One year after the death of black teenager Michael Brown, racism and police violence are still the dominating topics in U.S. society. In the course of protests under the motto “Black Lives Matter,” progress has been achieved that is already effective or will provide for changes in the medium term. The police have lost their prerogative of interpretation. Reforms have begun — slowly, but inexorably.
It has been one year since white policeman Darren Wilson shot black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was unarmed; there was a struggle before Wilson’s shots. That the dead body of the 18-year-old was still lying around in the middle of Canfield Drive four hours later without evidence being secured made many blacks even sadder and angrier — in Ferguson, the nearby city of St. Louis and all of America.
“Black Lives Matter” has since become the slogan for protests that began after Aug. 9. In the city of Ferguson, predominantly inhabited by blacks, it came to looting; the police used tear gas and sent the National Guard — the state power appeared like the U.S. Army in Iraq. The state of Missouri was armed with military equipment and not interested in dialogue.
Michael Brown is, unfortunately, not the only name the world connects to the extent of police violence in the U.S. Eric Garner in Staten Island, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Walter Scott in North Charleston and Sandra Bland in Texas. The data project “The Counted” has calculated that in 2015 alone, 695 people — blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans — have been killed by officers.
Has nothing at all happened in the past 12 months? To the contrary, there have been many advances on many levels that are already effective, or will provide for changes in the medium term.
Anger of Black Activists Keeps the Topic Alive – and in the Media
The fact that police brutality and the devastating repercussions of the war on drugs in the U.S. are being discussed is also due to the many young African-Americans who tirelessly report about acts of violence and everyday racism via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Vine. They don’t only film for themselves how cops, for example, behave at demonstrations (more about the meaning of smartphones later), or document how they cripple shopping malls with peaceful protests. They also ensure — as in the case of Sandra Bland — that TV networks and established media like The Washington Post report [on these events].
Not only The New York Times is convinced that a new civil rights movement is developing here. Activists like DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie do not only travel through the country to inform about the topic, they are also mini news agencies disseminating information to several hundred thousand followers — among them many journalists.
Smartphones As Game Changer — for the Better
The fact that every American owns a smartphone doesn’t only make it possible for activists and citizens to document events in real time that no TV camera is capturing. A public discourse outside of the established media also develops. And it was precisely cellphone videos that proved in the most brutal way what many people worldwide did not know or refused to believe: There are policemen who choke a man like Eric Garner, who gasps, “I can’t breathe.” And there are cops who shoot a fleeing black man in the back and subsequently write in their report that they acted out of self-defense (as happened in the case of Walter Scott).
These short films are a game changer, as one says in the U.S.: No one can deny their existence or validity. Legal experts like David Harris from the University of Pittsburgh and authorities like David Simon (author of “The Wire”) are in agreement: The police no longer control the narrative about certain events. They have lost their interpretational sovereignty.
In reaction to the Ferguson debate, U.S. President Barack Obama appointed a commission that produced recommendations for better police work. In addition, the federal government has made $75 million available to acquire body cameras. These may in fact be helpful, but they are no cure-all, said legal expert David Harris in conversation with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
He emphasizes: The police in the U.S. are organized at the local level, which is why any U.S. president only has limited influence. It is up to cities and communities to implement changes. Harris, who has focused on this topic for 30 years, says that never before has there been so much action, and many city councils are currently examining rules for the implementation of cameras and the content of training.
The community of Ferguson, with 21,000 residents, is an extreme example that not everything can change overnight. Andre Anderson, a black man, is now interim chief of police, which is not only important symbolically. The Justice Department has now officially determined that there is institutional racism among the cops in Ferguson; yet this alone does not immediately establish trust among the population.
The entire country is also discussing whether the police are adequately prepared for their jobs. The focus is too seldom on teaching new officers communication strategies and de-escalating behavior. Here, too, Ferguson serves as a cautionary tale: In 2014, four times as much money was spent on new uniforms as on the training and further education of officers.
The Topic Is Important to Obama — and He Will Force It
Too late, too hesitantly, too measured: Barack Obama has frequently been criticized for his reaction to Ferguson. Many demand that as the first black U.S. president, he ought to express himself more definitively; at the same time, he would like to avoid the impression of one-sidedly taking the African-Americans’ position. Yet the Democrat is now speaking in shorter and shorter intervals about the tensions that exist between the police and blacks as well as Latinos. He emphasizes that racism is still “part of our DNA.” To be sure, the prejudices are decreasing, but “it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.” More clarity is hardly feasible for a U.S. president.
Since the eulogy in Charleston where he sang “Amazing Grace,” it is clear that the discussion of the dealings of the majority white society and minorities has priority for Obama. Loretta Lynch, the new attorney general, will intervene in racist incidents in police districts — like in Ferguson — and she will promote reforms in the penal code that lock fewer U.S. citizens behind bars. Until Jan. 19, 2017, the last day of his presidency, Obama will again and again speak about this topic.
Democrats Must Take the Topic Seriously; Republicans Should Too
Barack Obama would not have been re-elected in 2012 if 93 percent of blacks had not voted for him — and if the proportion of black voters had not been greater than that of white voters. For sure, African-Americans traditionally support Democrats, but Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley must nevertheless court this important voting bloc.
Therefore, no Democratic candidate can afford to ignore the topics of police violence and prison sentences in this beginning election campaign, because the topics are central in many black communities. After the Ferguson tragedy, consciousness is slowly growing that one can achieve improvements at the ballot box. And with Rand Paul, there is at least one Republican hoping to move into the White House who speaks openly about police violence and seeks dialogue.
How It Will Go from Here
In spite of this cautious positive balance, it is clear: Every dead person is one too many, and this loss causes endless pain among their relatives. And naturally, it would be completely wrong to deny the widespread racism that prevails in U.S. society. This week, 50 percent of all respondents in a Pew survey said that they would view racism as a “great problem.”
The number hasn’t been so high in 20 years, which appears shocking at first glance. But it is the constant media coverage — triggered by videos from smartphones and police cameras — that ensures that U.S. society can no longer deny these unpleasant topics. It will take many years until certain opinions change, but U.S. teenagers today are much more tolerant (same-sex marriage!) than their parents.
For German observers of the American debate, one could conclude: Through slavery and segregation, racism and prejudice are more deeply seated than one can imagine in Western Europe. But what has happened since the deadly shooting of Michael Brown is much more than is appreciated in this part of the world.