In press conferences and statements since protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri following the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a city police officer, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson has spoken about the events in his city since that day. He has expressed concern for the safety of Ferguson residents and protesters, hoped for healing following what he calls the “tragic” loss of Michael Brown, and has expressed a desire to repair the relationship between the Ferguson Police Department and members of the Ferguson community. Too, on news casts daily, reporters have referred to protesters as frustrated and grieving members of the “Ferguson community.”
But Jackson’s sentiments strike me as hollow, and the term “community,” a misnomer. Why?
Because for the first five days of protests, the Ferguson police department treated Black residents as non-community members. It treated them as outsiders, as the enemy. It used isolated instances of looting on the first night of protests as an excuse to employ military style tactics against peaceful protesters for five days. Officers aimed large military-grade semi-automatic assault weapons at protesters with their hands in the air. Snipers and sharpshooters aimed at demonstrators from atop tactical ops tanks. Officers policed the streets with dogs, in scenes reminiscent of the civil rights era. They fired tear gas, pepper balls and wooden and rubber bullets at attendants of prayer vigils. They pepper sprayed children. They harassed, assaulted, and arrested people who did not clear the streets by 9pm – people who had every right to be there as late as they pleased. They called protesters “animals.”
That Wednesday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon brought in the Missouri Highway Patrol to take over protest security under the leadership of Captain Ron Johnson, a Black man. That same day, patrolmen posed for pictures with protesters in shows of solidarity. By that Saturday, the highway patrol had, too, refused to distinguish between peaceful protesters and intentional provocateurs – the former of which vastly outnumbered the latter – and returned to teargassing the masses over isolated instances of violence, most of which had and still consists of mere bottle throwing.
Images from Ferguson have so shocked the world that Egypt, Iran, China, and the United Nations have spoken out against the use of force there, with the Egyptian foreign ministry urging US officials to “show restraint” with protesters, and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon calling for Missouri police to abide by “Constitutional and international standards.”
So I ask: the Black residents of Ferguson, to whose community do they belong? The Ferguson Police Department clearly does not see them as belonging to theirs.
When the people charged with protecting and serving you turn their weapons against you, they have excluded you from their community. When they tell you your Constitutional rights expire at a certain time of day, they have excluded you from their community. When the governor of your state remains silent and allows such civil and human rights violations to continue for five days, he has excluded you from his community.
President Obama spoke Thursday about the events in Ferguson, saying that we are all a part of the “American family,” united by common values including “reverence for the dignity of every man, woman, and child.” Families mourn the loss of one of their own, and you can tell who’s seen as belonging to a family or community by who the community mourns. When Black people die, Black people mourn, the nation does not. When Black people die, it makes local headlines at the nearest news hour. When White people die, it’s national news for days, if not weeks. When a Black person dies, the media launch investigations into the potential criminal history or gang affiliations of the murder victim. When a White person dies, they interview the victim’s loved ones about how great a friend, father or mother, sister or brother, he or she was.
Michael Brown’s murder is troubling for me for the same reason unnecessary and unprovoked extrajudicial killings of Black men and women are always troubling for Black people: it could have been me. It could have been either of my brothers, any one of my cousins, or any one of my friends. It could have been them the last time. And it could still be any one of us at any given point in time. And that scares the hell out of me.
But the murder and subsequent police attacks on protesters are also frustrating because they are fresh reminders that, as a Black man in America, I am the other. Black people face constant reminders that we are the other. That we do not belong. That we are not welcome. That we are not wanted. And that we are not equal. For centuries, White people have been fearful and suspicious of Black folks and have treated us as non-community members. White power structures have operated in an oppressive and exclusionary fashion. And the events of Ferguson throughout the past week, and the murder of Michael Brown itself, are yet new examples of this oppression, and new reminders of these notions.
So you can put a Black man in charge of protest security. You can publish pictures of patrolmen posing with protesters in shows of solidarity. You can tell me that Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson’s sentiments of communal mourning and support reflect those of mainstream America. But I’ve seen, heard, and experienced otherwise. Michael Brown was shot twice in the head and at least four more times elsewhere after surrendering with his hands in the air. To Officer Darren Wilson, he was not the community. And it has become clear to me that neither am I.
Hands up. Don’t shoot. I am Michael Brown.
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a Senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.