Millennium Post

Shoot as you go

Events in the past few months have sullied America’s standing as the bastion of democracy. The Senate  Intelligence Committee’s damaging report on the torture techniques of the Central Intelligence Agency post 9/11 and the series of racially charged murders against three African-American men perpetrated by white police officers have raised serious questions about the phrase that is often used to describe the  United States, ‘the land of the free and home of the brave’. The following article shall examine the latter and the consequent fallout it had on key questions of government policy surrounding race relations.

In the wake of the Ferguson grand jury’s failure to indict a white police officer, for killing Michael Brown,  an African-American teenager, the nation stood witness to mass protests across the United States against an age-old mode of racial discrimination. Following those protests, President Barack Obama met  with a group of civil rights activists and told them that there was a need to initiate a “sustained conversation” that address the “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and many communities of colour”. Only two days had past, following the meeting between President  Obama and civil rights activists, when a grand jury in New York failed to indict the white police officer,  whose chokehold killed another African American, Eric Garner, despite the fact that numerous  bystanders had recorded the entire incident on their phones. The video, subsequently, went viral on the  internet. “We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the  accountability,” President Obama said, following the incident.

In a column for The Guardian, Vincent Warren, the executive director of the Centre for Constitutional  Rights and a prominent civil rights activist says that African American and other racial minorities in America are not dying due to a mutual distrust they share with law enforcement agencies. “To suggest  so simply, and perhaps deliberately, mistakes the symptom for the disease,” he said. “Trust, or lack thereof, is based on lived experience, and it is the actions of law enforcement in communities of color  that has eroded black and brown Americans’ trust. To present the situation as mutual distrust not only  obscures the specific causes of that distrust – it intimates that everyone is equally responsible for the  problem.” Clearly a “sustained conversation” is not going to cut it anymore.

In America, it has become common knowledge that police officers are rarely held accountable for killing unarmed racial minorities, especially Blacks and Hispanics. Various studies have shown that police officers disproportionately stop Blacks and Hispanic, usually without cause and with greater use of force. Watching the reactions of African Americans on the internet to the grand jury’s decision not to indict  Officer Darren Wilson for the Ferguson shooting, it was clear that nobody was surprised.

Speaking to a reporter from VICE News in front of the Ferguson Police Department building before the grand jury’s  announcement, an unnamed African American youth goes on camera and says, “The verdict is that he’s (Officer Wilson) not going to be indicted. I already know that.” It is rather clear that racial minorities, especially those on the lower end of the income scale, have lost faith in the American justice system,  which repeatedly tells them that their lives do not matter.

Addressing the central concerns
However, even if the grand juries in Ferguson or New York City had indicted the white police officers, it  would not have addressed the central concerns of structural and institutional racism that continues to  dog law enforcement agencies. It is such forms of racism that leads to the use of deadly violence against black or Hispanic males. Though it is imperative to hold white police officers accountable for the murder of  people from racial minorities, a stronger attempt must be made to address the way police officers are  trained to view economically-poor communities of colour as war zones or occupied territories. Wilson’s testimony, in this regard, was rather telling, when he told jurors that Michael Brown’s neighbourhood  was a “hostile environment” and that he belonged to a community that isn’t “very well-liked”. 

Attempts have been made in the past to address these concerns, through reform ideas like the End  Racial Profiling Act or the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (considering the increased use of  military-grade armoury in police departments across American cities). However, such attempts at  legislation that seeks to address the underlying structural changes required to change attitudes of law  enforcement agencies, have hit a roadblock. With nowhere to turn, angry African Americans have resorted to the tried and tested method of protest action that had served them well during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Although there were instances of violence and outright rioting during  these protests, demonstrators have been largely peaceful. Hundreds civil disobedience actions that include shutdowns of bridges and highways, street ‘die-ins’ and walkouts have forced the American  establishment to sit up and take notice. “Riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King once said.

The way forward
The Ferguson Action group, a national coalition of activist groups from affected communities, has set  out a list of police reforms required to address these concerns. Besides a definitive list of administrative  reforms, the group listed out the need for a public database of police killings. One way of gathering such data has been the call for use of body cameras on police officers, something that President Obama had also suggested. Nationwide studies done on a pilot basis have shown that there is a dramatic drop in  police abuses when officers are wearing body-cameras. However, the mere collection of data isn’t  enough. Questions surrounding who and how one uses that data, ease of access, and ways in which  these numbers are used, do need to be answered. A thorough answer of these questions will go a long way towards establishing greater accountability and transparency and prevent further violations of civil  liberties. More importantly, however, such steps will augment the process of building  trust between racial minorities and law enforcement agencies, primarily dominated by whites. Key to all such reform measure, however, must be the inclusion of affected communities, particularly young  men from various racial minorities, in discussions surrounding the police reform process.

Black skin, white guns

Michael Brown

The shooting of Michael Brown occurred on 9 August, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white Ferguson police officer. The disputed circumstances of the shooting resulted in mass protests and civil unrest. Longstanding racial tensions between the majority-black population and the majority-white city police had come to the fore.

Eric Garner

On 17 July, 2014, Eric Garner died in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island, New York, after a police officer put him in what many view as a chokehold for about 19 seconds. The use of chokeholds is a violation of New York City Police Department policy. Garner was initially approached by the police officer on suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps.

Tamir rice
The shooting of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old African American boy, occurred on 22 November, 2014, in Cleveland, Ohio. One of the two police officers, 26-year-old Timothy Loehmann and 46-year-old Frank Garmback fired two shots, fatally hitting Rice once in the torso. The officers later found that the gun in Rice’s possession was an airsoft gun, that can shoot non-lethal plastic, ceramic, or metallic pellets.

Key inputs from The Guardian, Washington Post, VICE News, The New York Times, The New Yorker and Huffington Post
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