Michael Brown and the Contradictions of Justice in America
The six bullets fired by Ferguson police office Darren Wilson did more than terminate Michael Brown’s life with extreme prejudice. Brown’s death and its repercussions once more demonstrate the persistence of racial injustice and the contradictions inherent in how local, state, and national authorities pursue their blinkered sense of justice.
At the local level the outrageous and arrogant behavior of the overwhelmingly white Ferguson police force and political establishment towards African-Americans is not just an egregious example of the continuing rule of white supremacy in the suburbs of St. Louis. It is reflective of institutional and ideological patterns that inform cities and suburbs across the United States, especially when it comes to meting out “justice” to Black and Brown youth. Whether through the operation of racial profiling in the criminal justice system or extrajudicial killings of people of color by police or white vigilantes, punitive measures disproportionately target minority communities.
As clinical professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, Craig Futterman notes: “For all too many people out there, when people think of the words ‘criminal’, ‘drug dealer’ or ‘gangbanger’, images of Black and Brown folks come to mind and that’s equal with respect to police.” Indeed, as Futterman’s research shows concerning police perceptions of young Black and Brown men, they see those young men as a “potential criminal or a potential danger, and that also makes that police officer far more likely to fee threatened and far more likely to shoot.”
While the exact sequence of events that led to the killing of Michael Brown is still in dispute, what is indisputable, based on the independent autopsy report by Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner of New York City, is that Brown was a defenseless victim of police violence. Instead of immediately arresting Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police department put him on paid leave. Even now these same police and political forces are selectively releasing information about Brown intended to cast aspersions on his innocence, as if any such information could justify his extrajudicial murder.
According to Brigitt Keller, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, “excessive force by police…is getting worse.” She identifies possible causes as the militarization of the police, ongoing police impunity, and an exaggerated sense of what police confront, no doubt reinforced by the spread of Homeland Security horror stories. Yet, there remains a deep racial divide when it comes to assessing the inequities of police violence. A recent Pew Research poll reported that 80% of blacks thought Michael Brown’s death raised “important issues about race that need to be addressed” against only 37% of whites who agreed with that sentiment.
This divide is nothing new when it comes to how justice has been meted out to people of color, those in the lower classes, and anyone deemed “dangerous” to the law and order of the land. It was just over fifty years ago that white supremacist vigilantes aided by local police murdered civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. For many whites in Mississippi these civil rights workers had it coming to them since they were disturbing the “peace” of a racially sanctioned order. In turn, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who challenged that so-called peace by demanding justice.
Now fifty years later those in Ferguson seeking justice confront local and state police forces that curtail their civil rights and threaten them with violence. When unarmed demonstrators marched to the command center in Ferguson on the evening of August 17th they were met with tear gas and armored vehicles. Seeking to charge the demonstrators with provoking the violence, the police authorities made unsubstantiated claims about the use of Molotov cocktails and small arms fire. Not unlike what happened fifty years ago in the Gulf of Tonkin when the Johnson Administration lied about North Vietnamese attacks in order to justify its own escalating aggression, the authorities will fabricate incidents to rationalize their violence.
Although state and federal authorities are deploying a variety of changing strategies and tactics to calm the situation in Ferguson, they either dither at the expense of justice or demonstrate their own hypocrisy when it comes to sanctioning extrajudicial killings. While President Obama drones on about our “shared humanity,” his drones assassinate victims throughout the Middle East. Even more hypocritical is the intervention of Attorney General Eric Holder who before his government role was a lead attorney in defending Chiquita against charges that their funneling money through a subsidiary to right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia had led to the murder of labor and political opponents of banana estate authoritarianism.
Whether in the past or the present, the primary directive of the power elite tends towards retaining and legitimatizing its rule. Achieving justice, whether in Ferguson, Missouri or any other place in the US or around the globe, relies on the will of the people in confronting those in power with more than the slogan of “No justice, No peace.” Disturbing the peace of those who perpetuate injustice is the imperative of all those who seek inclusive justice.
Fran Shor is a teacher and political activist in Michigan.