Saturday, December 6, 2014

Some Thoughts About Ferguson

I spent a lot of time yesterday reading about the recent deaths of young black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, and New York, and Cleveland. (And now, apparently, in Phoenix.) I haven't written much about this issue until now, partly because I just haven't been sure what to say. Here in the UK we hear about the protests on the news, but I don't feel as immersed in the controversy as some of my friends in America, and I haven't closely followed all the details.

Of course these are tragic incidents -- of course they are. For everyone involved.

Are they rooted in racism? I think partly, yes. I believe police are more likely to resort to force and be aggressive with black citizens. In that Cleveland case, for example, I doubt seriously that police would have quickly shot and killed a 12-year-old white boy playing with a BB gun.

But I don't think racism is the only factor. For me, the bigger question is the proliferation of guns. American police are so on edge, so fearful of being killed themselves by a violent suspect, because guns are everywhere in America. I've seen many people in online forums and discussions point out that police in other parts of the world -- such as here in the UK -- don't carry firearms, as if that's a model to follow. That's true, but criminals in the UK are also much, much less likely to have guns than they are in the states, because the UK has tougher gun laws. Police here don't need to be armed to the teeth. Hence we have far fewer of these types of shootings.

They do happen, though. This is not an exclusively American problem. Just a few years ago, police in London killed a black man during an investigation in an incident that kicked off the 2011 London riots. Granted, that man was genuinely armed, unlike the recent cases in the states, but there were many accusations about police overreaction. There is an underlying social tension and mistrust of police in many communities in many cities all over the world.

Finally, while the suspects in the recent American incidents have been unarmed, let's not make angels out of them. In some cases they resisted the police and -- as in Phoenix -- apparently had marijuana or other drugs close at hand. I don't mean to blame the victims. None of them deserved to die. But at the same time, and realizing I don't harbor the same visceral anger at police that many young black men do, if a police officer told me to do something, I'd do it. I'd get out of the road, I'd stop and put my hands up. I would not fight back, because I know that fighting back could quickly escalate.

In general, I am not a fan of police authority. I do wish the officers in Ferguson and New York had been indicted, to allow the justice system to hear all sides and render a decision. But these incidents raise many questions -- not just about racism, but about the proliferation of firearms, and, as the Tearful Dishwasher pointed out in a well-considered post, about the types of policing we expect in our communities. We Americans need to address our permissive gun laws, our ridiculously draconian drug laws and our expectations about police intervention.

(Photo: St. John's Wood, on Wednesday.)


  1. These cases are such a snarl of attitude and distrust and tragedy.
    And I couldn't agree more with your assessment. Thanks.

  2. You considered your words wisely. There is NO ONE ANSWER but I have to say that racism and the proliferation of guns in America are big parts of it.
    Can there be change? I don't even know.

  3. Beautifully stated! I agree wholeheartedly. It's a very, very complicated issue with many sides but, the proliferation of guns and violence plays a huge role.

  4. I do agree with you about the guns. I take issue with what in the US has become the rush to demonize the victims however. The news for example is batting around the fact that Eric Garner was arrested 31 times, mostly for selling loose cigarettes, but also for resisting arrest and such. None of these articles citing his arrest record mentions convictions. None that I can find. So 31 arrests. No convictions. Sounds like the man was targeted by police, as he clearly felt himself to be. And even if there was marijuana around or loose cigarettes, this certainly does not justify murder. We are none of us saints. Nothing frustrates me more in these cases than the attempt to turn the victims into thugs who are better off dead. Well. Other things frustrate me too of course. But that. It's a big one. But your point about the proliferation of guns in the US is so central to this ongoing nightmare. Sorry if this sounds like a rant. I'm not ranting at you, just at what is. I know. It is often a very useless endeavor to rant at what is.

  5. I agree that the amount of guns here is a major problem but if you are so fearful of getting killed while doing your job that you react by killing first and then investigating, you need to get a different job. many people have said that if those black people had just done what the cop said they might still be alive but in many, maybe most, cases they aren't even given the opportunity to comply. read an account today of a black man in a white neighborhood accosted and harassed by police when a neighbor saw what was happening and came to his defense saying he was known in the neighborhood and to leave him alone. turns out the cop was responding to a burglary report in a different neighborhood so this black guy walking through a completely different neighborhood was accosted as a possible suspect just because he was black. when kids walking to school repeatedly get stopped and searched, their backpacks searched while white students don't, that's racism. Yes, guns are a big problem but it's not white people being singled out, harassed, and shot. it's black people. a black guy was shot and killed in a store that sells toy guns while he was holding the toy gun he planned to buy because someone called in a report of a black guy with a gun in the store and that happened in an open carry state. white guys walk in stores all the time carrying actual semi-automatic weapons and not only do they not get shot on site, no one even calls the cops. so yeah, guns. but it's clearly racism that gets black people killed. these people have been killed with impunity from the get go. by their owners when slaves, by their neighbors when freed, and now by the cops.