The killing of an unarmed black youth by a white policeman in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrates graphically how easily racism can touch off a wildfire in America.
The shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson has triggered a firestorm that has spread far beyond the borders of Ferguson. The governor of Missouri has declared a state of emergency and clamped a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew to clear the streets of rioters and looters. Still, defiant protesters clashed with police and there were reports of gunshots.
The situation is expected to worsen before it calms down. On Monday, the New York Times published the findings of a private autopsy on Brown that indicate he was shot six times, twice in the head. To many, it is an open-and-shut case of police using excessive force to subdue an unarmed suspect. Ferguson’s police department is standing by its line that Wilson and several officers chanced on Brown while searching for suspects in a convenience store robbery earlier. Brown’s family quickly denounced the police for trying to insinuate that the boy had criminal propensities.
What is happening in Ferguson seems to follow a long string of racially charged incidents that now and then serve to remind Americans that discrimination persists in their midst, like a rash that won’t go away.
Let us revisit 1992, when Rodney King, a black construction worker, was apprehended by Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase through the city’s streets. Video footage, shot by a resident from the balcony of his house, showed the officers ganging up on King and knocking him to the ground with batons.
The officers claimed they thought King was under the influence of drugs, but a subsequent test proved that he was “clean.”
The publication of the video inflamed LA’s black community. The anger grew more intense after four of the policemen who were white, were acquitted of the attack. Six days of riots, looting and vandalism, which left 51 people dead, rocked LA before local authorities, backed by the National Guard, restored order.
Despite giant strides by blacks and other ethnic minorities in their march towards equal opportunities in employment, housing and education, the racial divide in US society runs deep.
“Everywhere we look, there’s no denying it: race and racism are something this country must confront,” Rev. Al Sharpton, one of America’s respected civil rights leaders, noted in his Huff Post blog days before the Ferguson incident.
“Modern discrimination is often more subliminal; with a smile in your face but with existing institutional policies that continue to suppress certain segments of the population. It is this sort of ingrained bias that begins to impact every facet of society,” Reverend Sharpton wrote.
That ingrained bias was very much evident when Officer Wilson confronted Brown on Aug. 9. It was evident when scores of protesters threw fire bombs, bottles and other projectiles at the police, prompting the lawmen to respond with tear gas and rubber bullets.
“There were shootings, looting, vandalism and other acts of violence that clearly appear not to have been spontaneous but premeditated criminal acts designed to damage property, hurt people, and provoke a response,” one ranking police officer said.
The lines have been drawn, and it is now more difficult than ever to scale down the confrontation.
Still, a serious effort must be made. “We cannot continue to deceive ourselves that we are somehow ‘post-racial’,” Reverend Sharpton said. “It’s going to take courage to be honest about our challenges and create resolutions that can truly move us towards greater equality.”