The United States is in turmoil tonight. Many people, viewing the protests across America in recent weeks, over the shooting death of an unarmed African American teenager by police in Ferguson, Missouri, are trying to make sense of the divisions that were once simmering, but are now boiling over in American society. One important thing to understand, about the case, is that Americans do not view it in isolation; they see it as being part of a much larger pattern and a disturbing social and historical process.
Americans are divided, largely along racial lines, over what the shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager, represents in terms of the current status of race-relations in the United States. The point of view, held by the majority of black Americans and a significant minority of whites, according to National Public Radio, is that Michael Brown’s shooting is just the most recent example of a deeply troubling tendency in the American criminal justice system that shows callus indifference toward the lives of black victims of violent acts by police officers and by vigilantes.
Most blacks doubt that the circumstances surrounding the young man’s death are likely to be fairly investigated, nor will his killer be held accountable for the young man’s death. This, they argue, is the way things have always been in America, although it seems to many that, in recent years, the situation has gotten worse. Last year, “The Root,” a popular African American news publication outlined the stories of 20 high profile instances of unarmed young black males who were killed in situations similar to Michael Brown’s, where the use of lethal force was highly questionable or clearly unwarranted. This summer has witnessed the addition several additional high profile examples of this pattern: Eric Garner, who died in a police choke hold, while repeatedly telling the officers that he couldn’t breathe; John Crawford, a 22 year old father, who was shot while holding a toy gun in the toy section of Wal Mart, just after telling the officers that the gun was not real; and Michael Brown, the unarmed 18 year old who was shot 30 feet away from the officer’s vehicle, apparently with his hands raised in surrender. There are many other such cases that never even receive national attention.
If the first concern is that the lives of young black men don’t seem to be valued by the authorities, a second concern is that media coverage of these murders seems unfair, and turns these victims of police violence into villains. It hasn’t escaped the notice of many Americans, black or white, that black unarmed victims are depicted as being basically criminals at heart, even when there is not much evidence to support these claims, while openly violent white perpetrators involved in mass shootings are depicted as being basically good people with a minor flaw that mysteriously set them off. Whites who openly carry weapons and use them to threaten law enforcement officers, as in the case of Cliven Bundy earlier this summer, are portrayed as “good ol’ boys standing up for their constitutional rights” – the embodiment of American “freedom” and rugged individualism. Some would argue that there is a double-standard, not only in the use of lethal force by police officers, but also in the way these events are covered in mass media.
Class vs Race
A third factor is that many Americans see the issue as being as much about class as it is about race. Although one is hard-pressed to find an African American male who has not, at some point in his life, been subjected to unwarranted and humiliating treatment by police officers, but the use of violence, with impunity, against young black males is far more likely if that young man comes from a lower or working class socio-economic background than is the case if he is middle class.
While much of America is focused on the racial side of this issue, there are those who argue that what some people anticipate will be a “race war” in America will really be a war along class lines, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar argued in a recent essay in Time magazine. Many social activists in the United States don’t want Americans to lose sight of the fact that aggressive policing is a particularly class-based phenomenon, and reflects a deepening socio-economic divide in American society that makes life a nearly impossible trap to escape for the bottom 20%. This makes them more vulnerable, more frustrated and more disillusioned than ever before.
Militarisation of the Police
The fourth factor is the militarization of American policing. Since the end of the Cold War the United States has increased its unilateral military interventions around the world, providing weapons to prop up “friendly” regimes that will promote American interests, and are used to overthrow those leaders who are not compliant.
With a glut of weapons in circulation, even as early as 1994, the U.S. federal government began a program of giving surplus military weapons to local police departments. National publications, such as The New York Times and Forbes Magazine, recently ran articles tracing this process. Local media, such as The Atlanta Journal Constitution, have documented the effect that this program has had on their communities. The New York Times recently published a map showing the astonishing wide-spread geographic distribution of surplus military equipment to local police forces.
The militarization of local police escalated as politicians and pundits preyed on two fears: the fears aroused by the so-called “war on drugs” and the fears surrounding the “war on terrorism”. Politicians used both of these perceived threats to justify turning local police forces into small armies. As these dangers proved highly exaggerated, it didn’t take long for the police to turn their windfall of military equipment on American neighborhoods, private citizens and peaceful protesters, as was graphically demonstrated in Ferguson Missouri. When the crisis exploded on the streets of Missouri, American war veterans said that the police were more heavily armed than the U.S. Army was when it was fighting a war in Iraq.
In any society, the separation of policing from military activity is based on the difference between fighting enemies of the state, as opposed to protecting citizens and promoting domestic civility. The military finds it awkward to be assigned policing tasks, as was the case following “regime-change” in Iraq. They weren’t quite sure how to carry out the function of policing because they were not trained for that. Likewise, as the police force became militarized it was no longer suitable for policing. They hid inside of armored vehicles and used heavy assault weapons and military tactics which are ill-suited for maintaining domestic civility.
The citizens have become the enemy, and the streets of America, with alarming and increasing frequency, have started to resemble territories under military occupation. Even conservative American politicians are now openly worried about the effect that the militarization of the police force is having on American democracy, as demonstrated by a recent essay in Time magazine by Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
The reason the Michael Brown shooting strikes a chord with so many Americans is because they do not see it as being an isolated incident. They are afraid that it actually reflects the current state of American society on many levels: in terms of race, class, media vilification of young black males, and militarized policing. It reminds Americans that the lives of black people in that country have historically been devalued and have been treated as being expendable. It reminds Americans that, as a result of their militarized foreign policy and their exaggerated fear of drug trafficking and terrorism, a surplus of American weapons are now being used to militarize the police force at home. It also reminds Americans of the widening gap between the opportunities and civil liberties of the rich and the poor.
Many Americans have the creeping sense that when they look at the killing of Michael Brown and the way that police have responded to protesters, they are seeing disturbing elements of what their society has become. They may hope that they are wrong, but even the public-relations symbolism of the “first black president” offers them little hope in the face of the facts on the ground that can no longer be ignored.