One year on from the tragic events of Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, 18, was shot dead by police, which resulted in the Ferguson riots of August 2014 and other “sympathy riots” right across America, what is the current state of race relations between African-Americans and the police?
A year on it would seem unfeasible to me from this side of the pond that relations could have improved, considering there have been so many more fatalities since then and a never ending litany of cases of abuse of authority meted upon African-Americans that are being recorded and uploaded onto YouTube on what seems to be a weekly basis.
Here in Britain, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1965. As questions are asked regarding how far America has moved on from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s it’s timely to ask the same of this country.
In considering this I shall quote from distinguished academics who spoke on some of these matters at the Institute of Ideas ‘Battle of Ideas 2015’ debate analysing the state of policing and race in America post-Ferguson.
It will be interesting to note if there are lessons for the African-Caribbean population and Police in England to take note of and vice-versa.
Dr James Campbell (lecturer in American History, University of Leicester; author, Crime and Punishment in African-American History) said it’s vital to understand the historical context of recent confrontations between the police and the African-American community. This would require an understanding of the background to and the impact of years of police violence and mass incarceration of African-Americans. He made four main points in this regards:
1. The events of the past year are far from exceptional.
There has been a long history of the police killing its black citizens in the administration of American justice. It’s hard wired into policemen going back to colonial times in terms of slavery, lynching’s and the creation of racially segregated ghetto’s. Law enforcement has always concentrated on racial control.
2. Lack of trust
The mutual lack of trust between police and African-American’s has harmed community relations. There has been talk of the need to rebuild trust, but Dr Campbell said that in many communities it has never existed at all. African-American’s and white citizen’s view the police differently. They tend to have two completely different world views based upon their experiences with law enforcement officers.
3. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s
This didn’t bring about any significant change in policing. If anything it made it worse. This was because key leaders were targeted and shot by the FBI. For those who would think the civil rights movement resulted in legislative change he was completely dismissive, arguing that there was no automatic connection between the two. In fact it only lead to a backlash and mass incarceration.
I’m sure many would beg to differ that the civil rights movement had no impact on legislative change. “The Civil Rights Movement succeeded in at least two main ways. First, it succeeded in that it won more legal rights for African-Americans. Second, it succeeded because it helped to create a less racist society, one where whites and blacks get along better (though by no means perfectly).” I tend to agree more with this statement.
You could also argue that its success had a knock on effect on England’s civil rights movement, as British based activists fought hard for equality, resulting in the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1965.
Ferguson has a 67% Black and minority ethnic population (BME) and is policed by a 83% white police force. That can’t help the situation and Campbell suggested that an increase in BME policemen and women would help build trust between the two sides.
4. Previous riots didn’t result in change
Dr Campbell stated that in his view most reports on previous riots were a waste of time and just gathered dust. The derogatory beliefs white officers and authors of these reports have of AA’s just went unchallenged. I would not disagree with that. We’ve seen in this country numerous reports into various areas of public concern, following for instance, the Brixton and Toxteth riots, the Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter deaths, numerous other child protection issues, but what has really changed. Mistakes still happen. Avoidable deaths happen.
A couple of things Kunle Olulode (director, Voice4Change England; creative director, Rebop Productions) said were quite striking. During the London riots of 2011 he happened to be hosting the Olympic and civil rights legend Dr Tommie Smith and 14 young American athletes in London. All watched their TV screen’s showing the events and London burning. The children were pretty nonplussed and told him this was normal and will blow over as it happens all the time in America. Kunle found this normalisation of riots very sad.
Like, Dr Campbell, he put this into historical context as well, though focused on much more recent history, comparing Ferguson with the LA riots of 1992 following the death of Rodney King and the acquittal (despite video evidence) of the two officers charged with beating him to death. The riots lead to 32 deaths and a billion dollars worth of damage to the city. On a more positive note he cited that it resulted in the recruitment of more BME officers and restructuring of local counsellors – only 1 in 5 were Black pre the riots.
Eric Holder, former US Attorney General (2009-2015), said the police were too focused on collecting fines as part of the revenue raising process to offset cuts in police resources.
More African-American officers moved from junior to senior positions.
The civil rights movement acted not just as an agent for change but as a pacifier of anger.
Dr Kevin Yuill, an American (senior lecturer, history, University of Sunderland; author, Assisted Suicide: the liberal, humanist case against liberalization) agreed with Dr Campbell that recent events are not exceptional, just more visual. 547 were killed or shot between January – June 2015. 49% of these were white, 23% BME, 28% other. He felt there has been an over policing on every level which has resulted in the negative (depending how you view it) consequence of quadrupling the rate of incarnation from ½ million to 2 million African-American’s.
Addressing the gun control (or should we say lack of) issue he said, somewhat implausibly to me, that US schools are the safest place to be in the world except Iceland, which only has a population of 300,000. The US school population, at 60m, is a little under the total UK population!
Lack of Integration
Dr Yuill said a major problem was African-American’s not wishing to integrate with mainstream society. The whole integration programme, or multi-culturalism as we would call it here, has stalled. That’s interesting, as ahead of this year’s general election Trevor Phillips famously said that multi-culturalism had failed. This was an astonishing and brave admission as it was something he’d pushed through when he was Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality.
Personally I think as a society people naturally are opposed to integration – certainly culturally. It’s so blatantly obvious for instance when it comes to entertainment. Go to the theatre, any comedy show football match, or even movies, for instance and you will observe clear lines of cultural divide. Most mainstream events are populated by a majority white crowd, even something as popular amongst all cultures like football. Comedy shows are drawn along ethnic lines with there being a clear market for Black or Asian shows for instance. You will rarely find many, if any non-white faces at a mainstream comedy show or play, or white faces at a Black or Asian show. I’m not suggesting this is due to racism, more a case of people simply feeling much more comfortable amongst their own culture both in terms of audience make up, the ethnicity of the line up’s on stage and the entertainment offered.
It’s noticeable in workplaces and school/college canteens too, where those of certain cultures seem naturally drawn to socialise and dine together rather than integrate with their colleagues of other ethnicities. This of course depends if there is a significant enough multi-cultural workforce/student base to enable that to happen.
Curiously Dr Yuill said that one of the solutions to this crisis was greater integration between the races when it came to personal relationships and marriage. I disagree with that. There has been integration (marriages/living together) but that does not appear to have had any positive impact on the state of African-American-Police relations. The only way that theory would work perhaps is if male, white police officers start marrying more African-American women!!
I’m not too sure what this had to do with this debate, but he went there and posited the well aired view that many African-American men are dating white women as “the posh white woman” ergo the “trophy wife” by black and white men alike.
Kunle quoted Al Sharpton’s speech at Michael Brown’s funeral: “We have to clean up our community before we can clean up America.” He issued a rallying call to end the “pity party” and said African-American’s need to look within to resolve problems within their community before looking to tackle the wider problems in American society and law enforcement. Kunle said that without a structured civil rights movement you can’t make real inroads.
One Asian man said rioting is not the answer and part of the problem is some Black people’s aggressive attitude towards the police. A calmer response is called for. I couldn’t disagree with that actually. I think in America you know what you are up against, so one’s response needs to be more measured, reasonable and one that is less inclined to escalate into a volatile situation.
The #BLM movement came in for a criticism, but Dr Campbell said they had achieved some notable successes. I tend to agree with Dr Campbell that the #BLM has been a force for good in putting the Black Lives Matter agenda at the forefront of the mass media agenda, highlighting issues and enabling other activists to work more collaboratively at tackling the deep seated police and racial problems in America.
A big problem for the states is that there are a lot of judicial agencies. Law enforcement is organised locally rather than nationally, which makes collecting and collating data very difficult.
It is instructive to locate the current situation in its historical context vis a vis colonialism, slavery, white domination, the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter movement.
I think it’s clear from mainstream news reports and moreso from social media reports from people on the ground such as Shaun King, Root magazine and others that there are regular occurrences in America of the police abusing their authority. As Campbell and Yuill said, it’s not a new phenomenon, it’s just become much more visual thanks to YouTube, camera phones and social media such as Facebook and Twitter allowing US citizens to film, upload and publish incidents which years ago would go unreported or worse would not be believed if the stories were told without accompanying footage. Whilst one can’t see this being resolved anytime soon, there is hope with greater activism, social media, worldwide awareness of what is going on that things may change over the next ten years.
I disagree with Dr Campbell that the civil rights movement has not accelerated change. The level and status the African-American has achieved – in terms of senior positions in business, public administration, the law, sport, entertainment and many other areas between the 1960’s and now is remarkable and a visible sign that much progress has been made. The same applies in Britain if you compare what African-Caribbean people have achieved in the above areas, compared to the largely low grade, low level roles and status African-Caribbean’s tended to hold in the 1960’s. For that you have to give a lot of credit to the activists and politicians who pushed forward the equalities agenda in Britain.
The disconnected US justice system that has different states following their own legislation means there are few meaningful statistics regarding police actions, shootings, murders, incidents analysed and reported by ethnicity and gender. This will need to change for without an accurate picture it will be harder to introduce widespread common sense, practical actions to combat the terrible things that have been going on.
Furthermore, the elephant in the room, so to speak, is the gun culture of America. Too many officers are trigger happy, seemingly operating a shoot first, ask questions later policy. Unfortunately Americans, in spite of numerous mass gun related fatalities (45+ this year alone) are too much in love with their 2nd amendment ‘right to bear arms’. America seriously needs to think again regarding this and in the meantime, look carefully at its mental health issues of its citizens, its men especially, for it is usually men going on mass shooting sprees. It is usually male police officers killing innocent men and women.
Here in Britain our major debate relates to knife crime rather than gun crime. Stop and search activities in the capital London have reduced in the last 5 years, but knife related crime appears to have increased. Just like America, we have an unrepresentative (ethnicity wise) police force in our major cities like London. Regardless of whether having more will improve matters I can only see it being a positive step forward. After all, in the main, it’s not Black police officers killing Black men and women in America or Britain. I wonder why?
Review © Tiemo Talk of the Town
- One year after Ferguson – Why nobody know how many people are killed by the police? – NBC analysis – 10.08.15
- America After Ferguson – PBS Town Hall debates videos – August 2015
- Race: An inconvenient truth. Things we cannot say about raced that are true – Tiemo review – 20.03.15
- Civil rights movement successes in America – Notes – College Educator – 26.02.15
- Inter-racial dating is fundamentally making America a more beautiful place – Ellie Krupnick – 20.11.14
- One year on. What on earth did the riots achieve? – Tiemo article – 09.11.12
- After the riots – 10 Steps to repairing broken Britain – Tiemo article – 24.08.11
- After Ferguson: Policing and race in America – Battle of Ideas 2015 debate – 17.10.15
- Battle of Ideas reviews 2015