Africana Studies Program Director Jennifer James analyzes the unrest.
A funeral was held in St. Louis on Monday for Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The Aug. 9 incident triggered more than two weeks of protests in Ferguson and in cities across the U.S.
The aftermath of the shooting has been a revelation of the town’s uneven power dynamics, allegations of police brutality and the criminalization of black residents. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has launched a federal investigation into Brown’s death, and a state investigation also is underway.
Jennifer James, director of the George Washington University Africana Studies program, is the daughter of St. Louis natives. She spoke with George Washington Today about the unrest in Ferguson and the history of racial tension in the area.
Q: What are your personal ties to Ferguson?
A: My mother and father were raised in St. Louis. They left St. Louis early in their lives to escape the stultifying segregation and racism. Most of my relatives stayed in St. Louis or moved to the surrounding suburbs. My aunt settled in Ferguson, where she lived until her recent death.
Q: Describe the history of Ferguson’s social and political climate on race relations?
A: Missouri has a long history of racial and economic inequality rooted in its status as a slave state. In fact, the grave of Dred Scott—the Missouri slave who sued unsuccessfully for his freedom in the U.S. Supreme Court—is down the street from where Mr. Brown was killed.
During the 1980s and 1990s, St. Louis began to collapse for reasons similar to other large Midwestern cities. Deindustrialization led to depopulation. In the population migrations that followed, Ferguson became largely black, working class and poor. Those whites who remained in Ferguson, though a minority, retained control of the most important social and political institutions. That stark fact sets Ferguson apart from municipalities with comparable populations and leaves us with a troubling question: How have the black residents of Ferguson become so disempowered that they have failed to vote themselves into power?
Q: How has Mr. Brown’s death cast a spotlight on cases of police brutality?
A: Taken by itself, the shooting of just one unarmed black man in broad daylight is an extraordinarily disturbing event that should give the nation pause. We have seen highly-publicized police killings of four unarmed black men in July and August—Mr. Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III and Ezell Ford.
Q: How has the local community and the nation responded to the ongoing unrest?
A: The response in the local community has been unbending, and despite the appearance of chaos at points, there is an organizing principle. The citizens of Ferguson have made a concerted effort to visibly and vocally trouble the local government until they see the wheels of justice turning. The protests originated after the outcry from youth who witnessed how Mr. Brown was shot down and left lying in the street, uncovered, for four hours. Later, others joined in. If the youth had accepted Mr. Brown’s shooting as status quo, we might not be discussing Ferguson now.
The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that the police response to protestors has been an effort to curtail the rights to free speech and assembly. Displays of weapons and the use of tear gas intimidated many would-be protesters. Commands that protestors keep walking up and down the street kept some elderly and disabled demonstrators from joining demonstrations. Ferguson law enforcement was repeatedly filmed intimidating and detaining journalists, which threatens freedom of the press.
Q: How has the residents’ lack of trust in law enforcement negatively affected policing in Ferguson?
A: When a boy like Mr. Brown is perceived as “an enemy,” “an other” or “a thug,” violence becomes easier. Innumerable studies confirm that police officers, regardless of their own race, are more likely to kill African Americans than other populations.
Community-centered policing, the antithesis of military-style tactics, depends on the police treating all people as human beings deserving of equality under the law. It requires getting to know the inhabitants of even the most distressed neighborhoods, introducing familiarity and instilling trust. Many African Americans who live in those environments refuse to call the police on any young black man because they worry that law enforcement will react with deadly force. The involvement of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Mr. Holder, while a welcomed intervention in Ferguson, is only necessary because of the eroded confidence in local officials. The arrival of the DOJ last Wednesday represents a break down in the system at the lower levels of law enforcement.