The shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the spiralling protests that ensued, point to the racial tensions and economic disparities that the United States has struggled to address. Autopsy reports indicate that Brown was shot six times even as a parallel federal investigation by the FBI into civil rights violations is underway. With conflicting eyewitness accounts and allegations of bias roiling the Ferguson police department investigations, the US is seeing a replay of the Travyon Martin shooting where a neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges by a jury in 2013. Like Brown, Martin was also unarmed when he was killed. Faced with extreme anger in the African-American community, US President Barack Obama had then located the angst and the protests in the racial disparities in state and local laws and their discriminatory application to policing, drug possession and even death penalty. As is evident now, despite Obama lending his weight to the next generation of civil rights, legal and police reforms, little has changed.
Brown’s killing reveals many facets that go beyond the disproportionate response from a police officer to a potential lawbreaker. For one, the “self-defence” defence, repeatedly employed by police officers and others accused of shooting unarmed African-American men, points to the dangers of the lax gun-control laws in a racially fraught society like the US. The incident exposed how 50 out of the 53 commissioned police officers in Ferguson, a city with 70 per cent African-American population, are white. With black people accounting for 86 per cent of all traffic stops and 92 per cent of searches and arrests, it is surprising that Ferguson city leaders failed to recognise the importance of larger representation of the community in the police. But the problem goes beyond Ferguson. Statistics reveal that for similar crimes, the prison sentences for black men tend to be 20 per cent longer. Of 2.3 million Americans in jail, one million are African-Americans. A stop-and-frisk programme of the New York police that empowered police to, rather arbitrarily, stop and frisk people revealed that over 80 per cent of those frisked were black or Hispanic. Not surprisingly, 88 per cent of those stopped were not charged with any crime. If anything, this reveals a racist method of profiling that provokes affected communities to adopt a confrontationist attitude towards policing.
Incidents like the Brown killing may not be isolated events. Acquittals of police officers or others accused of killing young African-American men in the past, as happened in the Rodney King and the Travyon Martin cases, lends a climate of impunity that sanctions more such acts. The militarisation of the police force, as against the approach of community policing, is equally to blame. Rather than act as crime-fighting tools, this strategy of police officers resorting to racial profiling, brute force and highly potent weapons, merits a rethink. With growing racial tensions, both perception and statistics point to an unacceptably high degree of such tactics being used against minorities. While race was the trigger for the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 2011 London riots, the larger economic context was unemployment and lack of opportunities that led to rioters selectively targeting establishments belonging to other communities. In St. Louis County where Ferguson falls, nearly 47 per cent of black men were unemployed compared to just 16 per cent white men. Without tackling this economic disparity, racism and crime are feeding off each other.