Officer Darren Wilson isn’t the point
The officer shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August has rallied Americans to their camps: The pro-Officer Darren Wilson vs. pro-unarmed black teenager.
In the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer, each side is now digging in their heels. It’s personal, it’s visceral and now it appears to be personality driven.
As I’ve written about before Americans have gotten really good at punishing casual racism (i.e. notables dropping the N-word and losing their social standing) but are often blind or even unwilling to accept the idea of institutionalized racism. The best example is Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was ostracized for telling his mistress not to be photographed with black people, but back when the Justice Department fined him for refusing to rent to African Americans in Beverly Hills, he was still held in esteem and able to own a basketball team. Saying racists things? Outrageous!!! Doing racists things? Bupkis.
Ferguson is two-thirds black and its government is 94 percent white, plus the town relies on court fees to provide a quarter of their operating budget. In practice this policy means a nearly all-white police force is incentivized to ticket the majority black population. This is a common practice now so municipalities don’t have to raise taxes; they can just monetize misdemeanors. It means poor people are a revenue source for those trusted to protect and serve. It’s a recipe for resentment. This harassment by police coupled with lack of representation is understandably infuriating. That along with 14 other “officer-involved fatal shootings” by St. Louis area cops in the last decade only adds to the fire.
There’s a tendency among those unwilling to accept the idea of institutionalized racism to err on the side of the law and believe police wouldn’t be stopping and arresting black people if they weren’t committing crimes. When you’re in handcuffs everyone looks guilty. It’s dismissed as a simple equation: You’re in trouble with the law because you broke the law. There’s a bias against being innocent before proven guilty when one looks guilty. They have to support (and at times blindly) the officer because he’s now is a symbol of Law and Order. Wilson is their false idol of the system working.
Then there are the Brown supporters, who claim Wilson didn’t seen as a person, yet they also view him as a compilation, a representation of a collective experience of black men in America where one in three will go to prison in their lifetime. Where, according to ProPublica, they are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. In trying to get away from victim blaming they’ve gone to the other extreme of victim canonizing. To them, Brown is a symbol of the system being rigged, biased and corrupt.
That’s who was lying dead on the street for hours on that bright August day: Human dignity, fairness and equality in the eyes of the law.
None of this deifying will fix the systematic failures uncovered by Michael Brown’s violent end. The debate is reduced to if Wilson is a lying Klansman or if Brown was a violent thug. Both miss the point.
There’s a federal investigation into alleged civil rights violations in Ferguson. If it’ll resolve the rage remains to be seen. One problem is the law. In 1989, the Supreme Court—during the height of the crack epidemic—set the standard of “objectively reasonable” when it comes to use of force. Police officers have what appears to be carte blanche due to the demands of their work. It was hard to get an indictment of Wilson because the law basically says if you have a badge and a reasonable fear—you’re not criminally liable. Most of these shootings are dismissed by internal investigations and on some level that has to be going through the minds of officers: They have immunity. If Wilson didn’t, would he have just let Brown walk home?
The other is police with militarized weapons sans military purposes. When the protests first started in the summer, the whole nation gasped as a small town of 21,000 residents were occupied by a well-stocked militia. “They are equipped with Kevlar helmets, assault-friendly gas masks, combat gloves and knee pads (all four of them), woodland Marine Pattern utility trousers, tactical body armor vests, about 120 to 180 rounds for each shooter,” writes former Marine Lyle Jeremy Rubin. “Semiautomatic pistols attached to their thighs, disposable handcuff restraints hanging from their vests, close-quarter-battle receivers for their M4 carbine rifles and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights.” These were their local police.
We’ve entrusted our police departments with far too much firepower and made them into metropolitan revenue producers instead of patrolmen. Also we have yet to wrap our collective heads around what institutional racism looks like, let alone how to resolve it.
And if there’s any take way from the events in Ferguson, it’s that institutionalized racism is clearly unresolved.
And the evidence clearly supports that.
Tina Dupuy is a nationally syndicated op-ed columnist, investigative journalist, award-winning writer, stand-up comic, on-air commentator and wedge issue fan. Tina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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