Lessons from Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri’s response to the shooting of teenager Michael Brown mirrors a similar narrative that unfolded here when three unarmed protestors were gunned down at Linden just over two years ago.

20131109for de recordWatching the footage and images emanating from Ferguson, as it reels from street demonstrations and tense standoffs between angry, but mostly non-violent protestors and heavily armed police, evokes anger and recalls those wounds from the Linden unrest.

There are conflicting stories about what happened to Michael Brown. Brown’s mother said her 18-year-old son was walking to his grandmother’s house a few homes away. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has said there was a struggle over policeman Darren Wilson’s gun after a physical confrontation with Brown that ended with his shooting. Dorian Johnson, an eyewitness who said he was with Brown when he was killed, has told authorities that the teen was fatally shot while trying to surrender. An investigation into what happened is underway, and the civil rights division of the Justice Department is monitoring the case.

It is difficult at this stage to say which account is true and the system has to be allowed to work, but there is an unpleasant truth which has emerged from all this: Michael Brown didn’t get due process.

Michael Brown was shot at least six times, including twice to the head. His tragic death registers as one of many police killings which involve young black men in the United States. Call it an extra-judicial killing, a questionable police shooting or a case of extreme use of force, what it really is can be summed up in one word: unjust.

I have publicized my views on the arbitrary use of force by police officers. No matter what crime he may have committed before the shooting, or whether he might have struggled with the officer, Michael Brown was unarmed. And like every man living in a country with laws guaranteeing protection under the law, he had a right to a presumption of innocence and due process.

As the media coverage of the crisis amplifies, the conversations also grow louder about race in America, excessive police violence, and the extreme disenfranchisement of certain communities, which are issues we can relate to. Just ask any of the residents of Albouystown or Agricola and Linden.

There are lessons to be learnt from Ferguson and hopefully many of us are tuned in to the community as its youths, who belong to America’s social underclass, are marching against systematic disenfranchisement, which includes issues of underemployment and unemployment, underfunded public schools and unequal access to justice. Also, residents who are out on the streets demonstrating and demanding justice are weary of police brutality and the use of excessive force in their communities – as they should be.

First, there is the issue of how non-violence is being used as an integrative force in Ferguson and bringing people closer together. Scores of people, young and old, are out on the streets every day protesting against the injustice they feel was meted out against Michael Brown and again, their own marginalisation. Unfortunately, it has not all been peaceful, with cases of rioting and looting being recorded.

Against the backdrop of protesters breaking into stores and fleeing with items and stand-offs with the police, the movement suffered setbacks. But it was not long before residents started building chains and blocking access to stores in defiance of those who were out to undermine their cause. For those at the forefront of the struggle, the effectiveness of the movement is dependent on the public’s perception of its legitimacy—a legitimacy which is undermined by violence.

Second, there is the issue of individual power rather than people power, which is now in the public awareness. The movement in Ferguson, as one activist said during an interview on CNN, is not only about the collective on the streets; it is really about the individuals on the street and how their actions are magnifying to mass action. There is power in every single act of civil disobedience and Ferguson is teaching us that.

And finally, there is the issue of police violence and the community’s relationship with law enforcement. “There is no relationship between the police and us…they don’t know us, they don’t respect us and we don’t trust them,” another activist said during an interview. Sounds familiar right? It’s important to realize that the people in Ferguson are angry because what happened to Michael Brown is not rare; it’s a painful everyday reality.

What is the reality here? Take a walk in Albouystown or Agricola or better yet, spend some time there and a picture emerges of how the lives and the welfare of some citizens are not valued at all. To be more precise, the disease of extreme police violence only affects certain communities.

One of the young women on the streets in Ferguson, during a CNN interview, pointed to the need for less policing and a rethinking of what contributes to community safety. She reasoned whether more police on the streets made people safe instead of a community centre and well-funded schools. In addition to the lack of funding for schools in the community, she also referred to the lack of access to social programmes, which is in effect the perpetration of other forms of violence– social, political and economic violence.

With the exception of Linden and a few activists, we have allowed members of the Guyana Police Force to walk into our communities–mostly the poor and disenfranchised ones–and use their weapons to play Russian Roulette on a teenage boy before shooting him in the mouth.

Remember Alex Griffith or has he been forgotten as we move into the now familiar “summer” cycle of fetes and sporting events that manage to trigger our collective outrage because some final did not happen to go the way we wanted?

If only the Alex Griffith shooting and before this, the Linden shootings and Shaquille Grant’s murder had sparked the kind of conversations we ought to be having about the criminalisation of black youth and the disregard for our right to engage in civil acts of disobedience.

There’s so much distrust in our communities between the police and residents, especially the youth. The police force, as an instrument of the state, represents the state but regrettably the administration hardly pays attention to issues of police brutality and the mistreatment regularly leveled against the police. The fair and decent treatment which we deserve from the police is not an agenda item for the state based on the responses to illegal police behaviour. And how we are treated by the police is important to the value they place on our lives.

The people of Ferguson are taking a stand and have shown that there is real power in organising non-violently to communicate disgust with violent policing, economic marginalisation, and the culture of racial profiling and the stereotyping of black youth as thugs and criminals. Perhaps we can shift focus this August and start talking about how individual power is positively impacting on the movement in Ferguson and what we can learn from their struggles.

Have a question or comment? Connect with Iana Seales at about.me/iseales

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