A Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, on August 9, 2014. The night after, riots broke out.
Ferguson is an inner-ring suburb in north St. Louis County. As such, Ferguson is now approximately 67% African-American, although the power structure remains mostly white.
I am a native of Kansas City who has lived in suburban St. Louis for a little more than 20 years. As a quasi-outsider, St. Louis has some quirks that I recognize and understand. It helps to understand that St. Louis is very divided, both along the lines of race but also along the lines of class. One of the first questions many St. Louisans will ask you is what high school you went to. This conveniently tells people how much money you grew up with. If you went to a private school, you’re good. If you went to a public school in an affluent area, you’re good. If you went to a public school in a poor area, I hope you’re living in a more affluent area now because there are people who will look down on you.
Sometimes the lines are fuzzy but sometimes they’re very stark. In north St. Louis, there’s an east-west street called Delmar. On the south side of the street are expensive houses. I won’t say they’re all millionaires on that side of the street, but many undoubtedly are. On the north side of the street, the houses that aren’t vacant are occupied by people who have minimum-wage jobs. The haves and have-nots can stare at each other from their windows, separated by five lanes of traffic. This oddity has even caught the attention of the BBC.
Ferguson is a step up from the wrong side of Delmar, but many St. Louisans would have jumped to conclusions about Michael Brown and his Normandy High School diploma for the rest of his life, regardless of how long that might have been.I’m glad that the FBI is going to be handling the investigation into what happened in the final moments of Michael Brown’s life. The St. Louis County police department, which was initially handling the investigation, has had racial problems of its own in recent years. Last year, a St. Louis County police lieutenant was fired after accusations of racial profiling. The incidents happened on the opposite side of the county from Ferguson, but could potentially have called the impartiality of the investigation into question.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Michael Brown isn’t alive to testify. Michael Brown may have committed a crime or attempted to commit a crime, or he may have been a case of mistaken identity. We do not know. WE DO NOT KNOW. Had Michael Brown committed a crime, he had a constitutional right to a trial, just like every other U.S. citizen, and Michael Brown didn’t get a trial. According to at least one eyewitness report, he was trying to surrender when he was shot.
That’s what the citizens of Ferguson are upset about. Someone is looking after the rights of the police officer who fired the shots. In the meantime, he’s on paid administrative leave. Nothing will bring Michael Brown back. The other side of the story is that Michael Brown was an ambitious young man who made a point to graduate high school and enroll in college. He was supposed to start college two days before he died. By the accounts of the people who knew him, Michael Brown looked intimidating but was a gentle giant. That’s what makes me raise the possibility of mistaken identity.
The police officer reported that two men attempted to assault him in his police car, then the two men fled. The second man hasn’t been found. It’s not hard to imagine two men running in opposite directions, and in the heat of the moment, the officer spotting Michael Brown, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and firing shots.
Update: The second man, Dorian Johnson, has come forward. His account has serious discrepancies with the police officer’s account, but the basic story matches.
I’m not accusing the police officer of lying. I’m raising the possibility that the police officer made a mistake. The badge and gun don’t make him infallible. He’s still a human being.
I will also raise another question that people in Ferguson are asking: Why couldn’t the police officer have used non-lethal force? That seems like a reasonable enough question. Michael Brown also was a human being–something that seems to get lost in the rhetoric at times–and it’s always better to err on the side of preserving human life than taking it. If Michael Brown deserved to die, the courts would decide that.
I don’t have an easy answer for why the city of Ferguson descended into riots on Sunday night. The protests during the day were inflammatory, but by and large they were peaceful. When night came, it turned into window smashing, looting and burning.
The city of Ferguson may have a hard time recovering from that. Some of the damaged businesses may choose not to re-open. It’s not justifiable. Maybe it was scared people lashing out. Maybe it was opportunism. More likely it was a combination of the two.
The NAACP is complaining that African-Americans, particularly African-American males, get unfairly treated by law enforcement. I can only speak to being hassled by law enforcement due to my age. There was a cop in my neighborhood with a vaguely Italian last name I can’t spell who had it in for me when I was a teenager. He hassled me for three years until I was 19, then he left me alone. I outgrew him. Yes, he was the wrong end of a horse, but he never put any of us in danger.
But the color of your skin doesn’t change unless you have a rare medical condition, so if it’s the color of your skin rather than your age that makes you automatically suspicious, you’ll live with it the rest of your life. To a middle-class white guy like me, phrases like “driving while black,” “wearing a hoodie while black,” and “running while black” are just phrases. To 67% of the people of Ferguson, it’s a benefit of the doubt they don’t get.
But that’s the important thing. They are people. Michael Brown was a human being with feelings, ambitions, hopes and dreams, and now there’s nothing that will bring him back.
If we draw lines and make rules not to cross them–rules like “don’t cross Delmar”–it makes it easy to ignore the problem. Middle class guys like me never hear about it because I have no reason to go into Ferguson. I’ve been in Ferguson twice in 21 years. If a crime or something happens in Ferguson or one of the other suburbs near it with similar demographics, I might hear about it on the news, but that reinforces the stereotype. Ignore it and maybe it’ll go away, but if it doesn’t, at least it doesn’t affect me.
Michael Brown gave the problem a name and a face. And even if it turns out he was guilty of something, that doesn’t make the problem go away.