ABOVE PHOTO: A crowd is stopped by police as they were trying to reach the scene where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. A spokesman with the St. Louis County Police Department confirmed a Ferguson police officer shot the man. The spokesman didn’t give the reason for the shooting, nor provide the officer’s name or race. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Huy Mach)
By Wendell P. Simpson
Events in Ferguson, Missouri have filled the newspapers and nightly newscasts over the past several weeks. Protests and civil unrest have highlighted the confrontation between police and citizens.
We all know the story by now. The shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson kicked of weeks of demonstrations, rioting and confrontations between the Black residents of Ferguson and local police.
Shootings of unarmed young Black men have, unfortunately, been all too common over the course of American history. The shooting of Trayvon Martin by a local cop-wannabe in Sanford, Florida in 2012, for example, kicked off a national furor that brought into conversation the role that racism and preconceived notions of the inherent criminality of young Black men play in a prosecutorial fervor that has seen the wholesale incarceration of more than two million millions African Americans over the past 20 years.
Brown’s death follows an all too familiar litany. According to civilian witnesses, Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were strolling along a Ferguson thoroughfare when they were accosted by a police officer who ordered the pair off the street. Witnesses say that when the pair refused to comply right away, Wilson opened fire on the unarmed teenager, killing Brown instantly.
Ferguson police officials tell a different story: They say that Brown became belligerent, hostile and combative–and that officer Johnson only opened fire after feeling being threatened by Brown and Johnson.
The Brown shooting kicked off days of protests and looting in the suburban St. Louis town when angry mobs began smashing windows and setting fires in the aftermath.
The story that has unfolded in Ferguson follows a familiar and historic litany of mass protest and demonstration that has prevailed in the aftermath of police confrontations with young Black males in Black communities—not only in the United States but in communities of color in Europe as well:
The Watts Riots of 1965: Although there was no du jour discrimination in Los Angeles, Black residents, mostly newly arrived Southerners, were shunted into segregated communities in East Los Angeles. Excluded from viable, middle-class jobs, the community exploded when on the evening of August 11, 1965, police beat and harassed 21-year-old Marquette Frye during a traffic stop. Neighborhood witnesses immediately exploded in protest, which led to six days of rioting and looting. The police officers involved in the beating incident were never charged and never disciplined. The Watts Riots are considered to be a major turning point in the civil rights movement.
The Newark Riots of 1967: Between the nights of July 12 and July 17 racial discrimination, consistent police harassment, a profound lack of political representation and the destruction of an historic Black neighborhood crystallized in six days of rioting and looting. The touchstone incident was the arrest of a local Black cab driver, John Smith by two white Newark police officers, John De Simone and Vito Petrelli. Neighborhood denizens reacted when Smith was seen being forcibly dragged into the local police precinct. Rumors began to spread throughout the community that the two officers had killed Brown. A day later, Black resident Rebecca Brown (no relation) was accidentally killed when Newark police unleashed a fusillade of bullets while pursuing a robbery suspect. The second incident sent the riot into high gear—and there was no turning back.
The L.A. Riots of 1992: Also known as the Rodney King Riots, the L.A. Riots kicked off when a Simi Valley jury acquitted four LAPD officers of assault and excessive use of force charges in the beating of motorist Rodney King. King, a young Black man with a history of minor trouble with police, was dragged from his car and beaten by police in Hollywood. On the night of the beating, a passerby videotaped a prone and helpless King being bludgeoned by nightstick wielding cops. Local television news outlets broadcast the tape and Black and Latino Angelenos, frustrated by years of antagonism between the community and overzealous policing, exploded over five days, from April 29 to May 4, 1992. Thousands rioted and vast swatches of L.A. burned in the aftermath resulting in massive looting and the beating of whites that happened to wander into the riot zone. In all, 2,000 persons were injured, 53 people killed, and 11,000 Angelenos were arrested. The riot caused more than $4oo million in property damage.
The London Riots of 2011: On August 4, 2011, a London police office shot and killed 29-year-old Mark Duggan during a traffic stop in the Tottenham section of East London. Police were conducting a sting called ‘Operation Trident’, which was investigating gun crime within the Black community. Two things stood out in this particular incident, 1) there isn’t a whole lot of gun crime in London, and 2) rarely do police in London carry guns. Initially, it was reported that a bullet was wedged in a piece of police equipment that was on the scene of the shooting; however; ballistics tests conducted later by the police discovered that the recovered bullet was actually a hollow-point that had the distinct qualities of ammunition used by the police themselves. A report issued by the Independent Police Complaints Commission concluded that Duggan never opened fire on the police—that, instead, the bullet had passed through Duggan’s body when he was shot by police. Black citizens held a protest march on August 6, 2011, which remained peaceful until police swarmed a young Black girl, injuring her. That incident—along with anger over Duggan’s death set off a city-wide protest which resulted in vast sections of East and West London being set ablaze over the next week. Significant outbreaks occurred in the London boroughs of Brixton, Camden, Central London, Bethnal Green, Wood Green, Hackney, Battersea, Lewisham Peckham and Waltham Forest. The violence also spread to the cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. One feature of the riot that went underreported in the United States was that the protestors comprised a diverse racial mix as British people of all races were upset by the inappropriate use of deadly violence against a British citizen. Police were finally able to quell the outbreaks after four days—but not before millions of pounds in damages had occurred across the city and the nation.