Today marks the one-year anniversary of when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by now ex-police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. In that year, there have been protests, riots, vandalism, memorials, investigations by local and federal law enforcement agencies, addresses by the President, a damning Department of Justice (DOJ) report on racism within the Ferguson police department, and calls for greater oversight and accountability for police violence, discrimination, and brutality including the mandatory use of cameras on officers. Ferguson’s authorities have experienced a shake-up, losing their police chief (who was white), their city manager (who was white), members of the city council (who were white), and a few police officers (who were white). Several new organizations, including Operation Help or Hush, an organization founded by Charles Wade and Tasha Burton to sustain, organize, and provide for peaceful protesters in the Ferguson area, began operating as a direct result of Ferguson and the social media coverage it was receiving. Likewise, the movement #BlackLivesMatter was founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza to create a dialogue among black people, fight anti-black racism, and encourage social action and engagement and is still going strong today, protesting at various events.
However, the fact of the matter is that Michael Brown is still dead. According to The Counted, a project by the Guardian to report and crowd-source how many people are killed by law enforcement officers every year, over 500 people have been killed by the police this year, 141 of them black (43 of whom were unarmed). We still have black men, women, and children unlawfully detained, arrested, brutalized, and killed with law enforcement agencies doing their best to deflect the fault by releasing the victims’ criminal histories, bungling investigations, and, in some cases, flat-out lying about what happened (making the case for cameras on officers all the more important). So while there have been numerous positive changes (because awareness of a situation is positive, even if the way awareness is born is negative), the fact remains that people are still dead and that black people are still, in many ways, fighting for their lives. And if people are still dying, being unlawfully detained, and fearing for their lives, can we really remain comfortable and complacent with the situation? Can we really pat ourselves on the back and say, “Job well done”?
Michael Brown’s murder brought into sharp relief the prejudice that black people face in this country. Prior to his death and the protests that followed, I had never understood the gravity of the situation or what it meant to be black in America. I am white, so regardless of how much research I do, I will never fully know, but at least it’s a blip on my consciousness now. At least now I’m more apt to believe black people when they say they’re being discriminated against. At least I will entertain the idea that that cop shouldn’t have slammed that girl on the ground or that that police chief is deliberately hiding information. At least there’s that.
For the majority of my life, I’ve considered race a non-issue. I’ve known about racism and prejudice and have heard people complain about black people or Latinos, but I never thought of racism as systematized prejudice perpetuated by our society. I thought racism was something that individuals did, using slurs, harassing others, and refusing to interact with them. I knew nothing about affirmative action or black universities, but I was comfortable criticizing them because of how they were hypothetically hurting me. I was naive and wrong and probably hurt quite a few people unknowingly. I was, as much as I hate to say it, racist. And I’m so sorry for it.
There is a strong possibility that I am still racist because racism isn’t just about complaining about affirmative action or stereotyping others, it’s also about participating (even unknowingly) in a system of prejudice. It’s about benefiting from the fact that young black boys are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than young white boys; that when the NYPD randomly stops citizens, 80% of the stops are blacks and Latinos; that blacks are 127% more likely to get frisked and 76% more likely to get searched than whites; that black kids are 10 times more likely to get arrested for drug crimes than white kids (even though white kids are more likely to abuse drugs); and that blacks are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites. It’s also about our white privilege of being able to see those statistics and think, ‘What, so this is my fault now? I’m not making those cops act that way.’ It’s our privilege to turn a blind eye to this situation and to only look at it when we want to. It’s our privilege that we don’t have to live the situation. And that’s why, even if we don’t want to be racist, even if we don’t think we’re racist, we usually are.
This is a reality that we as a nation need to confront and which Michael Brown’s murder has been forcing us to confront. There are many who didn’t and still don’t find his death reprehensible. They are content with the narrative that he was a violent thug who attacked Darren Wilson and needed to be put down. They find Wilson’s categorization of him as a “demon” and less than human appropriate and have no problem extending it to anyone who gets on the police’s bad side. They are, more likely than not, the same people that will fault Sandra Bland for being irritated at being pulled over for a failure to use her turn signal or who believe that the only reason Raymond Tensing, the Cincinnati police officer who shot and killed Samuel DuBose for failing to display a front license plate, was indicted is because people want to vilify police officers. These are the people that neither I nor #BlackLivesMatter nor the over 500 police-based deaths this year can reach right now.
However, I fully believe that there will come a time when these same people will not be able to use Breitbart’s erroneous and slanderous reporting as their only news source or when the events will just be too damning for them to explain away or that, God forbid, they will witness police brutality firsthand and, at least for a little while, they will entertain the notion that all is not well in our country. There have been too many deaths and too many instances when direct witness testimony, forensic evidence, and video recording have directly contradicted the established narrative. The chances of people remaining willfully ignorant forever are slowly decreasing.
And while I don’t think that should be enough for right now, it has to be – a fact that we must accept if we don’t want to lose our sanity and hope. There’s just no way to force people to change their perspectives, even if those perspectives are wrong and hateful.
But that doesn’t mean that we need to be complacent or resist holding people accountable for their actions, inactivity, and complicity. Instead, we should make greater effort to change ourselves, raise awareness, and do whatever we can personally. We have to be like Bree Newsome, who on June 27 scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina Capitol building and took down the Confederate flag when lawmakers wouldn’t (“couldn’t”) after the Emanuel AME Church massacre. We have to be like Shaun King, who disseminates information about black lives and deaths and works to expose corrupt and inaccurate reporting. We have to be like Missouri Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who speaks her mind, fights for her constituency (and all people, really) and who was out protesting Ferguson and its handling from day one. We have to be like Alderman Antonio French, who travels and meets directly with people trying to heal wounds, pushing for change within the system, and always trying to direct people’s energy into something positive. Because it’s by people being personally responsible and active, by “staying woke,” that we can affect change and influence others. And, as more people do so, then the change can happen faster and with greater unity and equanimity.
No one who abides by this doctrine would call Michael Brown’s death necessary and would probably react with horror at anyone that would claim otherwise, but it’s undeniable that his death had an impact. It brought international attention to a small town in Missouri where over two-thirds of residents were being discriminated against. It sparked a national discussion on race and police practices. It showed white people what our country is really like for millions of our fellow citizens. It started programs about police accountability, including the End Racial Profiling Act, which the NAACP is trying to get passed into law. Michael Brown made and is making a difference – but it shouldn’t have taken his or anyone’s death to start this process. He should have, at most, been arrested and charged. He should have done community service or paid a fine or gone to counseling or had a probationary officer. He should still be alive. And that’s what we need to remember today: black lives matter. Every black life matters. And we need to do better. Notes:
- For an engaging and at times terrifying retrospective of the past year in Ferguson, click here.
- To read a four-part series by The Washington Post about the events that happened in Ferguson over the past year, click here.
- For an article about what the DOJ and Ferguson’s government are doing to rectify the situation, click here.
- To learn about the challenges of accurately tracking police violence and why The Guardian’s and The Washington Post’s methods are disparate, click here.
- To read The Washington Post’s retrospective on the 24 cases of unarmed black men killed by the police that they tracked, click here.