The Fallout in Ferguson

The Fallout in Ferguson August 18, 2014


I’ve been gripped by the stories and images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri since last week. This suburb of St. Louis has been wracked with unrest since Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American teenager, was shot to death on a city street by a police officer – while he was standing with his hands raised in surrender, according to three eyewitnesses. The killing has stirred up the community to righteous fury, and the police have harshly cracked down on the ensuing protests.

In many ways, Ferguson is like a water droplet reflecting the world: a microcosm of American society and its unhealed racial wounds. What happened here could have happened almost anywhere.

The ebb and flow of American migration isn’t random. It’s strongly influenced by a desire to maintain de facto racial segregation, even decades after Jim Crow. Ferguson tells this tale in miniature: it was once majority-white (75% in 1990), part of a decades-long trend of whites moving out to the suburbs to get away from urban areas where black people lived in large numbers. But within the last twenty years, this trend has reversed, and Ferguson is now two-thirds black. Yet its police force and political leadership are overwhelmingly white, a legacy of its former demography. By many reports, only 3 of its 53 officers are black.

This chasm between the police and the people inevitably results in racially biased law enforcement. Statistics show, in Ferguson as in many other places, that black people are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and imprisoned, even though they commit crimes at rates no higher than other ethnicities. Racial prejudice means that black people tend to be perceived as more threatening and more prone to criminality, resulting in police officers who aggressively target them for street stops and other harassment, and are quick to reach for their guns at the slightest sign of resistance. (By contrast, white men who flout the law and point weapons at federal officers are treated with respect and deference.)

All these problems are further exacerbated by the militarization of the police, fueled by a bloated defense budget and a Pentagon that hands out military-surplus equipment like candy (the so-called 1033 program). This has resulted in police departments in small towns across the country stocked with armored vehicles, assault rifles and other tactical gear that’s grossly disproportionate to any remotely plausible threat. Whether it’s justified by the largely imaginary specter of terrorism, or the tough-on-crime, war-on-drugs mindset (itself concocted as an excuse for enforcing a racial caste system), the result is the same: when they’re armed to the teeth with military gear, it fuels the mindset of the police as an occupying force and encourages them to view the public as the enemy.

The warrior-cop mentality was on vivid display in Ferguson, where peaceful protest was met with an astonishingly brutal response. First we saw police pointing heavy weapons at marchers and journalists, in a blunt attempt at intimidation. When the police made their move, it looked like an invading army assaulting enemy lines: flooding the streets with tear gas and concussion grenades, shooting demonstrators with a fusillade of rubber and wooden bullets, and arresting journalists for no reason. The ugly images were reminiscent of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, like a scene out of a different era of American history brought to life.

This heavy-handedness looks even worse in light of their utter lack of concern for public perception or accountability. For days, the Ferguson police chief refused to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, claiming it was a matter of his safety (as if the heavily armed and militarized police we’ve seen couldn’t protect one of their own). Though the officer was finally identified – after intense public pressure – as Darren Wilson, they still haven’t released other basic information, like the text of the incident report or how many shots were fired.

What they have released are video stills of a man, whom they say was Brown, allegedly shoplifting from a convenience store earlier that day. Numerous people have questioned what these stills represent or whether the person depicted is Brown, but even if they’re what the police say they are, the penalty for shoplifting isn’t summary execution by a police officer’s gun. And the chief has admitted that the officer who shot Brown had no reason to suspect that he was involved in any crime, making the release of the video nothing but a blatant attempt to blacken his character. It’s the “anything we think you did retroactively justifies your murder” response. This is a police force so arrogantly certain they’re unaccountable that, on another occasion, they wrongly arrested an innocent man, beat him badly, and then charged him with destruction of property for bleeding on their uniforms.

But the root of the problem doesn’t lie with the Ferguson police, or at least not solely. From Michael Brown to Eric Garner to Trayvon Martin to John Crawford – and many more names could be added to that sad roll call – the ultimate problem is that we live in a society that treats people as dangerous and disposable solely because of the color of their skin. That kind of bigotry isn’t a dead letter; it’s alive and well and causing harm today. What’s happening in Ferguson isn’t an atheist issue or a religious issue, but a human issue that should concern all of us who care about justice in this world.

Other links:

The Front Lines of Ferguson, by Rembert Browne

Is this how a dystopia starts?, by Carl Franzen

Image credit: R. Gino Santa Maria /

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  • Crimson

    “blacken his character”? Given the context, you could’ve phrased that differently.

  • L.Long

    YES!!! Definitely on all points.

  • GCT

    I had a thought along the same lines.

  • This makes me think about Marissa Alexander’s case as well: involved in a serious case of domestic violence, she risks a very harsh sentence, and there are reasons to believe she wouldn’t risk it if she were a white Caucasian woman:

    If someone wants to contribute:

  • even though they commit crimes at rates no higher than other ethnicities.

    -Adam, you know as well as I do that this statement is complete nonsense. Of course blacks commit crimes at rates much higher than other ethnicities. Far more whites are killed by blacks in the U.S. than blacks are killed by whites. There are many possible ways to deal with the fact blacks (on average) have higher rates of most crime than whites (on average), but denying it is not one of them.

    Edit: Drug crime is a special case. The discrepancy between use and arrests likely results from white people being more able to afford drugs due to their greater wealth.

  • GCT

    * Whites are 6 times as likely to be murdered by another white person as by a black person; and overall, the percentage of white Americans who will be murdered by a black offender in a given year is only 2/10,000ths of 1 percent (0.0002). This means that only 1 in every 500,000 white people will be murdered by a black person in a given year. Although the numbers of black-on-white homicides are higher than the reverse (447 to 218 in 2010), the 218 black victims of white murderers is actually a higher percentage of the black population interracially killed than the 447 white victims of black murderers as a percentage of the white population. In fact, any given black person is 2.75 times as likely to be murdered by a white person as any given white person is to be murdered by an African American.

  • In fact, any given black person is 2.75 times as likely to be murdered by a white person as any given white person is to be murdered by an African American.

    -You know full well that this is because African Americans are a smaller percentage of the U.S. population.

  • the ultimate problem is that we live in a society that treats people as dangerous and disposable solely because of the color of their skin.

    -Anyone wanna bet that there’s good evidence South Indians are treated as “dangerous and disposable solely because of the color of their skin” in the U.S.?

  • GCT

    And you know full well that your statistics are bogus, as this points out (and if you read it, it said that African Americans are a smaller percentage of the population). The fact that more white people die due to inter-racial violence is also a result of this, because whites are a significantly higher percentage of the population. What is significant is the rate of death to the overall rate of the population, which is higher for African Americans than for white Americans.

  • GCT
  • I’m not clicking on the Daily Fail if my life depended on it. Find a better source.

  • GCT
  • That’s not “dangerous and disposable”; that’s “un-American and superior”. Not quite what I had in mind.

  • The thing is, for the chances of a black person to be murdered by a white person and the chances of a white person to be murdered by a black person to be equal, it seems to me that black people would have to commit interracial murders at a rate well out of proportion to their population. I mean, there are six times as many white people than black people; well more than 2.75. Correct me if I’m wrong on this.

  • Florida’s mandatory minimum sentences are absurd.

  • The reputation of white Caucasians has been tarnished ever since the Boston Bombing. :-) She would probably risk it.

  • GCT

    Already quoted:

    Whites are 6 times as likely to be murdered by another white person as by a black person

  • GCT

    What you had in mind was to compare the racist stereotypes of two different groups and somehow make an argument that since they are different…something…

  • Since they’re different, but have the same skin color, stereotypes aren’t dependent on skin color.

  • Your reply doesn’t really address my narrower point in my above comment. It only shows than blacks murder whites at roughly the same rate whites do.

  • Tova Rischi

    Once upon a time I would have been put off by the person who call cops pigs. Nowadays I don’t. I’ve never understood patriotism either – but now more than ever I find the position inexplicable. When this sort of thing happens oversees our media’s quick to pounce in pointing out primitives, whether we disapprove of the government or the people, but now more than ever I feel it’s hypocritical. Any legitimacy to our criticism is forfeited when we’re acting like this, like those “third world hell holes” we despise. It just goes to show, the rules of who you can trust, or of right and wrong, don’t change whether you’re Chinese, American, Mexican, Syrian, or Ghanan.

  • J-D

    As soon as you refer to ‘ways to deal with the problem of black crime’, you signal that you consider ‘black crime’ to be a distinct problem that needs distinct ways of dealing with it.

    Why would you think that?

  • J-D

    I know what it’s like to be a person who’s highly alert to literal readings of texts, but I can still see the legitimate figurative use here. ‘Having a particular skin coloration’ is not literally synonymous with ‘belonging to a particular socially defined racial category’, and more specifically ‘having black skin’ is not literally synonymous with ‘belonging to the socially defined “black” race’, but the metonymy is appropriately used for rhetorical effect in this instance.

  • Thanks for pointing out the problems with my original wording. I’ve edited my first comment here in an attempt to remove them. Do you prefer the new wording?

  • What confounding factors have you considered in this analysis?

  • Yeah, fair point. That was a thoughtless wording choice; I apologize for that. Given that I already posted this, though, it would feel dishonest to change it now.

  • Which do you want me to consider? I’ve looked at this paper:
    which found unemployment, female-headed households, the poverty rate and median family income in Chicago neighborhoods to be all more correlated with the homicide rate than “percentage Black” in these neighborhoods, but also found homicide rates to be higher in majority-black neighborhoods than in majority-white neighborhoods at every level of median neighborhood family income. Strangely, in the latest period, the lowest homicide rates were in the poorest majority-white neighborhoods of Chicago.

  • J-D

    _Are there_ (as you say there are) many possible ways of dealing with the fact blacks (on average) have higher rates of most crime than whites (on average)? If you can’t indicate some of them, what’s the point of making the comment?

  • GCT

    IOW, your fear-mongering that blacks are more prone to violence against whites is wrong.

  • GCT

    Wait, so your argument is that they all look the same to you?

  • GCT

    Thank you for posting that. Good read. The link you have doesn’t actually take you to the article, however.

    The direct link is

    It’s also worth noting that Jelani Cobb has written more articles since and those are also well worth reading.

  • Johnathan Bunn

    Do you have an example of a case where a white Caucasian woman went into the garage where she could have fled in her car, but instead grabbed a weapon and returned to attempt murder, one where the white Caucasian successfully claimed self defense for that attempted murder? Looks to me that justice was properly served in the Marissa Alexander case unless the narrative described to the court is incorrect.

  • Science Avenger

    His argument (if I may be so bold) is that its not “skin color” that matters to some people, as the original comment suggest, but race, however roughly defined.

  • Science Avenger

    I think it trivializes what’s going on, making it sound like all we’d have to do is bleach people to fix the problem. Americans need to be a lot more aware of the full context of what it means to be in those racial categories.

  • J-D

    In this instance ‘skin colour’ is legitimately being used as a metonym for ‘race’.

  • J-D

    Like any figurative mode of expression (and, for that matter, like any literal mode of expression) it has its limitations and its drawbacks. But please let’s not pretend we don’t know the metonymy.

  • Azkyroth

    I think a parenthetical note of some sort would be appropriate.

  • Azkyroth

    Citation. Fucking. Needed.

  • Azkyroth

    You’re really being a posterior opening of the alimentary canal here.

  • No, it’s not. I just demonstrated that above. A group may be simultaneously more prone to violence and more likely to be victimized due to its minority status.

  • Austin

    Not murdered…’convicted’ – of murder. There’s a difference and a significant. The whole problem with your premise is that it assumes equally fair arrest, trial and conviction process if the perpetrator is white and the victim black, as if the perpetrator is black and the victim white – That is an absurd premise.

  • Austin

    “Far more whites are killed by blacks in the U.S. than blacks are killed by whites.”

    You mean far more blacks are ‘convicted’ of killing whites than whites are convicted of killing blacks. Pretending that the arrest and conviction process for interracial crime is even remotely fair and equal both ways and thus reflects actual reality is patently absurd.
    Hint: if a black person is even twice as likely to be convicted of killing a white person as a white person of killing a black one (and it’s significantly more), it drastically changes your so called ‘facts on the ground’. Please be rigorous in your so called intellectual approach.

  • GCT

    You demonstrated no such thing. White people are 6x more prevalent than black people, and white people are 6x more likely to be killed by a white person as a black person.

  • GCT

    I fail to see how pointing out racism somehow trivializes it.

  • I said “prone to violence” not “prone to violence against white people. Respond to what I type.

  • GCT

    Which you tried to justify by stating the numbers of black on white violence vs. white on black violence – in your very first comment, no less. So, which is it? Are blacks prone to violence against whites or are you now contending that they are just prone to violence in general?

  • Science Avenger

    “The whole problem with your premise is that it assumes equally fair arrest, trial and conviction process if the perpetrator is white and the victim black, as if the perpetrator is black and the victim white – That is an absurd premise.”

    Indeed. IIRC, the system is very biased according to the race of the victim. Kill a black, you “stood your ground”, kill a white, you hang.

  • Science Avenger

    Skin color race. I’m pretty dark as Europeans go, even more so in the summer than some deemed Mexicans* or blacks, but despite that my privilege remains intact. Besides, what’s the point of using a euphemism that is both less accurate and takes longer to say? I hate euphemisms, they hide the truth, in this case an ugly one. It’s about race, not skin color.

    *As the late great Molly Ivins once said, to many here in Texas, anyone born south of the Rio Grande is a “Mexican”

  • J-D

    There is not a literal equivalence between skin colour and race. However, although you may not be familiar with the _word_ ‘metonymy’, I find it very hard to believe that you’re unfamiliar with the phenomenon. Do you not know what I’m talking about when I refer to metonymy?

  • Austin

    Having lived in 20+ countries I’ve seen vastly different groups of oppressors and oppressed people – depending on the place, this separation can be along the lines of anything from race to religion to ethnicity…but one thing that always remains constant is the claim by members of the oppressive group that members of the oppressed group are more prone to crime.

  • Azkyroth

    Of course he (…as I recall) does.

    “Masturdebating” in contrast isn’t a word, but should be.

  • GCT

    Wow, seriously?

    In Florida, with Stand Your Ground, she does not need to flee. Except she does, because she’s black. Secondly, it was her house, and her kids were inside. Third, she didn’t attempt to murder him – she wasn’t charged with attempted murder. Fourth, this is a man who was violating a court order to stay away from her and had previously harmed her.

  • Johnathan Bunn

    False stand your ground only applies in a situation where you are in fear of your life in a public area, even if it applied in her situation once she fled to her car she could no longer claim she feared for her life as she left.

    According to the wikipedia article and multiple other sources :””Marissa Alexander and her husband both had restraining orders against one another and she was retrieving items from his house after he had learned that she was unfaithful to him and that the newborn possibly wasn’t his.”

    They both had restraining orders against each other, but she was in HIS house where she was not supposed to be, she argued with him in the master bedroom then went to the garage retrieved her gun and then found him in the kitchen.

    There is no stretch of the imagination that would allow this to be stand your ground and there is no case I can find that shows anything even closely similar.

    She would not be in jail right now had she fled in her vehicle and came back with police to get her stuff.

  • Ad hominems are no substitutes for argument.

  • Austin

    I’m not entirely sure you know what an ad hominem is. I haven’t attacked anyone, that response simply stated an observation from which you may draw what conclusions you will. I did however make actual counter arguments in response to your points elsewhere, which you flat out chose not to respond to….avoidance is no substitute for argument.

  • Azkyroth

    Ad hominems? You mean like “everyone knows blacks are more prone to violence?”

  • Azkyroth

    …I didn’t see any numbers stated, did you?

  • What? That makes no logical sense whatsoever. To paraphrase:
    “You can’t name a similar case where a person got off the hook. Therefore, justice was served.”
    Yeah…lots of problems all in that one little sentence. For starters, this assumes that consistent execution equates to justice. So, in Salem, as long as they were prosecuting people accused of witchcraft equally, their prosecution was therefor just by your reasoning. That’s hugely messed up, dude.
    Two, that one may not be able to name a case does not mean one does not exist. It should be rather freakin obvious that there is no way Andy nor I nor you can know every case that ever existed. To expect that is…well, again, hugely messed up.

  • GCT

    No, that’s not how stand your ground works. You do not need to flee the area even if you have the chance, otherwise you wouldn’t be “standing your ground.”

    She also didn’t fire at him. She fired a warning shot. She was not charged with attempted murder, she was charged with firing a warning shot, which for some reason has a 20 year sentence attached to it (because it would be much better to just kill the other person and claim you were scared for your life, a la George Zimmerman – although if you can’t pass for white, YMMV).

  • GCT

    Not from Enopoletus Harding. I posted a link to support my case.

  • Deanjay1961

    The forensic evidence seems to contradict the eyewitness reports. Might be better to wait until the evidence is in before deciding what the facts of the case are.

  • GCT

    What? Like him getting shot 6 times?

  • Deanjay1961

    Shot six times, but not from behind, and not with his arms raised, looks like. The autopsy is more consistent with the officer’s account that Brown was charging him than with the witnesses account that he was hit from behind then turned with his hands raised and was shot again.
    The militaristic response of the Ferguson police force to protests was ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean the shooting that triggered the protests wasn’t justified. If the circumstances were that he was charging the police officer and it took six shots to stop him, the officer will be exonerated.

  • GCT

    Charging from a good distance away – which requires 6 shots. Yeah…right.

  • Deanjay1961

    So you’re complaining that he didn’t ‘drop him’ on the first shot instead of putting four rounds into the guy’s right arm and hand first?
    Why have you already made up your mind about the facts in this case? I’m fine either way, I just want to know what actually happened before making a judgement…but if the physical evidence says one thing and the witnesses say something else, I’m going with the physical evidence. There’s still more to be learned, soft tissue examination may change the picture to something more in line with the scenario you prefer.