Guest Blogger: Jonathan Paul
Some time has now passed since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The public reaction and the subsequent police overreaction is a perfect example of how miscalculation, miscommunication, and confusion can provoke intense and rapid escalation. Recent shootings in Troy, Berkeley, and St. Louis are all sparking controversy surrounding the role of police. In fact, Michael Brown is just one of four unarmed black men shot and killed by police in the past month alone. This represents a pattern of violence and racial undertones that has constantly subsided in American institutions, but Ferguson has invoked by far the most rage.
A perfect storm of police mistakes and inaction contributed to the firestorm of public upheaval. Not only did police leave Michael Brown’s body uncovered for several hours in the street, but the police were nonchalant and nontransparent with the information shared with the public. In reaction to public unrest, police forces move in with riot gear, rubber bullets, and tear gas; shattering any atmosphere of respect present in the crowds
In nearby St. Louis, at 26% in 2012 the unemployment rate amongst African Americans is nearly four times that of White Americans and youth unemployment approaches 50% in certain neighborhoods. Historically, white hegemony and race politics resulted in equivalent consolidation and disenfranchisement of the poor black population. When the poor black community is suffering from these problems, it doesn’t require a huge leap of faith for a traditionally oppressed demographic to suspect racial motivations.
The residents of Ferguson were previously skeptical and distrustful of institutions and the police. The Ferguson police and St Louis County police were already embroiled in a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) federal complaint over racial disparity in traffic stops. Furthermore, in a town that is 65% black, only two percent of the Ferguson police department is African American. This only fosters a distrust of the concentration of power and the government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Thus, when citizens wake up to headlines of “unarmed black kid shot by police”, they’re quick to take up arms to defend themselves and secure justice however they can. Studies reveal that the youth view police forces as not sharing priorities or respect with the people they’re sworn to defend. If people do not think the police respect them, they will only view the police response as part of the problem and will be more likely to react violently to any perceived escalation.
However, this isn’t to say the police are a force for bad. Police culture fosters brotherhood and camaraderie. Police forces are very protective of their own and seek to prioritize the safety of their members and the general public. Therefore, when opportunists and radicals flock to a peaceful protest to take advantage for their own gain, it poisons the police’s view of the entire protest. However, that also has a converse affect. Radicals have the loudest voices and can have an intoxicating influence on grassroots movements with no established hierarchy. These radicals can easily coopt social movements and may intentionally encourage violence to provoke police overreaction. Imagine you’re a policeman surrounded by hundreds of hostile crowds; you are trying to apprehend criminals and can’t easily identify who is nonviolent. This is where the conditions for miscommunication and rapid escalation of force are created. To protect themselves from this situation, it would seem to make sense to move in with military-style equipment and crackdown on what you view as an angry mob.
This unfortunately only creates the conditions for further escalation and violence, especially where the core issue is one of respect and trust. Additionally, the arrests and gassing of journalists is completely unacceptable and only undermines the freedoms afforded to our press and speech. Handing off the police response to Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson was extraordinarily effective. I have to applaud Capt. Johnson’s restraint and respect in deescalating the conflict. The shift in strategy to being conducive to the protests has been pivotal in changing the tone and atmosphere of the unrest to one of mutual respect and cooperation .
This article isn’t to say whether I agree with one side or another, but we have to understand the calculus that goes into these decisions in order to have progress. There are a few lessons we can take away from Ferguson. First, violence can be prevented by promoting an equitable distribution of power and combating perception of mistrust. Second, police forces should be held to a higher standard when dealing with the public. Thirdly, we need to have an intelligent discussion on the Gun culture of the nation. But in the meantime if our guardians and governments can’t maintain professional conduct in the face of a crisis, then how can they expect us to maintain our conduct?
( below Photo caption NYC recent graduation class 912 men and women joining the NYPD from 52 countries)