What Michael Brown’s Death Says About America

Police officers briefly detain a person in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

For many, the scenes of conflict from Ferguson, Missouri this week were a reminder of an era of racial conflict many Americans had hoped was far behind them — particularly in the era of the first black president.

A peaceful night of demonstrations on Thursday was preceded by four nights of unrest in which the people of Ferguson attempted to protest the slaying of an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager, Michael Brown, and were met by battle-clad local police armed with military equipment.

The police had sniper rifles pointed at peaceful protesters, used tear gas and rubber bullets, detained journalists and dismantled a filming crew’s camera equipment. The St. Louis suburb had become a war zone.

“It is unbelievable, it’s unreal to see what the police are doing there,” civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said after the shocking events of Wednesday night. “People have a right to protest, they have a right to dissent, they have a right to march in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, and the press has a right to cover it. It takes me back to the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s.”

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s remarks in response to the unrest have been measured, calling for calm from both the protesters and police. This was not the first time the president responded to a racially-charged tragedy. When Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, was killed in Florida in 2012—his killer, George Zimmerman, has since been released—Obama’s comments were a reminder of the role race played in the crime. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said.

To try to understand the dynamics of the protest—and the president’s ability to address them—Newsweek turned to Columbia Law School professor Patricia J. Williams. As a lawyer and author, Williams is known for her thoughtful explorations of racism in America. Her books include The Alchemy of Race and Rights and Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. The following is Williams’s emailed responses to Newsweek’s questions.

Newsweek: In many ways, the images of Ferguson, Missouri this week remind people of race riots from past decades like the 1960s or even the Watts riots in Los Angeles the early 1990s. Americans probably like to think they've moved beyond that now, and that includes the election of the first black president. But have we really moved forward?

Patricia Williams: Working through a past as scarring as the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is a very long-term moral commitment. That trauma and dehumanization has been powerful, repercussive through time—unconscious to some, invisible to others, and persistently lopsided in its burdens.

We Americans like to think of time as something which inevitably “moves forward,” healing all wounds, washing away the sins of the past.  But this particular social sore is complex, has deep persistent roots. We rightly cherish the ideal of “post-raciality” but we are naïve if we think that wishing it makes it so.

We are naïve if we imagine that a singular election, however groundbreaking, would be met without a measure of backlash; or that lone individuals, whether Martin Luther King or Barack Obama, could make the deep structural obstacles of systemic segregation disappear overnight.

NW: There have been several incidents and high profile events during Obama's presidency that turned on race, from Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates's arrest in 2009, to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson (and many more in between that for whatever reason drew less media attention). Is there any way Obama can respond without fanning the flames of conflict?

PW: To some extent President Obama is in a no-win situation, one that reflects a very old racial dilemma. As a cultural matter, whites tend to be perceived as “without race” and therefore “more neutral” when it comes to these sorts of confrontations. People of color, blacks in particular, tend to be perceived as “self-interested.”

Both of these perceptions are projections, stereotypes rooted in the privilege of whiteness and the credibility-burden of black status. But it is, and has always been, important that any president—think Truman, Kennedy, Johnson—use the power of that office to address civil rights for all. Nevertheless, Obama inevitably faces suspicion from some quarters that anything he does toward equality for all is done solely because he’s black.

NW: It feels like these incidents have become more common. Is that just because we have short memories or is something else going on here?

It is certainly true that local police forces have become much more militarized in the last decade; and that the war on drugs of the last two decades has licensed a rate of incarceration that exceeds every nation on earth. Policing has definitely become more aggressive for low-level infractions like riding bikes on sidewalks, and it is largely communities of color that are the exclusive objects of stop-and-frisk policies which many experience as little more than harassment.

Fold in, too, the stresses of significant job loss in middle and working class sectors, high rates of PTSD [post traumatic distress order] among police and corrections officers, along with massive disinvestment in education and basic human services. It’s not a happy picture.  And yes: we also have short memories.

NW: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford are all unarmed black men who were recently killed by police. What is the best way to understand the relationship between black communities and the police who are supposed to protect them?

PW: I think that too often local police departments suffer from a combination of the extraordinary stresses of the job, and a skewed sense of the communities to whom they are in service.  Regarding the stresses: we tend to arm police with extraordinary levels of firepower, ramped up in recent years in the name of the war on terror.

We have not invested to the same degree in basic human skills: how to ramp down rather than incite tense situations, or training for anger management or psychological counseling. Most worryingly we do not supply police with the skills or assistance of trained personnel needed to cope with mentally ill citizens, who account for an obscenely tragic number of those who are criminalized rather than hospitalized.

Regarding service to community: police are public servants to civil society. When police are reconfigured as soldiers in war zones whose job it is to protect presumptively “good” communities from presumptively “bad” ones, then we start to construct walls. We lose the sense of particularity that underwrites our jurisprudential presumption of innocence. We revert to or perpetuate a segregationist form of policing in which more privileged communities deploy police to keep the less privileged collectively in check or at bay. This holds entire geographies — particularly racialized and impoverished geographies in a kind of fealty to the imagined fears of those who hold greatest power.

That’s the backdrop for understanding the huge emotional response to these killings: in too many places, we have instituted policies where every black person walking down the street is made criminally suspect. And if police can randomly—rather than reasonably—stop, search, interrogate, arrest if you’re lucky, kill if you’re not—then people don’t trust the police to assist in real emergencies.  

A black man does not call the police when his car is stolen. A Latina woman does not call when her husband abuses her. A Muslim family does not call when their schizophrenic son goes wandering from home. A homeless family postpones calling about a missing child for fear of losing custody of the rest.

So these are policies that have not only eroded the relation between police and black communities but which tear at the fabric of public accommodation and the very notion of collective citizenship.

NW: What should readers know about what is happening this week in Ferguson that they likely aren't getting or thinking about?

PW: As of this writing, I don’t know anything about what’s going on in Ferguson that we haven’t all read. But it’s precisely what we don’t know that I find most troubling. That this investigation could be as murky and secretive as has been thus far is extremely troubling.

Public accountability for the acts of public servants must be a paramount value in any democratic system. I very much hope that there will be, sooner than later, a thorough, thoughtful and public review of the circumstances and practices surrounding this tragedy.

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