Ferguson shooting protests spread across US
Riots have broken out in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer escaped prosecution for shooting dead an unarmed black teenager. Why are racial divisions still so wide in the US?
Cars and businesses torched, the police attacked and the military called in to try to restore order. In the same year that America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the civil rights act, the town of Ferguson, Missouri is being torn apart by the biggest race riots in recent times. Mass protests are taking place from LA to New York.
Ferguson has been on edge since August, when police officer Darren Wilson shot dead unarmed black teenager Michael Brown after he had committed a minor robbery. Many say the shooting was unjustified and that Wilson’s account of the events is highly suspicious. Yet after a grand jury decided there was not ‘probable cause’ to even put him on trial, rioters went on the rampage.
Commentators say the riots are an expression of anger not just at the shooting of a teenager, but at the discrimination black Americans face more generally. Young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by the police than whites and 80% of those stopped by police in New York are black. Their treatment has left many African-Americans with a deep distrust of the justice system.
Discrimination pervades US society. Studies show that black students are more likely to be expelled from school and consequently have fewer opportunities in life. This leads some to crime, for which they are punished more severely. Almost half of the USA’s two million prisoners are black, compared to only 12% of the US population.
Racism in the USA is far less pronounced than it was when the Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s, after Rosa Parks refused to stand on a bus just so a white passenger could sit. At that time, blacks in the south had to go to segregated and inferior schools and received second rate government services.
Yet almost a quarter of African-Americans still live in poverty and in the country’s more deprived areas. Commentators say the anger in Ferguson is fed by the experience of the underlying racism that still pervades America.
And justice for some
Even though the USA has its first black president, it has a long way to go in addressing its deep-seated racism, some say. Until discrimination stops, tempers are going to boil over into the chaos being witnessed on the streets of Missouri. The Michael Brown case is just one example of America’s deep-rooted race issues.
Yet others say that the main issue in the Ferguson case is mistrust of the police. A black church pastor says there is a portion of black culture ‘that has become increasingly anti-authority and anti-social to a point of self-destruction’. These riots prove that respect for the rule of law is lacking. It is only by trusting in the system that black Americans can hope to change it.
- Is racism still one of America’s biggest problems?
- ‘No matter how far humanity progresses, there will always be racism.’ Do you agree?
- In pairs, imagine you are arguing with someone who says America no longer has a problem with race. Use this article (and any other sources you might have) to find five facts that prove them wrong.
- Using the links in ‘Become An expert’, research the grand jury’s verdict on Darren Wilson. Do you think it sounds correct? Make a presentation on your findings.
Some People Say...
“Rioting is never justified.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should I care what happens in the US?
- Because even though slavery was abolished in 1863 in the USA (it was banned throughout the British Empire in 1833), African-Americans still live with the burden of it today. Poverty and discrimination are slavery’s main legacy, and both combine to make life more difficult for black people in the USA. This is why it was a powerfully symbolic moment when Barack Obama became president in 2008.
- When have there been similar riots?
- CCTV footage caught police officers beating a defenceless black man, Rodney King, on the ground in LA in 1992. When a jury acquitted the five officers, huge riots began, resulting in 53 deaths.The last race riots were in 2009 in Oakland, California, when rioters torched a number of cars.
- Around 700 national guard troops have been deployed in the town. The national guard is a reserve military force and most are civilians who hold part time jobs.
- Wilson says he found Brown walking down the middle of the street and when he politely asked why he was not using the pavement, Brown responded aggressively and attacked him in his police car. He began shooting at Brown, then Brown ran at him. The Vox piece in Become An Expert elaborates on some issues and problems with Wilson’s story.
- Two other young black men have been shot in Ferguson since Brown was killed. And a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, was shot just days ago in Cleveland, Ohio, when police saw him playing with a toy gun.
- Civil rights movement
- In 1964, President Johnson outlawed discrimination on the grounds of colour, sex or religion. As he told the nation, ‘its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions, divisions that have lasted all too long.’