Death in Ferguson


Police and Dog in stand off with Ferguson protestors

NBC reports that every day in the U.S., an average of 289 people are shot. 86 of them die: 30 are murdered, 53 kill themselves, two die accidentally, and one is shot in a ‘police intervention’.

Four recent deaths have caused both shock and heated debate in the USA, though only two of these were by gunfire. The barbaric video’d beheadings of journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff by the movement  known variously as ISIS, IS, or ISIL; the accidental killing of an Arizona gun instructor on a firing range by a nine-year old girl who could not control the recoil of her Uzi automatic; and the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. Statistically, the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, on August 9th, is just one of these police interventions, just as Foley and Sotloff are just two among thousands of victims of ISIS. But it is right to humanise the massive impact of violence by focusing on particular cases.

The events in Ferguson have been analysed under three main headings: race, gun control, and policing. In the context of Racial Justice Sunday it is fair to highlight the race perspective. In any case, such has been the resonance of the event that a memorial for Michael Brown was held on the campus of the University of San Francisco, where I’m now living, half a continent away from Ferguson. Yet these three issues, while they can be distinguished, cannot be separated.

Race and Guns: In popular imagination the USA is ‘gun country’. This image is not false. In West Virginia, 56% of adults own a gun, presumably 70-80% of households. In highly urbanised areas it tends to be less: 10% in New Jersey, just 4% in Washington DC. In 14 states, guns kill more people than cars, yet are still barely regulated. However the effect of guns is racially differentiated. A white person is five times as likely to commit suicide with a gun as to be shot; for each African-American who uses a gun to commit suicide, five are killed by other people with guns. About three-quarters of blacks support stronger gun controls, compared with about half of whites.

When did Policing change?Race and Policing: Black Americans make up 13 percent of the general population and 38 percent of the prison population. In Ferguson, blacks make up 67 percent of the city population but are just three among of the 53-member police force. Inevitably the police are seen neither as drawn from the city nor as serving it. Young black men, especially, are readily imagined as potential criminals. The police were accused of selectively releasing ‘evidence’ that Michael Brown (on every account, unarmed) had just robbed a store, while hiding the officer’s identity ‘for fear of reprisals’. (Naturally, counter-claims were made: given the racial identity of President Obama and the USA’s first black Attorney General Eric Holder, ‘Could a white officer get a fair trial?’)

Guns and Policing: Following the civil violence at the meeting of the Word Trade Organisation in Seattle, 1999 (‘the battle of Seattle’), and further after ‘9/11’, the US police have become highly militarised. SWAT methods (‘Special Weapons Attack Teams’, a term later softened to ‘Special Weapons and Tactics’) emerged. While violent crime has dropped by 17% in a decade, weaponry designed to cope with war, terrorism and international drug cartels has filtered down to small-town police forces.  In the USA today, SWAT teams are deployed about 50,000 times per year.

In a gun culture, the police will be prone to use their weapons too. Women officers - less likely than men to use unnecessary violence - make up just 13% of USA police personnel, and are unlikely to figure in SWAT teams at all: so the police style drifts inexorably into its most ‘machista’, least conciliatory mode.

So, in Ferguson, unarmed demonstrators have faced camouflaged troops in battle gear and gas masks. Local (black) people lose all confidence in the police, the police in turn construct them as ‘enemy’. It is hard to imagine a scenario less conducive to keeping the peace. 

Frank Turner SJ


Some further reading from stats and pieces referred to above: