In Riot Mode

The “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving has traditionally been reserved for shopping. On no other day can one find such bargains on electronics or clothing. This year, however, calls for boycotts are coursing through Twitter. The tweets in the U.S. say: “hands up, don’t spend,” a variation on the “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan that protesters have been shouting in every demonstration across the U.S. in response to the Michael Brown decision.

Protesters believe this is a way to have an effect on the system; boycott consumption and seize the economy where it hurts. At the retail giant Target store in Ferguson, demonstrators planted themselves in front of the door on the morning of Black Friday in an effort to disrupt the shopping. But hardly anyone believes that most people will miss out on buying half-price tablets just to set an example against racism and police violence.

The holiday has slowed the enthusiasm of demonstrations across the country. Even in Ferguson, protests remained peaceful, not least because citizens and police are speaking with each another. Many Americans remain agitated after the grand jury decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the deadly shooting of teenager Michael Brown. The statements from Wilson and dozens of witnesses who are now speaking freely are being picked apart in the newspapers and on television.

Television in Riot Mode

For Europeans, the matter often appears simple, and the Ferguson case apparently confirms what they suspect anyway: Americans are, for the most part, racist, influenced by ignorant television producers. The British-French journalist Ben Judah cited, of all people, a Russia Today executive on Twitter, who reportedly said, if “the Americans” had watched the “correct television” they could transform Ferguson into a “revolution.” But the Americans watch CNN and Fox News instead.

Actually, U.S. news channels were already in riot mode at the beginning of the week, before a single bottle had been thrown at the police station in Ferguson. Reporters sent out minute-by-minute tweets from Clayton, Missouri, where the grand jury was deciding whether Officer Wilson would have to stand trial for the deadly shooting of Brown, the black teenager. Talk of possible riots was already occurring on CNN, Fox News and NBC a few days before the grand jury decision.

And when the riots occurred, many observers got the impression that the reporters had only been waiting to pose in front of a Civil War-like backdrop. Some 81 percent of white and 50 percent of black responders stated later in a poll that the news coverage had helped to worsen the situation.

Conservative U.S. Media Defend the Deadly Shooter

The peaceful protests in almost 200 cities were also to be found on television in Oakland, Philadelphia, and in New York. But the images from Ferguson dominated: burning cars are more spectacular than peaceful demonstrators. The selected images found in European newspapers and TV programs were no exception in this case.

The news feeds of the U.S. right-wing Fox News reported on the destruction in Ferguson all day long. Reporters stressed again and again how black citizens were destroying their own community. Fox brought the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, into the studio, where he described the witness statement by police officer Darren Wilson as 100 percent believable.

For the majority of conservative U.S. media, it is clear: Darren Wilson not only acted legally, but was also unaffected by racial prejudice. For Fox News, Wilson’s own answer provided enough evidence as to whether or not he would have acted differently with a white suspect; no, obviously not. And while 67 percent of black Americans believe Wilson was clearly in the wrong, only 22 percent of whites stated they believe Wilson was wrong in a recent poll.

But does that also mean they deny the deeper underlying conflicts and problems? The media in the U.S. have diverse viewpoints; therefore no small number of thoughtful voices exist for those who want to hear them.

Will Ferguson Change America?

The discussion about racism, police violence and the connection between the two in the U.S. has not only occurred as a result of Ferguson. Journalist Nicholas Kristof, for example, recently published a series in the New York Times, which he titled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” According to Kristof, America continues to be a post-slavery society, and racism is deeply ingrained in social, cultural and political institutions.

Kristof describes the divide between blacks and whites, which manifests itself in daily life. Many whites hardly have any black friends and vice versa; many blacks must endure groundless checks by police again and again. Kristof says this is so prevalent that a black friend of his never throws away shopping receipts in case he is ever accused of theft.

Evidence of Racism in the Justice System and Police

In his series, Kristof cites the following evidence of inherent racism in the justice system and the police: blacks are stopped by the police much more often, they receive longer sentences than whites for the same crimes, and someone who kills a white person has a much higher risk of being sentenced to death than when the victim is black. Many African-Americans feel betrayed by the judicial system and the numbers confirm their beliefs.

Eric Garner, who was held in a choke hold by a New York police officer for so long that he died, was black. Akai Gurley, who was randomly going up the steps of a New York housing project with his girlfriend and shot by an alleged rookie police officer, was black. And the 12-year-old with the toy gun who was shot by a police officer in Cleveland was black.

The deadly shooter in Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson, compared the 18-year-old Michael Brown to a demon. Anyone who suspects that racist stereotyping influenced the behavior of the police officer is not overreacting.

Outcry from Europe Leads to Nothing

Anger notwithstanding, outrage cannot overcome the fact that social conflicts cannot be solved by the penal system alone. Even if Darren Wilson had been indicted, a not guilty verdict at trial would have been very possible. The list of problems that needs to be answered by American society is long; it ranges from the allocation of police personnel in places like Ferguson to the still unequal opportunities for children in the education system. The discussion about practical improvements — better training for police officers, use of body cameras — began before Ferguson, and still continues.

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