigation.
As the questions around Brown’s murder increased so did the intensity of the demonstrations. Wilson’s supporters also turned out in a 100 strong crowd. Some felt that Wilson had already been tried and convicted by the media.
President Obama addressed the situation in Ferguson saying “I understand the passion and anger by looting or carrying guns and even attacking the police only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos.” A measured response from the president but the stakes had already been raised.
The quick response from the Ferguson Police Department, involving tear gas and rubber bullets, only added to the existing tension as the protesters continued to fill the streets seeking justice. After four days of increased rioting, Jay Nixon, State Governor, claimed that "deep wounds" had been cut in to the community and that Ferguson had been left "looking like a war zone."
Nixon drafted in the highway patrol with police in military style fatigues, body armour and rifles joining the defence efforts. This took the atmosphere to another level. Police claim that Molotov cocktails have been thrown along with pieces of concrete curb.
Rioting continued and little seemed to stem the onslaught of violence. Concerns of looting, injury and arrests made Nixon take the step of enforcing a curfew between 00:00 – 05:00 and he declared a ‘state of emergency.’
The curfew is challenged by a coalition of four civil rights groups, (The Americans Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The Legal Defence and Education Fund, The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law) who claim the order ‘Violated the constitutional right to free assembly.’
Two days later Nixon employed the National Guard to ensure the safety of the community as the violence reached a peak. Police heavily armed, used more tear gas and smoke grenades as well as driving SWAT cars at high speed towards protestors in an effort to disperse them.
Teresa Mithen Danieley of St John’s Episcopal Church saw the events in the aftermath of the shooting as a distraction from the tragedy that caused the crisis. Teresa thought it was a case of foolish people taking advantage of a boy’s murder rather than actions of organised activists with an objective.
In stark contrast, Gino Addison who’s porch overlooks the very spot where Brown was shot said "we can’t make this much noise without all this support. We appreciate all the love."
Congressman Lacy Clay who represents the first District of Missouri described Brown’s death as a murder and accused the Ferguson police of being “way too heavy handed in the way they interacted with peaceful demonstrators.”
During an interview with CNN, Clay also made reference to the colour divide both in that region and across America stating "We have to have a national conversation about how police forces should interact with the African American community." The President also showed concern over the colour divide when he made this comment to America “In too many communities, too many young men of colour are left behind and only seen as objects of fear.”
Watching these events unfold in real time I am immediately taken back to two similar cases, those of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. On New Year Eves 2009, Oscar Grant was returning from a party in San Francisco with friends onboard a BART train headed for Fruivale.
At 02:00am the train driver called police due to an altercation between twelve people who are said to be ‘hammered and stoned’. The first law enforcement responders remove everyone from the train, including Oscar Grant and his friends, from the train to the platform. Grant and two others are put up against a wall and one of Grants friends is arrested. The platform is in chaos and Grant is on the floor face down and unarmed when police deem him to be resisting arrest.
Officer Mehserle warns he is going to use his tazer gun and then shots Oscar Grant in the back with his police issues pistol. The bullet goes through Oscar’s back, out his right side, ricocheted off the concrete and re enters his body puncturing his lung – he died seven hours later in hospital.
One year later, on the 30th of January 2010 Alameda County charged Officer Mehserle with murder. Six months later on the 8th of July 2010 a jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, not murder. The next day the US Justice Department open a civil case, however no charges have been filed to date. On November 5th 2010 Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison minus time already served. He was also awarded the grace of having his own cell away from the other prisoners for the duration of his stay – he was released on the 3rd of May 2011.
After the initial shooting, protest broke out and once the trial started and the verdict was given, protest began again. NAACP said that 'They felt the shooting was criminal.’ While others claimed that race was a key issue. Video footage of the incident not only shows the physical events as they played out but also gave an audio of Mehserle using racial slurs when speaking to Grant.
One year on from Grants case and another shooting occurs, this time in Sanford Florida. It’s the 26th of February 2012 and 17 year old Trayvon Martin is walking unarmed in his neighbourhood. George Zimmerman, a 28 year old Hispanic neighbourhood watch volunteer is in his car when he calls through to the police that there is a suspicious person walking around.
Zimmerman continues to watch Martin whilst talking to the police and two minutes after finishing his call exits his vehicle and engages in an altercation with Trayvon just 70 yards from Martins home. Zimmerman fatally shots Trayvon with one bullet to the chest.
Zimmerman was questioned by police but not initially charged due to Florida law and a plea of self defence. This obviously caused unrest amongst the friends and family of Trayvon Martin. However it was a petition started by Trayvons’ mother, calling for Zimmerman’s arrest that showed how far this scar had spread. The petition gain 2.2milion signatures and included the NBA Miami Heat basketball team including such high profile names as Dwyane Wade and Lebron James. Zimmerman was eventually tried by jury but was acquitted.
As with the Michael Brown case, President Obama has shown concern saying “When I think of this boy, I think of my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative we investigate this...If I had a son he would like Trayvon.”
We can’t hide from some of the crudest facts: 3 black men dead, all shot, all unarmed. We mustn’t forget the other glaring case comparison of Rodney King back in 1992 and the Los Angeles Riots that followed. During and after the initial ‘murder’ there is community unrest.
Questions are being asked with few being answered and often an escalation in to violence occurs. When talking about today’s riots President Obama highlights the "Gulf of mistrust between local residents and law enforcement."
Maybe a natural reaction when that institution is the cause of the death that bleeds the heart but I also feel at a loss as to why there has been no learning from the previous to the now? This is the worrying question for me because it is the answer to that question which potentially holds the answer to the questions over race equality and how hard we are really trying to fix it. Are we as inclusive of minorities as we think we are?
In the US these three cases have taken us to the southern state of Florida, to mid-east in Missouri and across to the west coast in California. This spread of racial unease I’m sure does not come as a surprise to any American. Is it really any better across the world? The US has the most diverse cultural background of any country and so will always have a disproportionate number of cases, but honesty to ourselves around the world is needed if change is really going to happen.
There’s no doubt that over the past 500 plus years change has come about and for the better. It has though been a slow and at times plighted journey. It has required the patience of generations to get us step by step to where we are now. As the decades have passed we have been taught history and etiquette and we’ve been taught how we should behave. Some have slowly come to understand that colour does not make any one person better than the other. But I do question how far we have really come?
Now, in the wake of another life lost and another town awash with grief and anger, maybe looking back at the lessons not learnt is just as damning as not acknowledging the facts at all. So fast-forward to the future, from this riot will there be an uprising that will change a nation? Maybe one state at a time?
DeAndre Smith, a 30 year old Barber from Ferguson had this to say about the state of a nation; "This is a revo!&***lution. Plain and simple, this is a revolution. The one everybody been waiting on. It happened like this it’s the gain in culture by a people who want respect. African American people in this country...I been out here since day one. I was on the front line. Mike Brown was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s when we said this enough. That’s it."