The fatal shooting of a black teenager by the police is an old tale, archetypal in its power to tap into a trauma never far beneath the surface of black American life.
The latest version of this old wound opened up at high noon last Saturday in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. While most of St Louis County is white, Ferguson, a town of 21,000, is predominantly black (“relatively stable, working – a middle-income community,” according to crimes and trends expert Richard Rosenfeld, a professor at the University of Missouri-St Louis).
Black people were once a minority there but the demographics have shifted in the past decade as white families moved further away – “white flight”. Ferguson’s leadership and police have remained predominantly white. Out of 53 police officers, three are black. And while blacks make up 63 per cent of the city’s population, they account for 86 per cent of traffic stops.
The details of Michael Brown’s death are in dispute. Witnesses say that he and a friend were walking home when they were stopped by a police officer for walking in the middle of the street; that the teenager’s hands were in the air when the last of several shots were fired. The police say he was shot during a fight over the officer’s gun. The following day, the St Louis County Police said Michael was unarmed but that he physically assaulted one of the police and during the struggle the teenager reached for the officer’s gun.
And so the archetype, the old tale, plays out. Michael’s parents demand justice; a candlelit vigil erupts into violence; the FBI opens a civil rights inquiry into the shooting; St Louis County Police begins an investigation; the President calls for calm; a moment of silence is held all over America with (predominately young) people, transcending race and class, city and suburb, all in this moment standing in silence with their hands up behind signs that read: “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”
And there is the oldest, most poignant part of this tale: a black mother, this time Michael Brown’s mother, recounting her version of “black male life is cheap”. She said to the local TV station KMOV: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway. They say: ‘They’re going to try to take me out anyway’.”
In pictures: Michael Brown shooting nationwide protests
In pictures: Michael Brown shooting nationwide protests
1/10 Ferguson, Missouri
Protesters ride on top of a car as they gather on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri
2/10 Ferguson, Missouri
A protester holds the banner as he joins the protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri
3/10 Ferguson, Missouri
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered state police to patrol a St Louis suburb, sidelining local police who had clashed with protesters after an unarmed black teenager was killed by an officer
4/10 Ferguson, Missouri
People demonstrate in front of a burned down Quik Trip gas station on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri
5/10 New York
Thousands of people peacefully gathered in Manhattan's Times Square and Union Square, invoking the rallying cries "hands up, don't shoot" and "I can't breathe," alluding to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson
6/10 New York
People protest in front of police officers in New York's Times Square
7/10 New York
Protesters march in New York City's Union Square. Vigils are being held across the country for people organizers say died at the hands of police brutality
8/10 Portland, Oregon
People take turns speaking in Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon during a vigil for Michael Brown
9/10 Los Angeles, California
A protester holds a sign that reads 'Black Lives Matter' as she joins hundreds of demonstrators who gathered in Leimert Park in South Central Los Angeles, California
10/10 Omaha, Nebraska
With his hands raised above his head, University of Nebraska criminal justice senior Aron Sanders, of Omaha, Nebraska, kneels in front of the Nebraska State Capitol building, as he and more than 30 others students gathered for a vigil
Black men and brown men are criminalised in America from the moment they come into contact with the powers-that-be, whether they are schools, work, or other institutions. It doesn’t matter. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has said that black and Latino students in general are more likely to have less experienced and lower-paid teachers, and are more likely to be suspended from school .
Black boys and Latino boys are more likely to be accused of “attitude”. This bleeds into the criminal justice system. This “burden of bias” is borne by the victim, not the perpetrator. Mothers and fathers often ask how is it possible to tell a boy to do right when there is little or no reward from the “system” and the nation that he’s a part of. And if you think that’s an overstatement, all a black boy has to do to see what might await him is look at the treatment meted out to the President of the United States .
Barack Hussein Obama was elected President twice by the people of the United States, in democratic and free elections. But there is one media outlet, one television channel which could lead you to believe that there is something wrong, something illegitimate about the man, and by extension the electorate that brought him to high office.
I’m talking about Fox News, whose campaign of hatred and vitriol began when it appeared that Mr Obama might actually become President of the United States, after his defeat of Hillary Clinton in the primaries in the summer of 2008. I watched it happen.
I stumbled on Fox News one summer in 2007 while I was setting up a new television set. At first I thought it was a spoof, a kind of Saturday Night Live during the day. There was a woman calling people on the left “retards”, as an animation of an American flag waved gently in the breeze on the lower right of the screen. As I watched closely, I realised – like Mia Farrow’s character in Rosemary’s Baby as she was being assaulted by the devil – “This is no dream! This is really happening!”
Up until the end of the President’s campaign for re-election in 2012, I watched Fox News every day, and most of its programming. I witnessed Glenn Beck’s first broadcast, and watched as the self-proclaimed “rodeo cowboy” became the rallying point for some deeply disturbing theories about the President.
The mild end of his following formed into what became the Tea Party. The wilder shores of his audience consisted of “Illuminati” conspiracy theorists, and further out than that, people who would not have been given air-time anywhere else on the planet – people who created a growing sense that the President was an “Other”; a Muslim “Manchurian Candidate” nurturing an Islamic cell right inside the White House. He was commander-in-chief of a Muslim Third Column and, by the way, he was actually born in Kenya.
Beck didn’t expostulate these things himself, but his show became an Agora for those who did. As the Obama presidency proceeded, Fox News became more comment than news. And why not? Comment is its bread and butter, its reason for existing. In the beginning, the First Lady was attacked for saying – somewhere – that white people were “downright mean”. They played that tape over and over until it dawned on them that Michelle Obama was actually quite popular.
You would have thought the killing of Osama bin Laden, America’s Public Enemy No 1, would have been given some sort of kudos from Fox. But instead, it accused the President of taking the glory away from the Seals who did the actual deed; an absurd comment to make but one that found traction with viewers.
Fox is reporting on the Michael Brown shooting, making sure that “unarmed” is on the screen whenever his name appears. But what you get in the background on continuous loop is the night the town erupted; shots of a group of largely pompous prats calling themselves the New Black Panther Party; and black folks who can assure one and all that “guns are not the problem” in relation to the growing militarisation of the police in America.
Fox News as a business isn’t about hate. It’s about money – revenue – and there’s plenty of that among its disgruntled, angry, frightened and, in some cases, very hateful audience – over-65, mainly white – who have made Fox News No 1 on cable.
Fox News is cheap to have, easy to access, and full of people like Karl Rove who, in the guise of being an “expert” (you can still find his meltdown live on TV, the night of the President’s election, on YouTube) uphold their prejudices and help the “Stop The World I Want To Get Off” generation sleep at night.
Fox News is also the go-to-station for those who see black people, Muslims, Latinos, anybody who’s not them, as the Other, the Alien Force. Only on Fox will you see time given to people who espouse views close to what is called Christian Zionism. In the guise of talking about the crisis in the Middle East, what they are actually campaigning for is the End Time, Armageddon, the Second Coming – all neatly disguised as “Comment”.
And so the ground is laid; the template set, a picture drawn of an America out of control and black people – non-white people – in general as part of the problem. If the police of Ferguson are Fox News watchers, they’d see the world around them, the growing black population, as something that needed to be controlled, contained, culled.
I worry now for my elderly uncle, my brother, my brothers-in-law, my nephews; my great-nephews. I worry for my friends. I worry about the President of the United States, rapidly ageing before our eyes. Who knows what mail he receives, what threats?
Fox News is not the fount of all evil, but it looks the other way as America’s darkness emerges. It gives that darkness succour and space. It makes the unsayable and the unspeakable – unsayable and unspeakable for the sake of sheer civility– legitimate.
It turns the First Amendment into a loaded gun, something to blow away those it does not like, those it does not want to be accepted. It is helping a great nation – a nation with the highest of aims – turn itself into a cauldron, an abyss. It has made that night in November 2008, when a young black man and his family stood on a platform and thanked the nation for the “American Dream”, into a kind of lie.
No, Fox News hasn’t created all of this. But it’s there at the feast. As the US rages, clawing at its own flesh. You can catch it all – “fair and balanced”, of course – on Fox News, broadcasting in any bus station you care to choose, on your way to that Promised Land. Free of “Them”.
Bonnie Greer is a writer and critic. Her memoir ‘Parallel Life’ is published by Arcadia Books