The precise facts surrounding the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black student shot and killed by a white police officer last Saturday afternoon in a poor suburb of the Midwestern US city of St Louis, are inevitably in dispute. But the broader lessons of the incident, which has sparked three nights of rioting and disorder, are not. The residual poison of racial segregation and discrimination has still not been purged from American society.
Only three decades ago, Ferguson, the suburb in question, was overwhelmingly white in population. Today, black people outnumber white people by almost three to one. Yet the local political and law-enforcement structure remains dominated by whites, to the point that of the suburb’s 53 police officers, only three are black. Stir in the habit of police (not only in Ferguson but in towns and cities across the US) to stop and arrest black citizens disproportionately, and throw in the pent-up resentment in the black community at this practice, and the events in Ferguson were an explosion waiting to happen.
Sadly, moreover, they are all too familiar. The arrest and beating of the black construction worker Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 led ultimately to the California city’s worst riots in half a century. Over the years, similar incidents have generated racial tension and anger, most recently the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a neighbourhood-watch guard at a gated community in Florida. The name of Michael Brown must now be added to this list.
Indubitably – and as the election of a black president testifies – the US has made great strides in the past half-century towards achieving racial equality. Less so, however, in the field of policing. The looting and vandalism that occurred in Ferguson are plainly wrong. But as Martin Luther King also observed, “a riot is the language of the unheard”.