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Millennial Mindset: Institutionalized Racism and Ferguson, MO

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Just a week ago, the grand jury announced their decision not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. The job of the grand jury, different from a regular trial, is merely to determine if there is probable cause that Wilson has committed a crime. The decision does not have to be unanimous and only requires nine of the twelve jurors to agree. In this case, the  jury was comprised of nine white and three African-American citizens.

With a myriad of conflicting witness reports, racist journal entries, and biased, and unrelated media coverage, it can be hard to separate facts from simple speculation, it also becomes particularly frustrating when many of these articles are mired in blatant racism.

comic strip depicting racism against black men
“Fear of a Black Victim” – Matt Bors. Credit: Dailykos.com

In the weeks following August 9th, the New York Times published an article detailing Brown’s “questionable” past illustrating his penchant for drugs, alcohol, and (gasp) rap music! According to the NYT, Brown was “no angel.” But without Brown’s name, this article could be about any 18-year-old American boy. Are these interests any indication or justification for the murder of an unarmed boy? Kia Makarechi of Vanity Fair, noticed: “when looking at the paper’s usage of the phrase when describing people of note, a pattern emerges. ‘No angel’ seems to most commonly describe either hardened white criminals, or men of color.” The NYT has also stated that Al Capone, Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, murder and rapist Clayton Lockett, and Samuel Spencer (an unarmed black boy who was killed by four white men in 1992) were not angels. Clearly, the NYT reserves this description for the most hardened criminals . . .and unarmed black boys.

The St. Louis County prosecutor’s office has only recently released a substantial amount of evidence in regards to the case, including detailed witness interviews. PBS and several other sites have compiled these documents to relay the information more clearly:

michael brown shooting witness interviews reveal racism
Witness Interviews from the Michael Brown shooting investigation. Credit: PBS.org

PBS states that although the “chart above doesn’t reveal who was right or wrong about what happened that day, but it is a clear indication that perceptions and memories can vary dramatically.” Still, it is notable that over 50% of witnesses state that Michael Brown’s hands were raised when Darren Wilson shot him, which directly contradicts Wilson’s statement. Only five witnesses said they saw Brown reach towards his waist in the moments leading up to his death, and more than half stated that Brown was running from Wilson when he started shooting him. What is also troubling is Wilson’s testimony to the grand jury:

“And when I grabbed him, … I felt like a five year old holding onto Hulk Hogan” (p. 212)

What’s remarkable about this statement is that Darren Wilson, although weighing less than Brown, is about same size. Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are both about 6’4″.

“He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”( p. 225)

He appoints Brown an inhuman strength and power, comparing him to a demon. I guess making Brown out to be an otherworldly and unstoppable creature justifies killing him. Salon writer, Heather Digby Parton, compares Darren Wilson’s testimony to George T. Winston, a racist writer a the turn of the 19th century:

“When a knock is heard at the door [a White woman] shudders with nameless horror. The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal. A whole community is frenzied with horror, with the blind and furious rage for vengeance.” (pp. 108-109)

Darren Wilson, who (I believe it’s safe to assume) is not familiar with the writings of Winston, relayed an eerily similar description of the young black man he gunned down. If we are repulsed by Winston’s ignorance, why are we less critical of Wilson’s statements, which clearly include the same racist sentiments? Michael Brown’s death, and the deaths of all unarmed black men and women in this country are NOT isolated incidents. They are representative of a larger problem in this country. Segregation may have been deemed unconstitutional in 1954, but you are a damn fool if you think that racism has become extinct in the last fifty years.

“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 he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” (p. 228)

In his article “The New Racism,” Slate writer Jamelle Bouie remarks on the willingness to criminalize these young black men because of internalized racism. People perpetuate harmful stereotypes through these memes, which, more often than not, relay incorrect or entirely fabricated information. They play off racism and stereotypes more than factual evidence. Often, they are not even remotely related to the cases at hand.

michael brown shooting racism
Not a picture of Michael Brown. Credit: KCTV5.com

As you can see, Officer Catron mistakenly shared this image on his Facebook of a young man he assumed was Michael Brown. In fact, the image above is of Joda Cain, who is facing charges on an unrelated case. Evidently people were influenced by this post, and 966 Facebook users chose to share it with their friends. That’s right, almost 1,000 misinformed citizens are justifying Michael Brown’s death with an image that is NOT of Michael Brown. And, even if Michael Brown did have questionable photographs, friends, or family members, those things do not justify his murder. What are we to do when law enforcement, the people on whom we rely to protect our rights, are misinformed, fueled by racist rhetoric, and blatantly disregard the principle of “innocent until proven guilty?” Why was Officer Catron so quick to believe that an unarmed boy was dangerous enough to warrant being shot 12 times?

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There’s no doubt about the genesis of these stereotypes. When people see black men, they think crime, and that cognitive link is so strong that some people will create “proof” to justify the association. Rather than treat Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown as typical teenagers-turned-victims, they dismiss them as “thugs.”

Why is there a disproportionately higher number of African-American victims of police shootings? And why are the victims of these tragedies painted as dangerous or corrupt members of society? 

“The dramatic progress of the past 50 years hasn’t dismantled America’s racial hierarchy or reshaped its form. The mythical “war on whites” notwithstanding, black Americans remain a disfavored class, subject to negative stereotypes, residential segregation, and rampant police violence.” – Jamelle Bouie

**Update** Only three days after writing this article, another grand jury has failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo. Officer Pantaleo used excessive force when attempting to arrest Eric Garner for selling untaxed, loose cigarettes. The police officer put him into a chokehold (a technique which has been banned for two decades by the NYPD). The altercation was captured on tape and uploaded to YouTube. In the video you can clearly hear Garner plead, “I can’t breathe!” repeatedly before losing consciousness.  Warning: The video may be disturbing to viewers.

Resources

“No Grand Jury Indictment for Darren Wilson…”

“Black Bodies are Not Weapons: Why White Supremacists Insist Michael Brown was ‘Armed'”

“The Terrifying Racial Stereotypes Laced Through Darren Wilson’s Testimony”

“Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?”

White People Are Fine With Laws That Harm Blacks

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