I was out of the country when Ferguson erupted over the summer. From abroad, it looked like the Arab Spring had come to the Midwest. Last night as I watched the news coverage, it looked the same: an angry, outraged citizenry clashing with the police power of the state. “Unbelievable” was the word CNN’s reporters used repeatedly as they roamed around the small part of Ferguson where people were rioting. Were they talking about the vandalism they were seeing, or the tear gas they were choking on, or both? It wasn’t clear, nor why journalists were employing the kind of empty rhetoric they would not use abroad. From what they said, the violence was committed by a small minority of the protesters on the street, and their own experiences showed that police statements that the police were using smoke canisters, not tear gas, were false.
President Obama’s statement prior to the announcement of the Grand Jury’s decision whether to indict the officer who killed Michael Brown seemed appropriate rather than inspiring. He covered his political bases, but the necessity for him as president to rise above the racial divide Ferguson exposes seems to have inhibited anything more eloquent or stirring. The militarized response the state of Missouri employed, calling out the National Guard ahead of the announcement, seems part and parcel of the problem it was intended to address. It’s conceivable the decision by the Grand Jury not to indict Darren Wilson was right on the particulars, but the message it sent was that police misconduct, even murder, is condoned. When it comes to forgiveness, we are not an equal opportunity society. “All is forgiven” is an attitude reserved for police officers only. Everybody else gets 20 years to life.
Police brutality is not a problem unique to the United States, of course. Human rights abuses in Pakistan, Russia, Egypt and many other countries mostly occur at the hands of the police. There are many, many states around the world where the police use inappropriate or excessive force, which minority populations bear the brunt of.
How do we change the culture of impunity our police operate in today? Since the death of Michael Brown, how many more unarmed people have been shot? The tragic death of a 12 year old with a toy gun by Cleveland Police this past Saturday only underscores the serious and systemic nature of racism and police brutality in our society today.
Ending the militarization of the police would help. But we need not only to stop providing police with assault rifles and armored personnel carriers, we need a sea change in our attitudes, on both the part of the police and the larger society. Our police need to be more accountable to the society they serve. As Americans, we need a dialogue on how we make that happen.