What Ferguson Means for America

In preparation for this piece I spent the better half of Wednesday evening scouring through the thousands of pages of court documents and hundreds of articles online. As I read through eyewitness testimonies and forensic evidence, compiling the information to make the case against Daren Wilson, it finally occurred to me how silly this all was.

What happened that spring day in Ferguson will never be fully known. The motives of the players and the veracity of the witnesses is left in the hands of God. The discussions of those jurors behind those close doors remain a secret nine anonymous citizens will likely never reveal.

So, we have concocted our own truths. For some, this is in their pompous conviction that the case is closed. They claim ownership and exclusivity over the forensics and the “science,” manipulating it at their will to quash the silly, emotional others. Those others retaliate with the venomous R word, the universalistic hashtags, and the claim to being on the right side of history.

The pompous and the passionate will continue to clash. Some will share links. Some will argue. Some will ignite buildings with flames of fury. Some will take pride, and others will mock. All will feel important.

Perhaps that is the root of our involvement. Our mental investment in Ferguson makes us feel part of a national debate. What we fail to realize, though, is how obscuring this week’s debate has been.

Daren Wilson is a free man, and Michael Brown is a dead man. We cannot change this. The Law has decided. We can complain. We can bicker. But we simply do not know the truth. The truth hardly matters.

Ferguson is more than a court case. Ferguson is more than lines of text from a massive PDF file. Ferguson is more than forensic evidence. Ferguson is more than Michael Brown.

Ferguson is a symbol of a greater and far more universal reality. It is an incident representative of a frequent occurrence. How authentic this particular White cop shooting of a Black man is irrelevant to our anger. It is, most importantly, a tool for us to latch on and revive the national conversation. It is a means to an end.

That may be harsh. It may be unnecessary to say. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. Everything about Ferguson is murky and contested. But the facts do point to one thing that remains conclusive. Fergusons, in some form or the other, happen everywhere.

The shooting of unarmed Black men has a deep history. In July and August 2014 alone, four unarmed Black men were killed by police. Their stories are just as real as Michael Brown’s. What happened in Ferguson may not be known, but in Staten Island Eric Garner’s killing is on film. That Michael Brown had more attention is not because of the brutality of the murder but the proportion of the protests; the civil disobedience in Ferguson forced the media to report what the FBI deliberately miscounts – the killing of unarmed civilians.

Police homicides are a common occurrence. In the last seven years, only 41 officers have been charged for manslaughter, out of 2718 “justified homicides”. That number – 2718 – is a gross underestimate either way, as the FBI only documents voluntary reports from police departments about the people they kill. The origin of police licenses to kill is from a Supreme Court Case from the 1990s that allows cops to kill if they find “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

The threat of death seems to be an ignored provision in the law today. This July, Eric Garner was strangled by five NYPD cops for stealing cigarettes. Tamir Rice, a Black 12 year old, was fatally wounded the day before Thanksgiving. The list continues on and on– Ezell Ford, August 2014; Jonathan Ferrell, September 2013; Kimani Gray, March 2013; Trayvon Martin, February 2012; etc. Keep in mind – these are cases that bystanders have publicized. The multitude of other police homicides are unwitnessed, undocumented, and unknown.

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AFP Photo / Scott Olson

These homicides are not isolated. They are part of a system of racism in criminal justice today. Blacks are far more likely to be maimed and killed when under arrest. Blacks are far more likely to be executed by a jury when charged for a capital crime. Even when accounting for crime rates, Blacks are far more likely to be stopped and frisked.

Many will argue that Blacks are more likely to commit crimes, and that therefore police are tactfully discriminating. But the data has well accounted for crime rates, and the sources above prove it. Many will still question the roots of our oppressive system – after all, have we not elected a Black president?

Barrack Obama is an exception example and a success story. His peers are not, and our President has forgotten them. Structural racism remains rampant. It have evolved from slavery to Jim Crow to Separate But Equal to Unjust “Desegregating” Busing Laws to Segregated Communities. These conditions of oppression are not from a vacuum.

The making of Ferguson – a majority Black town governed by majority White institutions – is well documented by the Economic Policy Institute. The use of court fees to manipulate the lives of poor Blacks in the St. Louis suburb is also quite obvious when looking at the data. The racist voting policies of the state have helped to keep those in power, well, in power.

There is the other side, of course – that Blacks need to be fiscally responsible, that Blacks need to vote more, that Blacks need to protest peacefully, etc. The demands of those benefiting from the institutional racism point to worrisome truths that the Black community needs to (and is) addressing. But that the outside world continues to echo these messages, in absence of owning up to discriminatory policies and mindsets that perpetuate this system, is nothing short of victim blaming. Dr. King put it best a half century ago:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society… I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. — Martin Luther King Jr.

The protests and riots of Ferguson bring to the media what even killing could not do. The actions by those brave men and women are reviving a conversation that needs to be heard. Ferguson is one of hundreds of cases. Ferguson is a symbol of a vast system. Ferguson is a battle hymn for the oppressed.

Nitpicking Ferguson as a way to discredit it only blurs the larger situation of racism in America. The conditions of our society today are well-documented; whether we choose to recognize them is a personal choice. But, to those who remain insistent that Ferguson is blown out of proportion, know this: the call for justice will continue irrespective of an anonymous nine. Our frustration will not cease because of this detail or that detail. Our anger will only grow, because Ferguson is more than a court case.

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