Local view: Ferguson shooting shows we’re a long way from getting along
I am not a slim, black teenager on foot with Skittles, but the police have their eye on me. I've been stopped six times since moving to Duluth in 2012 in my green Buick hoopty and never once got a ticket. I had three empty pop cans in my car. May...
I am not a slim, black teenager on foot with Skittles, but the police have their eye on me. I’ve been stopped six times since moving to Duluth in 2012 in my green Buick hoopty and never once got a ticket. I had three empty pop cans in my car. Maybe they’re what raised suspicions.
I would not know what it would be like to feel as though my life was at risk in a moment of truth where the right words or actions wouldn’t even save me while confronting law enforcement.
Thinking about police brutality or invasiveness has become more than a casual topic in America. When Trayvon Martin was killed with a 9 mm pistol on Feb. 26, 2012, the response was more than shock. It was an expose of news analysis from Florida’s stand-your-ground gun law to how a neighborhood-watch person could create a threat by observing a black kid looking around with “something in his hand.”
He looks suspicious; there’s something wrong with him, the shooter, George Zimmerman, told a 911 operator. Mind you no crime had been committed. Trayvon was just walking around a neighborhood where he was a visitor.
I emotionally identified with the Trayvon Martin case because my 6-foot-2, half-Liberian son is around Trayvon’s age. Trayvon had the demeanor of a successful black athlete and was a football player, what I dreamed for my own child. His parents were overwrought with grief over his death. For all sympathizers and even haters, there seemed to be a relevant debate about what happened between a wannabe cop and a teenage kid. It all came down to perception.
And now America has another ordeal to face on the news every night from Ferguson, Mo. This one involves a heavyset black male youth, Michael Brown, who was unarmed but was shot six times nonetheless, and fatally, from the front, by a police officer.
According to accounts, Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking down the street when a white male officer pulled up and told them to “get the (expletive) on the sidewalk.” The young men replied they were “not but a minute away from our destination and we would shortly be out of the street,” as Johnson recounted later. The officer drove forward, then jerked backward and almost hit the two young men. When the officer, Darren Wilson, opened his door, the boys were so close, the door bounced off Brown.
The officer reportedly grabbed Brown by the neck and shot him almost immediately after getting out of his squad. Brown and his friend ran, hiding behind a car. The police officer chased Brown and shot him a second time. Brown raised his hands to surrender and was shot four more times, according to what I’ve learned of the incident. New testimony came forward later from a construction worker who confirmed Brown had his hands up. The only time Brown fell forward may have been when he was dying.
In the aftermath, people came from all over the country to protest. Reporters from the Huffington Post were detained in a McDonald’s restaurant by police, and Al-Jazeera reporters were sprayed with tear gas. Schools were closed, postponing their first days, and stores were looted.
This has been more than civil unrest. It has been an example of Samuel Huntington’s clash-of-civilization theory, which states that race, culture and religion will be the primary sources of conflict in the post-Cold War era. Similar to the Jena 6 racial-profiling incident in Texas, where only black kids were prosecuted after a white-black teenage confrontation, supporters of Michael Brown are not walking away quietly.
These events of unarmed youths being killed are becoming too frequent. The fallout has raised such high stakes that one wonders how wide civil unrest can become.
I lived through the Rodney King riots in L.A., where there were not enough police officers to control the situation. The U.S. Department of Justice is coming to terms with communities that don’t seem to have a handle on reasonable force for teens who pose a perceived threat to police officers. Nobody wants a war zone. Water bottles thrown at police in Ferguson may soon become rocks. Hopefully, open public debate will accomplish more than a repeat in some other city.
After relocating from Los Angeles to Duluth, the subtle racism here has included an East High School teacher who told my son not to hang around with the black kids. “They may bring you down,” the teacher reportedly said. The message seemed to be to blend in. I know another family whose son attended the University of Minnesota Duluth, and he was roughed up by Duluth police. He’s half black and transferred out the next semester.
No matter where racism lives, it exhibits itself in unique, unexpected forms. Rodney King kept it simple. He asked, “Can’t we all get along?”
Jane Hoffman of Duluth is a writer with a master’s degree in political science.