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Ferguson: Race, New Jim Crow and Militarisation of Police

Last week saw confrontation between a highly militarised police facing protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas on the shooting down of an 18-year black youth by the police in Ferguson, a suburb of Saint Louis, Missouri in the US. The autopsy shows that the teenager was shot 6 times, including twice in the head. From the visuals, the face-off between a largely white police officers and those demonstrating could very well be from segregation times – armed, white police with guns and dogs confronting peaceful protestors. After four days of escalating violence – largely of the police -- the State governor intervened, changing the police command from the white county police to a black officer from the state highway patrol.  This lead to a temporary lowering of tensions, but it flared up again when the police tried to character assasinate the slain youth, claiming he was earlier involved in an incident of a "robbery" of cigarettes from a store. The police admitted later that this incident had no relation to the shooting. The Missouri Governor has now stated he is calling in the National Guards, indicating a further escalation.

It is difficult for people outside the US to understand how race relations there have metamorphosed into formal “colour blindness” but in practice, criminalising black youth. Consequently, African-Americans, particularly men, are viewed with suspicion, as violent and criminals, justifying “stand-your-ground” laws and police violence. The case of Trayvon Martin, where a young unarmed African-American was shot by a local “vigilante”, as he felt "fear", a defence that the court later upheld, is an example of how the law is skewed in the US against the black community.

First the facts of the Ferguson case. Michael Brown, was shot a number of times by a white officer on the street, even after having his hands raised – that is why in the protests, people have their hands raised. His body was allowed to lie on the road for hours. While the police have not disputed that Brown was shot in the back and the front a number of times, they have argued that there was a physical scuffle before the shooting and Brown was involved in “stealing” cigarettes from a nearby shop. How this explains the execution style shooting down of Brown, as witnessed by others is difficult to understand. Not surprisingly, people have dismissed the police defence as character assassination of Brown, after his physical assassination. In any case a “theft” of $50 of cigarettes – as claimed by the police – does not justify execution. Later, the Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson admitted that the officer who shot Brown did not know that he was a robbery suspect and only wanted him to move from the road to the sidewalk.

It is difficult to understand why the killing of an African-American youth would kindle such high emotions without understanding how race still continues to be a major element in the social and political life in the US. Some stark facts first:

  • The US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners (2.3 million)

  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites

  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offences at 10 times the rate of Whites

  • African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though they are approximately one quarter of the US population

  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001; If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime

  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offence (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offence


Michelle Alexander has talked about the creation of a racial caste that are now being discriminated through new Jim Crow laws, “If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80 percent.) These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—permanently relegated by law to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.”

This is the underlying issue – a white population regards African American youth as potentially criminals;. the white police reach for their guns when confronting African American youth. The laws such as stand-your-ground law, the three strike law that puts anybody convicted even on minor offences three times to life imprisonment, the much higher rate of conviction for African Americans when compared to whites for similar offences, all of it has meant a much higher proportion of African-Americans are in jail. Even when they are released, they lose most of their civil rights, have low job prospects and are trapped in a cycle of either life-long poverty or back to crime. This is what so-called “colour blindness” seeks to do: a reworking of the old Jim Crow laws in guise of a war against crime and drugs. This is new Jim Crow, apparently colour blind, but institutionalising racial inequality.

Coupled with this covert racial war, is the militarisation of the police. People have been warning about this some time, but the brutal behaviour of the Ferguson police, equipped with of sniper rifles, armoured vehicles, made it clear what its purpose was: cow any opposition to police violence. If they appeared more as an occupying force than a civilian police force, this is what they were. They are an overwhelming white police force in a predominantly black community.

Militarisation of the police and other law enforcement agencies has been rapid in the US following the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. All this is justified in the name of a War on Terror and Homeland Security. Trillions of dollars have been spent in militarising the police even though 4 times more people have died in the US due to lightning strikes than in terrorist attacks.

Ferguson is a symptom of a deeper malaise. It is also an indication of the rightward shift in the US. Much of what the US does is replicated by the rest of the world. In India, we have the institutionalising of minority distrust in the police and the much higher number of Muslims targeted for terrorism, even in cases like Mecca Masjid where they have been the targets. It is compounded by the “training” in counter terrorism when the trainers are the US agencies, or even worse, the Israeli security agencies. With the “love” that the new government has for Israel and its handling of “terrorists”, we can expect this only to get worse. Ferguson is a warning what can happen when communities are pushed to edge. It remains to be seen, whether the US or the rest of the world that is following in the wake of the US, can learn from it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick




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