Adrees Latif / Reuters

After Ferguson, black activists hope for reckoning on race and policing

Some say Ferguson could spur real reforms, although structural racial disparities remain entrenched

Perhaps it was a fitting cap to three weeks of turbulence in Ferguson that joy mingled with grief at Michael Brown’s funeral on Monday morning. Singing, dancing and stories celebrated his short life right alongside anguished and enraged pleas for a country still scarred by racial divisions to do and be better.  

From the tragic killing of yet another unarmed, young African-American man — shot at least six times by a white police officer days before he was set to start college — members of the black community and other activists who have long decried what they see as the devaluing of black lives say they are cautiously hopeful that his death will spur meaningful change.

“Michael Brown does not want to be remembered for a riot. He wants to be remembered as the one that made America deal with how we gonna police in the United States,” Rev. Al Sharpton said at the funeral. “This is not about you. This is about justice. This is about fairness.”

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In some ways, Brown is unexceptional — he joins a long list of unarmed African-Americans who have been killed in altercations with police: Ezell Ford, a mentally ill man shot in Los Angeles this month. Eric Garner, who died of a heart attack earlier this summer when he was put in a chokehold by New York police. Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back while lying face down by a Bay Area Transit Authority police officer in 2009. Those incidents were in addition to the highly charged murders of teenagers Trayvon Martin, who was gunned down by a neighborhood watch coordinator in 2012 and Jordan Davis, who was shot after a confrontation with a white middle-aged man about loud music the same year.

But perhaps because Brown was the last in a string of such killings, because his body was left out on the sidewalk for hours and because images from the scene quickly ricocheted across the Internet and social media, his death ignited a firestorm in Ferguson and nationally. The nightly demonstrations that followed for the next two weeks seem to have succeeded in elevating long-simmering issues, particularly those of race and policing, to the top of the national consciousness.   

“It’s one of those moments where all of these things come together to highlight something that is very normal, and when I say normal, I don’t mean acceptable. I just means it happens all the time,” said Leola Johnson, chair of the media and cultural studies department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. “When I look along the long trajectory of my life I have never seen a pushback against the demonization of young, black men this strong.”

Moreover, the conduct of Ferguson and St. Louis police as they tried to contain what began as peaceful protests by primarily African-American protesters seemed to reinforce the point that some black leaders have been making for years: Decades after the dismantling of the enforced segregation mandated by Jim Crow laws, individuals and entire communities are still afforded disparate treatment on the basis of race by their own government.

“The untimely death of this boy as well as the over-violent, militarized response to a peaceful community just resonated with justice-minded people,” said Garrett Duncan, an associate professor of African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “You look at that, and you think, this cannot be going on in America.”  

But Duncan said he had found a reason to be hopeful in how the community of Ferguson had mobilized around Brown and his family.

“We see cracks in the wall of oppression that was brought out by this,” he said, noting that Brown’s funeral looked akin to one held for a dignitary or public official. “I’ve never seen anything like this for a teenage boy, in terms of the outpouring of support, especially at the funeral. … That in and of itself is hopeful in that it’s galvanizing people across the spectrum — politicians, clergy, young people, celebrities.”

Now the question activists are asking is where to go next.

There are some early signs that the events in Ferguson have begun to make an impact on certain policy fronts. After images of highly armored local law enforcement throwing canisters of tear gas and spraying rubber bullets on demonstrators dominated news coverage for weeks, the White House has ordered a review of the federal programs that allow local police departments to get their hands on such military surplus. The Obama administration said it will be looking at both whether police have received enough training to operate the equipment and weaponry and on performing more careful audits of the gear.

Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the organization is pushing for further reforms in law enforcement, such as training police officers on racial bias and avoiding the use of fatal force, ordering a comprehensive review of police incidents that have resulted in fatalities, and holding officers accountable “to the fullest extent of the law.”

It is, of course, difficult to predict inflection points as they are in progress, but Nelson said she had to hold onto her optimism.

“If you have faith in the progress of this country, you have to believe again the concentration of harms we’ve seen recently just can’t be ignored by the broader American community,” she said. “Without that sort of hope, without that faith in our fellow Americans, it’d be hard to imagine that these lives were not lost in vain.”

Others remain more guarded. David Rice, associate professor of psychology at the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, welcomed the more honest conversation about race that Ferguson spurred, but was hesitant to say what exactly would change as a result.

“This framework of systemic racism — it’s such an elegant structure and it’s so institutionalized and acculturated it becomes very difficult to unravel,” he said. “Time will tell whether or not the country has really learned a lesson, and who this lesson is for. As a black man in America who is 41 years old, there’s nothing I learned, but there were truths that were reinforced.”

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