The climate of tension and violence that has affected the city of Ferguson, Missouri is an opportunity to reflect on social wounds that are slow to heal. The problems in Ferguson began when a white policeman murdered a black 18-year-old named Michael Brown on August 9th. According to witnesses, the young man was innocent — he was unarmed — and was shot by police while trying to turn himself in. But for others, the problems began much earlier. This incident occurred in a context of police violence against young black people, and it is something that comes to the surface in American society every so often. In this specific case, the police in Ferguson disproportionately detain and arrest black residents: 92 percent of arrests and 86 percent of traffic stops are of black people.
The protests began the day of the killing and continued for the entire week. The police response, with an almost military-level deployment, further incited the demonstrators. On the second day, what looked like a peaceful protest devolved into looting and other disturbances, to which the police responded with a SWAT team, helicopters and tear gas. Similar scenes have been repeated each day with more damage, demonstrators throwing rocks and bottles at the police and the police forces using explosives and rubber bullets, as well as arresting people.
On August 15, the police announced the identity of the officer who had shot the young man. That night there were more incidents and looting, and — although the governor announced a curfew — on Sunday there were more disturbances, more arrests and more people injured. On Monday, the governor mobilized National Guard troops in order to stop the violence. The curfew was lifted, and even though the protests were peaceful, the police used acoustic devices that emit painful noises to disperse the demonstrators and even pointed their guns at journalists. On Tuesday the situation was calmer — more of a demonstration than a protest — and it was the first time the police didn’t use tear gas since Michael Brown’s death. In the meantime, the murder investigation continues, with the participation of the FBI, to determine if there was a civil rights violation.
It’s also possible to go even further back to understand that this conflict shows, once again, the latent racial tension in American society. This region was one of the key battlegrounds in the fight for civil rights in the 50s and 60s. Incidents like this have demonstrated that race continues to be a decisive factor for the government and for police forces. Sixty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, which was the legal impetus for school desegregation, half a century after the Civil Rights Act (1964) and nearly as long since the Voting Rights Act (1965), equality before the law is still not a reality. The situation brings to light the fact that events like those occurring in Missouri can reopen deep scars.
In this sense, it becomes even more important to reflect on the role of police forces, which should be not only to legitimately suppress crime but also to be a part of the construction of a democratic public space. In this case, the police’s disproportionate reaction, along with police militarization, has distanced them from their pacifying role in social conflicts.
Ferguson is a wake-up call for all societies with deep fractures: we should never abandon these issues, assuming they are finally settled, but we should work insistently towards peace. In this sense, President Obama’s reaction was seen as tepid, even by his supporters. Far from the campaign speeches in which he advocated for building bridges across the racial divide, perhaps the president missed an opportunity to advance towards equality.