by Finian CUNNINGHAM
US President Barack Obama and other American leaders are swift to condemn the widespread street violence that has erupted following a grand jury decision to not prosecute a white police officer for the killing of black teenager Michael Brown.
«We are a nation based on the rule of law, so we need to accept that this was the special jury’s decision to make», said Obama.
Police officers this week reportedly came under heavy gunfire in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, and many businesses and vehicles were torched overnight after a panel of jurors concluded that there was no case against officer Darren Darren over the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Brown on August 9.
The town – a mainly black suburb of St Louis – has been rocked by protests over the past three months, with protesters complaining that the police have routinely used heavy-handed tactics to clear the streets. Now following the grand jury ruling on Monday, frustrations have boiled over into arson, looting and other attacks on private property.
Across America there have been large demonstrations in support of the Brown family in cities from New York to Los Angeles, including Washington DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland and Seattle. So far, these protests outside Ferguson have remained peaceful, but there is a fear among authorities that violence could flare up elsewhere.
Last week, Missouri governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and called in National Guard troopers to back up local police in anticipation of civil unrest.
The tense situation has similarities to the Rodney King case. The beating up of African-American King as he lay on a street by four white police officers sparked the LA riots back in 1992, which led to over 50 deaths, thousands of business premises being razed and up to $1 billion in property damage before US Marines and the National Guard finally restored order.
This week the Mayor of St Louis, Francis Slay, deplored the surge in street violence. Like Obama, the mayor called for people to protest peacefully and to advocate for political change with their voices alone.
Such advice of respecting the rule of law and non-violence sounds hollow to many across America, particularly among the black community. For too many Americans, there is no rule of law when police forces can use excessive lethal violence with impunity.
The circumstances of Michael Brown’s killing are hotly disputed. Several witnesses say the youth was gunned down by officer Wilson while he had his hands up during an altercation on a street in broad daylight. The St Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch acknowledged those witness accounts when he read out the jury’s decision earlier this week not to press charges.
«Some witnesses maintained their original statement that Mr Brown had his hands in the air and was not moving toward the officer when he was shot», McCulloch said. «Several witnesses said Mr Brown did not raise his hands at all or that he raised them briefly and then dropped them and then turned toward Officer Wilson, who then fired several rounds.»
The policeman’s account is markedly different. He claims that Brown first assaulted him and was trying to grab his gun. Wilson says he fired his weapon because he felt his life was in danger.
However, what is not in dispute is that Brown was unarmed and the officer fired off a total of 12 rounds, hitting the teenager at least six times. The victim’s body was left lying in the street for nearly five hours before being taken away.
To many observers those circumstances at least deserve a criminal trial to ascertain whether the homicide was justified.
But the bigger picture is that this case is seen as just one more in a litany of lethal violence used by police or armed vigilantes against black men.
Two years ago, another black teenager, Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Miami, Florida, by a white self-styled neighbourhood security man. His killer was acquitted in court on the grounds that he was acting in self-defence, even though the victim was unarmed.
A month after Brown’s death in Ferguson, 43-year-old Eric Garner was killed when he was accosted by police officers in New York City on suspicion that he was selling cigarettes illegally on the streets. Garner died after he was manhandled in a banned chokehold position. His death was captured on a cell phone video and caused public outrage at the police barbarity.
Then last weekend, two days before the grand jury announced its verdict not to charge the police officer in the Brown case, a 12-year-old black youth was shot dead in Cleveland, Ohio. Tamir Rice was playing with his sister and friends in a playground with a toy gun when armed police arrived following a 911 call from a bystander. The officers shot the boy after he reached into his trouser waistband in an innocent attempt to hand over the fake pistol.
US federal figures show that on average two black men are killed every week by police violence. While the African-American community represents 13 per cent of the US population, nearly 25 per cent of all police homicides are perpetrated against blacks. Civil rights campaigners point out that the official figures probably underestimate the actual death rate.
Obama acknowledged the deep racial issue of these killings. «This is not just an issue for Ferguson; this is an issue for America. We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades – I have witnessed that in my own life – and to deny that progress is to deny America’s capacity for change», he said. «But what is also true is that there are still problems and that communities of colour are not making these problems up.»
Michael Brown’s family said in a statement: «We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions.» Their attorney added: «They want the police to be held accountable, to treat us like Americans, too, so we can get equal justice. This system always allows police to hurt and kill our children.»
Police racism against American blacks is an undoubted part of the problem of lethal violence by law enforcement agencies. In Ferguson, where two-thirds of the 21,000 population are black, more than 90 per cent of the local police force is made up of white officers.
But the problem is not just white cop violence on African-Americans. It is part of a bigger concern of increasing police violence and militarisation of American law enforcement across the country. Again, federal figures show that the ratio of police homicides to overall crime incidents has increased by 75 per cent over the period from 1992 to 2012.
This is manifested in American police forces being increasingly armed with heavier and deadlier weapons, with many of the munitions being recycled from US military deployments overseas, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Police SWAT teams ride around in Humvees in US inner-cities as if they were in Kandahar or Sadr City.
In addition, American policing methods have increasingly taken on the form of military operations, responding to law enforcement encounters with excessive violence and draconian actions. The lockdown of Boston City and the blanket suspension of civil rights, such as no use of warrants for house raids, following the bombing of the marathon in April 2013 signalled a major shift towards police state powers. These draconian police powers, which can be traced to the post-9/11 invocation of anti-terror laws, have become replicated and routinised across the country.
Black communities are indeed bearing the brunt of this militaristic style of American policing, and there is an unequivocal racist element to it.
Nevertheless, the wider issue is one of America being transformed into a fully-fledged police state, which goes hand in hand with deteriorating social conditions, rising poverty, racism and the generalised erosion of civil liberties, including state surveillance of private communications.
The public concern is not just limited to the African-American community, but affects all ethnic groups. The protests underway across the US this week as a result of the Michael Brown case are notable for the multi-ethnic character of the protesters. Whites, as well as African-Americans and Latinos, are evidently galvanised by what they see as a particular gross miscarriage of justice in Ferguson. The skin colour of the victim is a factor, but a more general factor is how America has increasingly taken on the form of a police state, where police brutality and authoritarianism against all citizens is an ever-present, disturbing reality.
Obama and other civic leaders may be calling for restraint, rule of law and non-violence. To many American citizens such exhortation does not apply to them. Rather, as they see it, it should apply to the US state and its growing police powers.