Fighting for a Reason: Cher Musico
I’m writing you all in response. One of you asked what were my thoughts on Ferguson. S/he asked me whether or not I believed Ferguson was a race problem or a police problem—whether or not policemen and policewomen should be more adequately trained morally and ethically.
Now, I want to briefly state: according the proposition, of course it is both a race problem and a police problem. The two are not mutually exclusive. We live in a social environment conducive to racism. No matter how many training programs we could force our policemen and policewomen to complete, the problem at hand is our how culture breathes and perpetuates a racist society, a society that allows white counterparts to experience more privileges than their black/brown counterparts, a society that values their white counterparts more than their black/brown counterparts, forgetting that in order to heal, we must stay steadfast to the belief that we were all created equal; that we are all brothers and sisters; that our society is broken because the racial gap between whites and brown folks is only getting larger.
Now, I will respond to the grand jury’s verdict on Officer Darren Wilson. Because you will see from this non-indictment that the two posed problems—race problem or police-training problem—are intersected and complement the other. What happened in Ferguson was racially intensified because of the history Missouri and the history of America. We discussed at length how America was not only built via white supremacy, but white supremacy birthed this nation, supported it, has maintained it. I want to let you know that I am, like many of you, frustrated, disappointed, and sadden by the repetition of history: the non-indictment is too similar to the Jim Crow lynching era. We see, again, that the law of the land will not give the same protections it owes to its very own citizens.
What harrows in my mind is George Orwell words from Animal Farm:
Here are the facts:
1. It is EXTREMELY rare for a grand jury to not indict. Grand juries nearly always decide to indict. However, as we previously discussed in class, the prosecution had personal ties with the Ferguson Police Dept.
Before the trial began, Mike Brown’s family requested that District Attorney McCullough step aside from the case and let a special prosecutor handle the case based on his deep ties with the Ferguson police department. McCullough refused. This is why the National Bar Association is questioning the grand jury’s non-indictment, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence:
“The family of Michael Brown requested that District Attorney McCullough step aside and allow a special prosecutor be assigned to the investigation to give the community confidence that the grand jury would conduct a complete and thorough investigation into the tragic shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown. The grand jury’s decision confirms the fear that many expressed months ago — that a fair and impartial investigation would not happen. The National Bar Association is adamant about our desire for transformative justice. While we are disappointed with the grand jury’s ruling, we are promoting peace on every street corner around the world. The only way to foster systemic change is to organize, educate, and mobilize. We are imploring everyone to fight against the injustice in Ferguson, Missouri and throughout the United States by banding together and working within the confines of the law,” states President Meanes.”
"Wilson fired 12 shots. Photos released of the officer after the grand jury's decision on Monday show some bruising on his face and the back of his neck, but no serious injuries. Several eyewitnesses have disputed the notion that Brown charged at Wilson. Although they support that a confrontation occurred, some eyewitnesses said Brown looked like he was trying to surrender and had his hands in the air when Wilson fatally shot him."
3. Darren Wilson’s testimony described Mike Brown as: 1) Hulk Hogan (he described himself as a five-year-old, despite being around the same height and build as Brown), 2) Mike Brown could walk through bullets, and 3) He was a demon.
"Much has been made of the fact that Mr. Brown was 6-foot-4 and weighed roughly 290 pounds. Mr. Wilson, though, is not a small guy: He’s also 6-foot-4, and about 210 pounds."
“[Darren Wilson:] At this point I start backpedaling and again, I tell him get on the ground, get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot another round of shots. Again, I don’t recall how many [hit] him every time. I know at least once because he flinched again. At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way."
"And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan," Wilson said of his struggle with Brown. "That's just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm." Wilson told grand jurors that when he and Brown struggled over the officer's gun, Brown "had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked."
Beyond the institutional racism that allowed Darren Wilson to not be indicted on any charge—for truly, we must beg the question why a prosecutor who has personal and familial ties to the Ferguson Police department was allowed to take the case—this, Darren Wilson’s testimony (beyond the fact that police brutality has historically been against minorities, beyond the fact that policemen and policewomen have been trained to racially profile minorities and that minorities statistically receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts on the same crimes, and beyond the fact that such institutional epidemics like the school-to-prison pipeline to anti-black racism to the stop-and-frisk policies that resemble the Black Codes from the Reconstruction Era are built into the social fabric of America’s national identity) shows why what happened in Ferguson is both a racial issue and a police brutality issue:
This is how the nonsensical, irrational racial fear of black bodies looks like.
Let us consider the three facts we discussed during our Myths on Race unit:
1. Anti-black racism: "To the surprise of many prognosticators, anti-black racism in America — not just that limited to the far right — actually rose over the four years of Obama’s first term, according to a 2012 Associated Press poll. The poll found 51% of Americans expressed explicitly anti-black attitudes, compared to 48% in 2008, while 56% showed implicitly anti-black attitudes, up from 49% four years earlier. Another AP poll, in 2011, found that 52% of non-Latino whites expressed explicitly anti-Latino attitudes, a figure that rose to 59% when measured by an implicit attitudes test" (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2013).
2. School-to-Prison Pipeline: "One in five black boys have received an out-of-school suspension, according to 2012 Department of Education data. And black students with disabilities are three times more likely to be expelled, a punishment that sets kids in zero-tolerance systems up for later criminal punishment. Other regional statistics tell a similar story. In Chicago, for example, three-fourths of kids arrested in public school were black. This disparate impact perpetuates a cycle of criminal justice over-exposure that follows many African Americans throughout their lives and yields astronomical incarceration rates" (Dept of Education, 2012).
3. Harsher punishments on minorities: "Latinos and blacks tend to be sentenced more harshly than whites for lower-level crimes such as drug crimes and property crimes; however, Latinos and blacks convicted of high-level drug offenses also tend to be more harshly sentenced than similarly situated whites" (The Sentencing Project, 2007).
Lastly, here is another fact from Mic News on police brutality:
White officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States, or an average of 96 times a year.
Those are the findings of a USA Today analysis of seven years of FBI data, which claims around a quarter of the 400 annual deaths reported to federal authorities by local police departments were white-on-black shootings. What's more, the analysis indicates that 18% of the black suspects were under the age of 21 when killed by the police, as opposed to just 8.7% of white suspects.
Throughout much if not all of America, black people are disproportionately more likely to be killed by the police.
Statistics like these may help explain why Pew polls have demonstrated continued low confidence among non-whites in the police and justice systems. Police in general, and white cops in particular, have a pattern of disproportionately directing force against black people. All too often, cases of abuse and excessive force are simply swept under the rug.
University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker told USA Today that the lack of a comprehensive national repository on use of force has been a "major failure" for oversight, while USC colleague Geoff Alpert pointed out that around 98.9% of excessive force allegations are ultimately ruled as justified. In just one of many examples, NYPD almost exclusively shoots black or Hispanic suspects.
Protests involving black people are also more likely to attract police attention and use of force to disperse them. The ACLU has intensely documented an immensely troubling pattern of police militarization and found SWAT teams and other heavy-handed tactics are much more likely to be used against minority suspects than white ones:
In Ferguson, where community members are currently protesting deeply entrenched, racially discriminatory policing, 92% of all people arrested in 2013 were black. The community as a whole, however, is 65% black.
It's not just the police, either — the Urban Institute estimates that white-on-black homicides in states with Stand Your Ground laws are 354% more likely to be ruled justifiable than white-on-white ones. The State's Warren Bolton describes how black men in America "endure a lifetime of suspicion," both from the authorities and people of other races.
The statistics are clear. Being the disproportionate target of violence by the police and white people in general is a systemic problem for black people across America.
Why you should care:
The statistic on white-cop-on-black-suspect shootings is alarming in and of itself. But while race plays a critical role, the number of white cops shooting black people is just part of a larger problem. Black people across the United States are more likely to face discrimination in the criminal justice system and be harassed, arrested and shot by police. Sadly, even the most extreme cases of police excess often end in little punishment.
I want you all to think about these overwhelming facts over Thanksgiving break. I know it is hard. I know it is a time to spend with your families; but I am sure that many of your families are struggling over the same facts that I am. This isn’t an issue of whether or not Mike Brown was pure—he was a college-bound student who possibly stole cigarettes and possibly got in a squabble with a police officer.
But does this mean that he deserved to die? Does this mean that because Mike Brown looked “like a demon,” was “Hulk Hogan” (when the officer was just an inch shy of him), that he could walk through bullets, thus Mike Brown deserved more than 6 shots even after he was dead?
I want to you really think why this was a race issue: it’s a race issue not because race “sells” to the media or that the media blows things out of proportion–they do this because neoliberal capitalism feeds off what is already systematic and oppressive. This is a race issue because we, as Americans, do not know how to function when a white policer officer kills an unarmed black boy because he is inherently afraid of what "blackness" is. This "blackness" is defined by the European system of reality Baldwin talks about his famous debate with William Buckley (more on the debate here). This "blackness" allows white folks to perpetuate this system of reality that defines the American Negro as a savage. This "blackness" uplifts the idea that whites are more civilized than us, more equal than us, more human than us. And we know this is not true. We know this system of reality is what allowed the colonists to decimate Native Americans' lands, allowed the white supremacists to lynch and harass and murder thousands of black and brown bodies. I want you to ask yourself: who is the real savage here?
Last but not least, I will leave you with the words my own high school teacher, who is a wonderful white, Jewish man who first unchained my system of reality that was once caught in Plato’s cave:
"Yeah, I know the internet and the media is all abuzz with the verdict. Lots of opinions and thoughts. Read this recently. It's an amazing time capsule from 1963 by black author James Baldwin entitled, "A Talk To Teachers":
Here is his concluding paragraph:
And for a contemporary take on Baldwin, check out Brittney Cooper's angry meditation today.
With all the light I could muster,
*Note: In seconds apart, my student and my high school teacher emailed me about Ferguson. As I prepared to write an email back to my white student, who was trying but still believed Ferguson was not about race but making better and more moral policemen and policewomen, I wept because we know, as educators, the fight is difficult and will not end, the fight is a struggle, that even though we KNEW this was going to be the verdict, we KNEW this nation was never built for the safety and liberties and livelihoods of us, we will take our beloved books that speak universal truths and take what gives us collective strength and take what we know to be of the highest good and the highest knowledge, and though we are hurt, damaged, and pained, we will continue our important work; we will continue teaching what it means to be divided and conquered in this racist society, and we preach the truth and the love and the hope because our lives DO matter, our black lives DO matter, our hopes and our dreams and our children and our bodies DO, and will always, matter. No matter what the laws say. No matter what the real demons say. No matter what white supremacy says. We matter, and I will continue to teach this truth with the myriad of books and teachers and giants behind me who have helped us to stand.*
Melissa R. Sipin: Batibot: small but terrible. Melissa is a writer from Carson, CA. She won First Place in the 2013 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Her work is published/forthcoming in Guernica, Glimmer Train Stories, PANK, Kweli Journal, Eleven Eleven Journal, and HYPHEN, among others. She cofounded and is editor-in-chief of TAYO Literary Magazine. As a Kundiman Fiction Fellow, VONA/Voices Fellow, and U.S. Navy wife, she teaches at Old Dominion University and blogs at www.msipin.com. She’s working on a novel.