When police officer Darren Wilson shot dead the unarmed teenager Michael Brown after an altercation in Ferguson, Missouri on August, 4 it sparked outrage in the local community and around the world. The Missouri Grand Jury’s judgement on the legality of the killing, delivered on Monday November 24, offered an opportunity to end months of protests and civil unrest that have raged since the shooting and a chance for Brown’s family to achieve justice. Instead, as the court announced its decision not to indict Wilson, protestors marched nationwide in opposition to the verdict and Ferguson once again erupted in flames.
Huck spoke to Cassandra Chaney, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Social Work and Ray Von Robertson, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Department of Criminal Justice, who have co-authored a number of studies on violence in the US. Their 2013 paper ‘Racism and Police Brutality in America’ looked at how police/African-American relations have changed since Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD in 1991 and the subsequent riots after the acquittal of the officers involved. The academics’ research has shown that police violence has increased over the last two decades and they point to a study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that estimates an African-American is killed on average every 28 hours. African-Americans are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than Whites.
We asked Cassandra and Ray for their reaction to the Grand Jury verdict, the roots of police brutality in the US and what can be done to stop this epidemic of violence.
How did you feel when you heard the Grand Jury verdict on the Michael Brown shooting? Were you surprised?
Ray: Upset, but not surprised. The U.S., and by extension Grand Juries and Juries, rarely indict cops and if they are indicted rarely find them guilty of killing Black people.
Cassandra: When I heard the Grand Jury verdict, my heart sank. My immediate thought was, “What kind of world do we live in when an armed person shoots an unarmed person in the back and gets away with it?” My heart immediately went out to the Brown family, who have endured such an unspeakable loss. My heart also went out to the community of Ferguson, who have seen a depletion of their human, social, and financial resources over the decades. They see the police aggression toward them frequently, but rarely do they see the murder of someone they love before their eyes. I could see they were emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually broken. Unfortunately, since the criminal justice system has historically been unfair to Blacks, I was not surprised.
To what extent do you feel police in the US are accountable to citizens? Is the situation improving or getting worse?
Cassandra: Police are accountable to citizens because they took a sworn oath “To Protect and Serve” the citizenry, not “Antagonise and Murder” them. This is true in theory but is unequivocally not true in practice. The situation is getting worse because there is no accountability of police to the citizens they were sworn to protect and serve.
Ray: Police protect powerful property owners. Blacks are the most despised and marginalised group in America. So, to the powerful and a majority of Whites, we are supposed to be controlled.
“What kind of world do we live in when an armed person shoots an unarmed person in the back and gets away with it?”
Could you fill us in on the story from Rodney King to Michael Brown? Have we seen progress or a worsening of the situation?
Cassandra: In short, things have gotten much worse from Rodney King to Michael Brown. When one looks at the number of Black men that are killed on average (one every 28 hours), we must realise that it is only through a miracle that a very few stories involving the police’s mistreatment toward Blacks sees the light of day through the media. There are literally thousands of “Michael Browns” all over the United States, whose names and stories will remain untold.
Ray: In my opinion and the opinions of other scholars, laypersons, grassroots activists, things are getting worse. Cassandra alluded to the findings by the Malcolm X grassroots organisation that a Black person is killed by an officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante every 28 hours. I think people do not understand, or they do not care. It is probably the latter, as a person dies nearly every day. Does anyone honestly believe if that was a statistic reflecting the rate at which Whites were killed by the aforementioned entities nothing would be done? If we are honest, we know the answer to that one.
I was reading an article today which cited that a recent FBI report indicating that from 2005-2012 a White police officer killed a Black person nearly twice a week which (according to the article is about the same number of Black people lynched on a weekly basis during the late 19th and early 20th century. See the historical connection? Racialised control of Black bodies.
“At the root of this is race, class, and gender realities.”
Briefly, what are the driving forces behind police shootings in the US? How important is race, or are there other important factors?
Cassandra: The driving force behind police shootings in the United States is that Blacks are perceived by most non-Blacks as “less than”, and thus, their life has no value. However, at the root of this is race, class, and gender realities. In other words, when these conditions are satisfied (or not) a person is more likely to experience police violence. While poor non-Blacks may find themselves in difficult situations with the police, poor, Black men (and women to a lesser degree) are substantially more likely to be stopped, convicted, and murdered by the police than Whites. Since Black people have no real individual and institutional power, they are easy targets.
Ray: Racialised social control is the driving force. We can see this when we examine instances in which police encounter Whites there is rarely a murder. Remember Cliven Bundy? He and his crew pointed guns at officers and there was a negotiation. He was on the land illegally and owed about a million dollars in grazing fees and penalties he had accumulated over two decades. Blacks get shot with toy guns or completely unarmed. No discussion, no negotiations. How do you think this looks in terms of fairness? What type of society are we trying to have?
The media have focused on lootings and incidents of disorder, but the protests in Ferguson and around the US have predominantly been peaceful. Have there been any innovative non-violent protest actions that have inspired you, such as the “mass die-in” in Ferguson, perhaps?
Cassandra: I am struck by the thousands of men and women, of different races, in major cities that have collectively taken a stand against the verdict via peaceful protest. In my local area, at Louisiana State University, Black and White students are emotional as they conduct vigils and collectively try to make sense of what happened and the verdict that followed. In addition, recently I attended a Youth Matters Rally in which teens from surrounding high schools engaged in “Poetry Slams.” I was so impressed by the immense talent of these youth as well as their ability to use words to clearly articulate what they think and feel about the world’s injustice, and the police’s part in this injustice.
To what extent you feel the public reaction (both the looting and the non-violent protest) reveals “a crisis of democracy”? Do you feel that’s appropriate language to describe these events?
Cassandra: The looting and non-violent protests are, in my opinion, an “Unapologetic Demand for Justice.” Although the looters are taking an anti-social stance to achieve this aim, many of them are doing so because they are frustrated with a judicial system that has consistently and brazenly failed them. The non-violent protests want immediate change. The verdict sickens their mind, heart and spirit, and engaging in non-violent protests is a way to connect in the same space with individuals from various races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds who see this verdict as a miscarriage of justice.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
How have you felt about media coverage of the shooting and subsequent events? Has media coverage improved or got worse since the Rodney King incident? Have there been any notable omissions in the debate?
Ray: Media coverage is biased. Blacks are always portrayed as savages. When Whites riot, instead of protest, for mundane reasons (e.g., a sporting team winning a championship), they are never referred to as savages or animals. We are hurting and beyond frustrated. I believe Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Our society is controlled by corporations. We do not live in a democracy, more like an oligarchy.
Cassandra: For the most part, I am very disappointed in the media’s coverage of the shooting. As was the case in the O.J. Simpson trial, the media heightens already-existing tensions by creating a racial dichotomy. Such a racial dichotomy promotes the erroneous idea that all Black people feel one way and all White people feel another way. In the case of the O.J. Simpson trial, it was the belief that all Black people believed O.J. Simpson was innocent while all White people believed he was guilty. From my observation of the media’s coverage of the event, it appears that the same is occurring: that Black people categorically believed the verdict was unjust while While people believed it to be fair. This type of media coverage makes racial tensions worse, not better.
Notable omissions in the debate are the many non-Black people that are upset at the verdict. I also believe that the media’s coverage has gotten worse since the Rodney King incident. When the late Rodney King was beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on March 3, 1991, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram did not exist. These various forms of media are a double-edged sword. In some respects, they are beneficial. Case in Point: Twitter was the social movement that lead to the media’s attention of the Michael Brown incident. On the other hand, these various forms of media greatly increase the likelihood that lies and misrepresentations of the truth could abound.
What needs to change for these shootings to end? Do you have any ideas for policy or other responses that are needed to stem the tide of police violence in the US?
Cassandra: Police departments must be proactive and reactive in their stance. They must evaluate potential members of the police force in terms of their physical and psychological readiness to do their jobs. In other words, instead of only focusing on whether potential members of the police force can pass the physical tests that are required, they must also conduct testing in regards to how these individuals truly feel about people of colour. Since it is their responsibility “to protect and serve,” their ability to do their jobs effectively will largely contend on what they think and feel about people of colour. Those that have racial prejudices and biases that would prevent them from doing their job in a safe manner should be disqualified. Since there is currently no real accountability for police officers, I recommend that police cameras (with video and audio capabilities) be installed in all police cars. This might curtail some of the conflicting reports that are given by members of the police, the victim, and bystanders.
Ray: Officers should be punished for crimes just like citizens are. However, in America, officers receiving punishments for killing Blacks is not about to happen. I think some of the suggestions of Dr. Claud Anderson present promise. I am going to paraphrase them: Black people should gain economic control of our communities and have real communities in which we control the flow of money in these areas and work together. Leverage that money for substantive political participation. In other words, our participation must go beyond voting. We have been voting for years and this problem has not subsided. Use the money to financially support politicians who can ensure that the mandates of our collective Black agenda are met. One of those mandates will be an end to police brutality. If we put this into motion, we will be wealthy property owners, and these are the people police protect.