Michael Brown shooting: One nation, still divided by race – why Ferguson was a flashpoint that could have happened anywhere in America

It is still a deeply unequal society 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed - as the unrest seen in Ferguson, Missouri, this week shows

State and national leaders scrambled today to show they are sensitive to the grievances of African-Americans in urban communities like Ferguson near St Louis, which has seen successive nights of tumult and confrontation in the wake of a shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer last weekend.

Footage of the chaos on the streets of Ferguson has dominated newscasts, yet attempts to ease tensions have faltered as local police commanders have chosen to deploy overwhelming force to repel protesters and have declined to release the identity of the officer who opened fire on 18-year-old Michael Brown, days before he was to start college.

“Many Americans have been deeply disturbed by the images we have seen,” President Barack Obama said, reiterating that he had ordered the FBI and the Justice Department to independently investigate the shooting of Mr Brown. The President broke from his holiday on Martha’s Vineyard to address the ongoing violence.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, told a meeting of residents that “you will all see a different tone” in the police response, after announcing unspecified “operational shifts” in law enforcement tactics.

 

While the exact circumstances of the shooting remain in dispute and may not be officially determined for weeks, his death has become the latest symbol of the simmering racial frustration that still infects American society, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act and six years after Mr Obama became the first black president.

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, told a meeting in Ferguson that she was seeking a “demilitarisation” of the police response to the protests. Armoured vehicles and non-lethal ammunition such as stun grenades have been deployed, turning an American suburb into what has looked like a war zone.

Video: Ferguson protests caught on camera

Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St Louis County police department, defended the use of tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse crowds on Wednesday night, which also saw the brief detention of two reporters for videotaping the events. They were released without charge.

“In talking to these guys, it is scary,” Mr Schellman said of officers on the front lines of the protest. “They hear gunshots going off, and they don’t know where they’re coming from.”

Mr Obama said there was no excuse for vandalism or unwarranted attacks against the police, but added pointedly that there was “also no excuse for police to use excessive force against citizens” engaged in legitimate protests. He also took direct aim at whoever arrested the two reporters, working for the Washington Post and the website Huffington Post. Police “should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are trying to do their jobs,” he declared.

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While Ferguson is the latest flashpoint in America’s struggle to overcome a legacy of racial tension going back to slavery, it could just as easily have been somewhere else; Los Angeles, where 24-year-old Ezell Ford, also black, was shot and killed by a police officer on Monday, or perhaps New York, where the death of Eric Garner while in custody, after an officer held him in an illegal chokehold last month, is still fuelling anger.

The grievances still felt by many African-Americans are rooted in the life experiences of many of them, particularly young men, which are also reflected in the sometimes shocking statistics. Statistics just from Ferguson are startling but by no means unique to the town, which, on the edge of downtown St Louis, became majority black after whites fled decades ago to escape rising violence and sinking schools.

Until last weekend, few beyond Ferguson will have known that only three of its 53 police officers are black, even if the community is overwhelmingly more black than white. Or that 483 blacks were arrested in town last year but only 36 whites. Or that blacks, who make up less than two thirds of the driving-age population, account for 86 per cent of all traffic stops by police.

Nationally, similar instances of unequal lives abound. Median income levels for African-Americans remain about two thirds of what they are for whites, and black unemployment is twice as high. These are disparities that are not always ignored, of course. Hence a current campaign to change sentencing rules for narcotics crimes and enable early release for drug offenders, to try to reduce madly elevated rates of incarceration for black males.

But progress can be offset by reverse steps. A campaign inside the white half of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, known as St George, to secede from the rest of the city has widely been condemned, for instance, as a barely disguised return to segregation, where whites will get the best schools and blacks will be left out. A Supreme Court ruling last year gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act has also been deplored as a betrayal of the civil rights movement.

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