By Ahmad Abu Hayyan
The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson (unarmed teenager) and Eric Garner in New York (unarmed and suffocated to death) by police officers again reminded the world that whilst America lauds itself as a beacon of justice and example for the world, it’s own society is still mired in racism, discrimination and injustice.
These two cases are not isolated incidences rather they are the latest examples of an endemic problem and institutionalised racism that exists in America. In 1991 when Rodney King was videotaped being severely beaten by Los Angeles Police. Many people thought the video alone would lead to the conviction of the officers. But on April 29, 1992, a jury in Simi Valley, California, which included no black jurors, acquitted three of the officers, and a mistrial was declared for the fourth. Over 20 years later grand juries in America are acquitting police officers of all charges while unarmed black men are deliberately harassed and even killed by police officers.
In 1991, similar to 2014, the acquittal of police officers triggered riots and protests in America. The four white officers charged with beating Rodney King, Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell were later indicted in the summer of 1992 but on federal civil rights charges, not on the beatings which they inflicted. Officers Koon and Powell were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, and King was awarded $3.8 million in damages.
In a phrase that became part of American culture, King asked at a news conference, “Can we all just get along?”
However America was unable to ‘get along’ with a young unarmed black man being shot dead on the 9th August 2014. Michael Brown who was 18 years old, allegedly stole a pack of cigarillos from a shop and pushed the store clerk into a display case when confronted.
Shortly after this incident, police officer Darren Wilson received an alert in his patrol car. Stopping Brown and his friend for walking in the middle of the road a fracas broke out with differing accounts from witnesses that led to Wilson shooting dead Michael Brown. Some witnesses claimed that before the fatal shot in the head, Brown had his arms raised and posed no threat while already having been shot twice. He was then shot a further six times in the head and right arm. The body of Brown lay in the street for four hours in a pool of blood before it was removed.
A grand jury ruled that they would not charge Wilson over the shooting. A decision which shocked the world, but maybe did not shock Black America.
Ferguson is a majority-black town. According to the 2010 census, about 67 percent of residents are black and 29 percent are white.This racial makeup is not reflected in the town’s institutions. Ferguson’s mayor is white. Five of the six members of its city council are white. Six of the seven members of its school board are white.
It’s police force is overwhelmingly white. Out of the 53 commissioned officers in the Ferguson Police Department, only three are black. And the chief of police, Thomas Jackson, is also white.
The Ferguson police department, like many other local law enforcement agencies, disproportionately stops and arrests black residents. According to a racial profiling report from the Missouri Attorney General’s office of the 5,384 traffic stops made last year, 4,632 of them — 86 percent — targeted black drivers. Only 684, or 12.7 percent, targeted white drivers, even though Ferguson is almost 30 percent white.
Adding insult to injury, another grand jury in Staten Island, New York looked the other way and returned no indictment of the police officer who choked unarmed father of six Eric Garner to death, on camera, using an illegal chokehold as Garner pleaded, “I can’t breathe!”
Brown and Garner were two men living a thousand miles away from each other, but they shared a common bond between them. They were both black males killed infront of witnesses in broad daylight by white police officers.
Torture is another pursuit well documented and carried out by US law enforcement. It was in the early 90s, where it became public that the Chicago Police Department, under the command of Jon Burge, had tortured over 100 people of color – mostly African-American men – systemically over the course of decades.
The survivors of this describe beatings and electric shocks, as well as having plastic bags pulled over their heads and threatened with mock executions. The subsequent forced confessions resulted in many individuals being sentenced to severe prison terms or, in some cases, death. Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, but neither he nor any of the detectives he supervised have, to this day, been prosecuted for their actions.
The US Bureau of Justice Statistics says there were 2,931 “arrest-related deaths” from 2003 to 2009. That includes car chases, shootouts and so on. The casualties are nearly always male, and men aged 25 to 34 are most likely to die.
Some 41.7 per cent of the casualties were white and 31.7 per cent were black. Since black people only make up about 13 per cent of the US population, and nearly 63 per cent of Americans are white, blacks were disproportionately likely to be killed. Divide the deaths by the average population and Afro Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.
What use is a Black President if Black America is still oppressed?
The reality is that America may have a Black President, but black America is still oppressed. At the beginning of his term, Barack Obama was celebrated as the first Black president who may take a step in eradicating racism. Yet after six years in office, little has changed for blacks in America.
On the 18th March 2008 as a candidate in Philadelphia, Obama reacted to comments made by his Chicago pastor and friend Jeremiah Wright, who accused the US government of crimes against blacks. “God damn America … for killing innocent people,” he said from the pulpit in a sermon that threatened Obama’s candidacy.
“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said in his speech. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country … is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”
In that speech, Obama promised to create “a more perfect union,” in reference to the preamble of the US Constitution. He sought to finally fulfil the promise made 50 years earlier by fellow Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. In remarks at the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964, Johnson said he hoped to “eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country” and to “close the springs of racial poison.”
Black America has never seen a perfect union. Rather they have witnessed barriers to freedom, to employment, to education, even the right to sit on a bus or a park bench.
A perfect statement by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociology professor at Duke University, sums up Obamas presidency for the black community “Having a black president doesn’t mean much in our day-to-day lives.”
US an example to the world?
The United States of America is no model for the rest of the world to follow. Dig beneath the Hollywood projection of its society one sees endemic and institutionalised racism and discrimination. A society that is not only unequal between the whites and the blacks but a society that preferentially favours the rich over the poor.
Not only is there a cultural projection of America’s claimed superiority but also a desire to police the world according to its own image and its own interests. However just as the police force abuses unarmed civilians while claiming to be the victim, similarly American foreign policy and its military continually abuses the Muslim world while claiming victimhood and blaming those whom they abuse. Muslims are well aware of the extrajudicial killings through the CIA drone assassination programme. A programme that has even deliberately assassinated the 16 year old son of Anwar Al Awlaki, who himself was an American citizens while residing in Yemen at the time of his murder. What is reflected in terms of inequality and injustice in American society is amplified when it comes to American foreign policy in the Muslim world. Again Muslims are well aware of rendition, torture, detention without charge in places like Guantanamo bay or Abu Ghraib.
An iniquitous society that projects iniquity to the world!