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America’s racial tensions are on show for the world to see in Ferguson

19 August 2014

9:41 AM

19 August 2014

9:41 AM

Washington, D.C.

Week two of the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri and peace is nowhere in sight. The problems began on Saturday 9th August when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American, was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. For a week few details about the incident were made public, creating a cauldron of rumours and fury. We now know that Wilson shot Brown six times, including twice in the head. The question of why Brown was shot remains unanswered. Maybe it was in relation to the theft of a box of cigars, or maybe not. The police force has obfuscated in its responses during press conferences, leaving the people of Ferguson confused.

What caused a shooting in a small town (population 21,203) to erupt into successive evenings of violence? Race has been the main issue bubbling away throughout the unrest. Ferguson is 67 per cent black but the police force only has three black officers. In comparison, there are fifty serving officers who are white. As the Treyvon Martin shooting two years ago demonstrated, there are still underlying strains regarding race in the United States. Moments of tension like this bring them to the surface.

Unfortunately, America has been here before. Past incidents such as Rodney King in Los Angeles, Amadou Diallo in New York and Oscar Grant in California all have similarities to the death of Michael Brown. As with many other cases, Brown was shot by a white police officer — rekindling tensions between the black community and the police. Then the police bungled their response. For days, the lack of answers from the department allowed conjecture to build up. And when the police did get involved, they mismanaged the situation by playing a heavy hand.

The lack of clarity over what happened appears to have been a key source of anger but the tensions have been stoked further by the highly militarized police presence. When we think of a militarized police in Britain, guns, batons and body armour come to mind. In America, a militarised police presence means ex-Pentagon military-grade equipment doled out to local police forces.

Humvees, the 4x4s with mounted machine guns used in the Gulf War invasion, are owned by the Ferguson police force, along with mine resistant armoured vehicles, sniper rifles and tones of tear gas and rubber bullets. Although it might seem hyperbolic to liken the nightly clashes to a war zone, at times the pictures suggest otherwise.

The continually abrasive attitude of police has not helped matters. On Wednesday night, two journalists were arrested in a branch of McDonald’s for disobeying police orders while charging their phones. Wesley Lowery, a reporter from the Washington Post, was arrested and released without explanation. In his own words, he explains the arrest and his experiences of reporting in Ferguson:

On Sunday evening, a van of journalists was driving around Ferguson, live streaming the proceedings to 40,000 viewers, including myself, ahead of the midnight curfew. Out of the blue, an officer charged towards the van (behind police lines) and yelled “get the f**k out of here or I’ll shoot you’. Watch for yourself:

And last night, the police broke their agreement not to arrest any more journalists by throwing Getty Images photographer Scott Olsen into the back of a van.

The authorities have tried several approaches to calm the situation. After the deployment of mountains of gear and testosterone had failed on Thursday, the state’s governor Jay Nixon announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would take control. Captain Ron Johnson promised to ‘step back a little’ and even led a peaceful march through the city. Hopes of a reprieve were rapidly dashed as violence erupted again on Friday. The tear gas was brought out and Nixon announced a midnight curfew, effective Saturday. The curfew was extended to Sunday and the violence continued. After all these efforts failed, the National Guard was called in to patrol the streets. Still, the unrest has continued. The FBI is also on the scene, with more than 40 agents roaming the streets to collect information for their investigation.

To English observers, the whole affair is eerily familiar. There are similarities between the situation in Missouri and the 2011 London riots. Both featured a black male shot by the police – although the Met Police did not release any details of Duggan’s shooter. Both saw vigils and peaceful marches morph into looting and rioting. Both saw opportunistic criminals arrive on the scene to cause trouble. But the key difference was that in Britain, a strong police presence quelled the violence. In Ferguson, more law enforcement agents seemed to ignite the tinderbox. At the time of writing, there is no end in sight.

In a press conference at the White House on Monday, President Obama expressed his sadness at the situation and promised to send Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson to examine the situation. Obama himself will not be heading to Missouri; this afternoon he flies back to Martha’s Vineyard to resume his holiday. The president urged the American people to ‘seek some understanding rather than to simply holler at each other. Let’s seek to heal than to wound’. He concluded ‘we’ve got to use this moment to seek our humanity.’

Obama knows the world is watching Ferguson; it is no longer a state or nation-wide concern. The first Africa American President the United States knows he will be judged over the handling of the crisis. On race relation, he acknowledged ‘we’ve made extraordinary progress but we have not made enough progress’.

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