Code Switch
3:40 pm
Sat August 16, 2014

Code Switch Roundup: On Race, Policing And Ferguson

Originally published on Sun August 17, 2014 7:33 am

Over the past week, much of the nation's attention has been trained on the town of Ferguson, Mo., following an incident there in which a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. Like similar stories, the Michael Brown shooting has become a flashpoint for conversations about race and policing, and there have been heated, chaotic showdowns between the police there and protesters.

Here's some of what's been written about the shooting and the reaction to it in the week since.

FERGUSON AT A GLANCE

Ferguson, Mo., (pop. 21,000) is a mostly black town, although that's a fairly recent development. The dramatic racial shift happened over the past few decades: The city was 85 percent white in 1980, but by 2010, after many white families moved to other suburbs, the town was about two-thirds African-American. Most of St. Louis County, where Ferguson is situated, is white.

But Ferguson's current demographics aren't reflected in its political and civic leadership. The mayor is white, as are five of the six City Council members and all but one member of Ferguson's school board.

Jordan Weissman of Slate reported that the contrast between the public and the political class is due to socioeconomics.

"The issue boils down to who votes. Ferguson is roughly two-thirds black, but compared with the city's whites, the community is younger, poorer (the city has a 22 percent poverty rate overall), and, as the New York Times recently wrote, somewhat transient, prone to moving 'from apartment to apartment.' All of these factors make black residents less likely to go to the polls, especially in low-turnout municipal elections. And so whites dominate politically. 'The entire mobilization side of it is what accounts for the difference,' Kimball said."

Whites also dominate the town's law enforcement. Several outlets have reported that the town's 53-member police force has only three black officers. In 2013, Ferguson authorities came under scrutiny from the state attorney general because of allegations that it racially profiles its black residents; approximately 9 in 10 people stopped by town police are African-American.

USA Today reports that the crime rate has significantly declined in Ferguson in recent years, while the New York Times reports that crime there is much lower than in one of its neighboring communities.

ON THE GROUND

Starting last Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in Ferguson, demanding that the police release information about the shooting. Some incidents of looting were reported early in the protests, and the police came out in full force. (There was some looting on Friday night, as well, but protesters intervened to block looters from stores.) Authorities imposed a curfew — which many people flouted — with the stated aim of stemming the disorder.

Earlier this week, Slate's Jamelle Bouie, reporting from Ferguson, wrote that the heavy police presence was ratcheting up tensions on both sides.

"With the arrival of SWAT teams, the demonstration escalated into a standoff. And an hour after the teams' arrival, they began marching down the street and shouting orders. 'You must return to your vehicles, or your homes, in a peaceful manner,' they said, advancing down the street, 'Your right to assembly is not being denied.' ...

"When I returned to the standoff, an hour after SWAT teams arrived, streets were completely blocked off, helicopters were circling, and officers were pouring tear gas onto West Florissant and the surrounding neighborhood, launching flash bangs, shooting rubber bullets, and using noise-based weapons to force people inside."

It wasn't clear who was responsible for firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters earlier this week, since there were at least four different law enforcement agencies on the ground.

Many journalists covering the story compared Ferguson to a war zone, an impression underscored by photos of snipers and armored personnel carriers. Some military veterans were also surprised by the equipment available to Ferguson's police. "We went through some pretty bad areas of Afghanistan, but we didn't wear that much gear," one former security official for the State Department told the Washington Post.

For some, the scenes raised alarms about whether military hardware has become too accessible to civilian law enforcement. Counties and towns across the country have been buying up body armor, armored vehicles, grenade launchers and assault rifles since 9/11, initially in response to concerns about terrorism. That process has been facilitated by federal grants that help authorities procure such equipment with few restrictions and little training on its use. Annie Lowrey at New York magazine says that the use of the heavy-duty equipment at a time when crime is falling nationally means it's being deployed to crack down on minor crimes like "barbering without a license." (The NYT has a helpful infographic about the spread of this kind of equipment among law enforcement agencies across the country.)

Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, voiced concerns about what he saw as the militarization of police departments in an op-ed for TIME.

"Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement. ...

"When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury — national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture — we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

RECONSIDERING THE ROLE OF THE POLICE

This story reminds many Americans of other recent cases, including the death of Eric Garner in New York, in which an unarmed black man dies in an encounter with the police.

And just like those cases, Brown's death seems to invite a series of all-too-familiar questions: Was Brown a thug? Was Darren Wilson a racist? And, of course: What about black-on-black crime? Why isn't anyone ever upset about that?

Journalist Monica Potts was once an investigator who probed police misconduct complaints in New York. She wrote for Code Switch earlier this week that these questions undercut a more necessary and serious conversation about the limits and risks of zero-tolerance policing.

"Is there anything else we can and should do to stop jaywalkers? The Garner video also starts out minor, but after he pulls his hands back away from the officers who are trying to handcuff him, it escalates quickly, with a swarm of officers and a chokehold that turns out to be deadly. Why was it so important to arrest him in the first place? Adding police officers to any situation is going to increase the likelihood of violence, and there's nothing we can do to change that except reconsider the conditions under which we add police. That's because, in any situation, we've given police officers extraordinary powers and wide latitude to 'stop criminals,' without spending a lot of time considering what we mean by 'criminals,' and how far we're willing to go to stop them. ...

"Perhaps, rather than investigating the actions of any one officer, it's time to rethink what lengths we as a society will go to in the name of law and order."

The skepticism has cut across ideological lines. At the National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke argued that raising concern over black-on-black crime in the wake of the Brown shooting collapses two very different problems together, and runs the risk of trivializing state-authorized violence.

"The problems of black-on-black crime and the alleged miscarriage of justice in Ferguson are discrete issues per se. But they are philosophically separate, too. It remains the case that a life is a life, and a murder is a murder — after a point, one doesn't grieve more acutely if one's family is taken on purpose. Nevertheless, police shootings will always play a trickier role in society because, by definition, they are carried out under the imprimatur of the state. Even if the United States did not boast a history in which blacks were routinely disfavored, beaten, and even murdered by the governments that were ostensibly established to protect them, there would still be something distinct about being killed or hurt by a man in uniform. No, you are no less dead if your neighbor murders you. But you do enjoy a different relationship with him — and it matters. As a rule, your neighbor does not exist to protect you; he is not paid by the whole of the citizenry; he does not claim to act in your name, or to treat everybody equally. And, if he commits an illegal act, he will be charged by authorities and he will face a jury of his peers that will first pronounce upon his guilt and then decide upon his punishment. He, in other words, is subject to rules that are designed to help you if he steps out of line; the state, by contrast, has very little above it."

I dropped by NPR's Morning Edition on Friday to speak with my colleague David Greene about one of the reasons it's so hard to talk about stories like this. Namely: When you come from a place where the police are a helpful and relatively rare presence, it's hard to think about the police through the prism through the very different frame of someone from a community that's constantly under police surveillance. It's easy to assume that being questioned by the police means that someone's up to no good and not just a normal occurrence in their neighborhood. (Some data points here: Close to 90 percent of the 684,000 police stops under New York's old stop-and-frisk program in 2011 were of blacks and Latinos; check out this New York Times story about life in a Brooklyn neighborhood where everyone was likely to be stopped by the police at some point.)

All that contact introduces lots of potential disruption to people's lives, delaying them from work or home for minutes or, if they're taken into custody for a minor violation, possibly even days — to say nothing about the potential use of force by officers.

In a provocative piece at Slate, Emily Bazelon wrote that these consequences have led her to avoid calling the police for small problems. She highlighted the case of Debra Harrell, the black single mom who was arrested after she left her 9-year-old daughter to play in the park while she went to work at McDonald's. That woman was subsequently fired from her job at the fast-food chain, where she worked for five years, and her daughter was temporarily placed in foster care. (The case got a lot of attention, and Harrell has since gotten her job and daughter back.)

"This is the sharp edge of my explanation for why as a white person, if I have a choice about whether to involve the police in the life of a black person, I will try to choose not to. I'm not saying that I won't call 911 and pray as hard as I can for the police to come if someone, whatever race, breaks in to my house. But much of the time, our choices are made in a far hazier gray area. To go back to the story of Debra Harrell and her daughter, who wound up respectively, getting arrested and going into foster care: If I saw a 9-year-old black girl alone in the park, and she said her mom was at work, I would not call the police. I would ask that girl if she was OK and try to talk to her mom. Because, once the wheels of the bureaucratic state start to turn, they can grind people up."

David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York, said that many communities subjected to this kind of policing often become further marginalized. "What I've been seeing for decades now are communities who feel so completely alienated from their country and their government that they do not organize," he said on Morning Edition. "They don't march. They don't pull out their cellphones; they just withdraw. And that is the mark of a community that does not feel any longer like they are part of America. They don't feel like citizens."

The outcry in Ferguson over the past week, he said, underscores just how invested the citizens there are in mending the social fabric of their town.

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