Ferguson shows that America has a long way to go…

I asked this question in another post a couple of weeks ago; “When did America become so mean?”

The answer, of course, is a bit complicated. That article mostly dealt with immigration, and discussed why we seem to have such a difficult time welcoming people into the country. As many pointed out, Americans never have been particularly welcoming of immigrants, at least once they were here. They have a bit of a point. We, as Americans, as individuals, have always had something of a love-hate relationship with the people who come here from other countries. However, as a country, we didn’t stop people from coming here and ship them back when they did so, because we decided having them here was inconvenient. Of course, if you think about it, the vast majority of immigrants who came here in the past tended to be white. There were some Asians and, of course, some Hispanics, but the vast majority of people who came here back when we were welcoming people to Ellis Island and other ports were European.

What is it about darker skin that makes so many white people crazy? What’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, reminds me of two of the major problems that Americans face, and have faced for our entire existence. The most obvious is the problem of race relations. I know there a many right-leaning people out there who think racism is over, but it obviously isn’t. It wasn’t over before Ferguson, and it won’t be over anytime soon, even if we solve the problems of Ferguson. Until we learn that we are all human beings and to embrace differences rather than attack them, we will always have this problem.

And let’s be clear; I am not talking about creating a colorblind society.

A colorblind society is much like a unicorn that farts glitter, in that such a thing does not exist and will never exist. We need to get real; it’s not possible to just ignore everything that’s happened in the past 400 years and start over. If you don’t believe me, look at the Middle East. The current problems happening in those countries right now are the direct result of a series of events that go back centuries, up to and including Western imperialism. Here in the United States, the first slaves were brought here and sold in 1619, and slavery existed until it was forced out of existence in the 1860s. However, a de facto slavery continued under the law until the 1960s. That’s about 350 years in which the law was not equal, and black people were essentially treated as a separate social order. They were kept out of the “normal” areas of society and were essentially forced to develop their own culture, traditions and customs. Now, they get shit from white people because they operate differently.

What is happening in Ferguson is inexcusable on a number of levels. We do not live in the same society that used to put up with the legal segregation that was the norm before 1964. If we are going to say that all people are equal, but we do nothing to make sure everyone is equal, then we are pure hypocrites. Look at the details behind the Ferguson situation with regard to racism first.

The circumstances surrounding Michael Brown’s killing are still in question, except for one thing. A Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed the unarmed black man for what can only be called one of a number of ridiculous reasons. Ofc. Wilson first stopped Brown for walking in the middle of the street. Seriously, he was walking in the middle of the street and he was shot to death by a man who swore an oath to protect him. All of the circumstances surrounding the shooting are suspicious at best. It is not possible under any scenario that has been presented so far to justify that homicide. Wilson shot Michael Brown at least 8 times, including at least four shots to the neck and head. For walking in the street.


Above is a drawing from a private autopsy that was requested by Brown’s family. Six of the bullet holes are crystal clear. Under what circumstances should it be okay for a police officer to shoot an unarmed man six times at least? It should never be okay. And yet, it happens all too often, with most of the victims of these shootings being black.

The Ferguson Police Department waited several days before finally naming the police officer who shot Brown, and when they did, they released a series of videos and photos that purport to “prove” that Brown was somehow robbing the convenience store he was coming from. There’s just one problem. Actually, that’s not true; there were two problems. One problem was that Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson said during a press conference that Ofc. Wilson was not aware that Brown might be a suspect in the robbery at the time he shot the unarmed man.

The other problem? Well, it seems that there wasn’t really a robbery at the convenience store, after all. When confronted, Ferguson police claimed he left the store with cigars, which is not a robbery. At worst, it’s a misdemeanor case of shoplifting, which most certainly does not qualify anyone to be shot six times. But no one at the convenience store had bothered to call police about the alleged robbery anyway. Surveillance video shows that Brown tried to buy more than he had money for, which brought the store’s owner out to have a discussion with him, and that seems to have led to Brown shoving the store owner. Again, not a robbery. here is the video:

There is absolutely no justification for Michael Brown being shot to death. There is no justification for anyone being shot in such a situation. Ferguson city officials should have seen something coming, however. Ferguson is a town with a population of 21,000, that is currently 63% black. It is also a working middle-class community without a lot of crime, which defies the stereotype. The level of violence found in Ferguson is actually no higher than that found in much of the rest of St. Louis County, and is in fact lower than several other counties surrounding it. Yet, while blacks make up 63% of the county’s residents, they make up 86% of its traffic stops and a whopping 92% of all arrests in Ferguson.

One reason for that may be the makeup of the Ferguson Police Department itself. The department has 53 commissioned police officers, of which three are black. It became so largely due to nepotism and cronyism. Many of these officers got their jobs because other white people help them get hired. Apparently, at no time did the extremely white Ferguson Police Department decide that it was important to either hire more black police officers, to mirror the makeup of the community, or to train their police officers to be more sensitive to the community as it was changing around them. There is simply no excuse for a town with a 63% black population to maintain a police force that is only 6% black, at best. Once again, colorblind is ideal; it is not reality.

We do have a problem with race in this country. There is absolutely no doubt of that. We are not post-racial, and we won’t be until we stop treating others differently because they have darker skin than we do. And no, the problem is not “the blacks.” While it is possible for black people to be bigoted, under no definition of the term racism can a black person possibly be racist. The problem is white people, and our stubborn refusal to accept the reality that 400 years of different treatment continues to make black people into second-class citizens. If Michael Brown was a white man, and he was getting ready to go to college the next week, he would not have been shot. And yes, that is a declarative sentence.

If Michael Brown was white, coming back from the convenience store and walking in the middle of the street, the most Ofc. Wilson would have said to him was to get out of the street. That is a fact of life in the America in which we live right now. It does no one any good whatsoever to pretend that is not the case. I’m not asking anyone to be colorblind, I’m asking that white people understand that we live in a society that has racism in its DNA, and will not change until all of us acknowledge the problem and deal with it. I hate to sound like Dr. Phil, but society can’t change what it won’t acknowledge. We have to acknowledge that our system is racist, and we have to change it.

Just as important as the racism in this situation is our police problem. We have a serious problem when it comes to dealing with law enforcement in this country. They are supposed to keep us safe; that’s the job that they applied for. Most police officers are good, decent people who just want to help. The problem is, their definition of “helping” is often too militant these days, and really needs to change on several levels.

First of all, I understand why police feel like they have to be armed to the teeth when they go out and patrol the cities and towns of this country. In their minds, their soldiers in some sort of war, and need to protect themselves so that they can come home to their families, the same way we do. And that’s not too much to ask. What that means is, we have to do more to protect them, which means we need to enact comprehensive gun control in this country, to make it harder for really bad guys to lay siege to our inner cities and some other areas. Lest you think the problem is all in big cities, consider the fact that the states with the highest violent crime rates in the country are generally red, not blue.

That said, police officers are not soldiers, and our cities are not war zones. One reason they seem like war zones at times is because we lack any sort of meaningful gun control, and people who have no business being armed are shooting our citizens far too often, and often with impunity. But they are not war zones. They are cities, mostly full of people who are just trying to live their lives — to go to work every day, and come home to their families every evening. They don’t deserve to be shot by gangbangers, but they sure as hell don’t deserve to be shot by police, without a clear indication that their lives are in imminent danger.

One of the most telling things you will see when you look at photos of the Ferguson Missouri situation is that Ferguson police, who were supposedly trained at some point, walk through town wearing camouflage and helmets and with their guns pointed forward, is if they intend to shoot anyone who comes near them. If this was a war zone — and it most certainly is not — their soldiering skills would be questionable at best. One of the first things soldiers are taught is that you don’t point your gun at anything without the intention of shooting it. Police officers should not be walking through any town with the intention of shooting its citizens, no matter what they have done.

Should they arrest looters? Of course they should. And if those looters come after them, and serve as a threat to them, at that point they should be able to shoot to protect their own lives. But that should be limited to protecting their own lives.

What is with this cheapening of human life these days? Under no circumstances should anyone be shot to death for stealing property. Lethal force should only be used on those people who are an imminent threat to lives, not property. That is an equation that we all need to adopt, and that we should require from those who claim to be enforcing our laws. This is the problem with “stand your ground” laws. We all have a duty to preserve life wherever possible. That should be a mandate for any human. We seem to support the rights to free speech, free religion and healthcare to a much greater degree than we support the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And at its heart, that is why we give police way too much power.

Police need to understand that they work for us, not the other way around. They serve us, not the other way around. They protect us, and that means all of us, including those who they believe may have committed a crime. Everyone they arrest is presumed innocent until there is a trial and they are convicted. And even then, they are entitled to be imprisoned, not shot. Police also need to understand that lethal force is a last resort, and certainly not a first response.

We entrust police with a very solemn responsibility, and we need to enforce that responsibility, because to not enforce that responsibility kills people, especially black and brown people. If a police officer cannot be trusted with the responsibility, he or she should not have that job. Other police officers should not rally to his or her defense when they do something against their oath. There are plenty of people who want to be police officers for the right reasons, and if we enact reasonable gun control, and that results in protecting police officers to an even greater degree, there will be even more.

One last thing. Police departments are not military, and should not be equipped as if they are. The Department of Defense should be handling terrorism, not local police. If there is a viable threat, local officials should be calling in the military, not depend on local police officers to handle such a thing. Such threats are the reason for the National Guard, which is handled by state governors.

For police to be effective at protecting local citizens, it is neither necessary nor advisable to arm them as if they’re a military operation. They should be demilitarized immediately. Once again, cities and towns inside the US are not war zones, and to treat them as if they are is probably one of the reasons police departments are so incredibly ineffective at fighting crime these days. The militarization of police is the number one reason why situations like those in Ferguson happen. It’s the reason why George Zimmerman almost got away without even being arrested after shooting Trayvon Martin; police are under the impression that they are only there to protect good people from bad people, and they’re not. Police are there to protect everyone, not just the people they’ve determined to be “good guys.”

We can’t solve the racism problem in a short period of time. It will take years to change hearts and minds to the point where the races are actually equal. Law enforcement absolutely must change its ways, which means we have to change the way we all look at law enforcement.

The United States is not a war zone and police officers are not soldiers.

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