Ferguson police shooting highlights US race divide

Yawu Miller | 8/20/2014, 11:49 a.m.
Blacks and whites view the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, and the police response to the protests ...
Protesters on the Boston Common were among demonstrators in 90 U.S. cities who turned out for a moment of silence for Ferguson, Mo. police shooting victim Michael Brown. While many demonstrations were multi-racial, demonstrations in Ferguson for and against the police cleved along race lines. (Banner photo) Banner photo

The Ferguson, Mo., police shooting of Michael Brown has sparked national discussions of race, the militarization of local police departments, racially-segregated housing patterns, the vilification of black males in the media and other issues that underscore vast differences between the experiences and perceptions of blacks and whites in the United States.

The shooting itself boils down to an everyday occurrence: A confrontation between a teenager and a cop.

For whites, the outcomes of such confrontations are often radically different than those for blacks. In Ferguson, blacks interviewed by the media say the police force, with just 3 blacks among its 53 officers, often subjects them to beatings, arbitrary arrests and harassment.

While whites in Ferguson have not been as widely interviewed by media on their experiences of police brutality, the arrest statistics the department turned over to Missouri’s attorney general tell the story: In a town that’s 67 percent black, blacks account for 86 percent of all traffic stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests — this in spite of the fact that 22 percent of blacks arrested were found to have contraband as opposed to 34 percent of whites.

The racial discrepancies in policing in Ferguson mirror a wider divide between the way blacks and whites in the United States perceive the events that led to Brown’s killing and the aftermath of the killing.

Police initially alleged that Brown tried to wrest a service weapon away from officer Darren Wilson, who is white, before Wilson shot him. Two eye witnesses told reporters Brown had his hands in the air in the universal gesture denoting surrender when Williams opened fire, striking Brown more than six times; twice in the head.

In the days that followed, through the rioting, the tear gassing of black Ferguson residents, protesters, reporters and bystanders, the rubber bullets, a curfew and a police response that has been widely panned in the national media, the story of what happened that day continued to unfold.

When, after days of stalling, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson released Wilson’s name, he also released video footage from a store security camera showing a black man alleged to be Brown being confronted by a store owner. While Jackson said the video depicts Brown stealing cigars from the store, a lawyer for the store owner said the owner did not know or identify the man in the video and did not call police to report a robbery.

Police later admitted that Brown was not suspected of robbery or any other crime when he was stopped by Wilson. But the message of the release of the video was clear: Ferguson Police were linking Brown’s alleged criminal activity to his death, much in the same way lawyers for George Zimmerman sought to link Trayvon Martin’s past use of marijuana to a criminal mindset.

In so doing, the Ferguson Police were tapping into a deeper narrative about race and crime in American society. While 80 percent of blacks contacted by pollsters from the Pew Research Center said the Ferguson shooting raises important issues about race, just 37 percent of whites agreed with that statement and 47 percent of whites agreed that the issue or race is getting more attention than it deserves.