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A response to Ferguson: Systemic problems require systemic solutions

john a. powell, director, Othering & Belonging Institute | November 25, 2014

Last night, like many across the world who were watching, we experienced deep disappointment in the decision by the St. Louis County grand jury not to indict Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenage boy, on Aug. 9. Our thoughts are first with the family of Michael Brown and the community of Ferguson.

It’s important to note that this case has never been about just one police officer. The spotlight on Ferguson has revealed with a renewed, sharper focus a deep divide in our society highlighting persistent systemic inequalities. Even as we awaited the decision in this case, there have been too many additions to the killing of young black men and boys at the hand of those who have sworn to protect us. But who will protect the black and brown community from the police?

What we are witnessing is a reflection of a systematic failure in our society that is revealed wherever we are willing to look — schools, health care, employment, housing, life expectancy, poverty, and the list goes on. The problem is persistent, cumulative, and deeply debilitating. The arrest rate or murder rate between African Americans and whites, as evidenced by a recent set of studies, cannot be explained by the “behavior of blacks,” as some will quickly suggest. Nor can it only be explained by explicit racism in the police department or other systems that fail to serve the black community. What we are seeing is the consequence of a systematic failure at every level, and a political response that ranges from hostility to neglect. But many people in Ferguson and around the country, of different races and from different perspectives, are saying no, and demanding: enough.

The attention to those killed remind us that these deaths are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pattern. Decades of segregation and inequality in Ferguson, as well as most American metropolitan areas, have fostered a racial inequality exacerbated by the criminalization of not just poverty, but the criminalization of black and brown bodies. Too many whites, including those in uniform–with guns and the authority of the state–are too willing to believe that a black body poses a threat.

As President Obama acknowledged in his address last night following the grand jury announcement, this case highlights the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. More effective training for police officers in de-escalation and working in coordination with communities, especially communities of color, is a necessary step.

But we also have to acknowledge the deep racial anxiety that leads to escalated violence against communities of color. Recent evidence from neuroscience reveals that many Americans, even those who embrace egalitarian norms, harbor unconscious negative associations with black bodies. These anxieties and biases are fed to us by the frequent negative association with blacks – words and images that strengthen these unconscious but impactful associations. It is on account of these pervasive, culturally embedded associations that so many black people in this country are not only viewed with suspicion, but also as criminals, regardless of who they are.

We need to address the pervasiveness of unconscious biases, first by acknowledging them, and secondly by working to reduce them. Police academies and law enforcement agencies not only need more diverse staff, they need implicit bias training for officers. They need to measure, track, and address implicit bias, enhance officer supervision, and create accountability measures. Efforts like these can repair and strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color that will ultimately prevent the senseless deaths of boys like Michael Brown.

From a legal perspective, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson does not mean the end of the road for those who seek justice for the death of Michael Brown. A refusal to indict does not indicate that Wilson has been exonerated. A decision not to indict does not mean that Wilson’s story has been credited. The prosecutor’s office reserves the right to re-open the case if new or additional information is presented, and the state attorney general and the U.S. attorney general may still file charges. Lastly, the grand jury’s decision does not foreclose Michael Brown’s family from filing a civil suit, which has a lower evidentiary standard.

We believe a necessary next step is to invite international observers to witness what is taking place in Ferguson, and record events and potential violations, determined by a globally agreed-upon set of rules. A rigorous international lens focused on Ferguson that is beyond the media dialogue and outside of the regional criminal justice process could invite a more intense level of scrutiny and validation. A recent report concluded by Amnesty International has advocated for police training and activities that conform to international standards.

Any international effort needs to coordinate directly with efforts already in place from local community organizations and activists who have been on the ground since August, who have been bearing witness and providing a critical record of activities. It is also important that if a police force is to have a serving relationship with a community, the community should have the power to review the policy.

We hope that the newly formed Ferguson Commission will live up to its stated cause of providing a comprehensive study of the underlying issues highlighted by the events in Ferguson, leading to something similar as the famous “Kerner Commission” Report on Civil Disorders that was established to investigate the causes leading to the late 1960s protests. The report from that commission provided not only an analysis of the specific incidents at issue, but also the more general conditions that led to the combustible environment.

Ferguson is emblematic of much larger problem. We must be willing to face and address this larger problem. At the Haas Institute, we will continue to work on research, policy, and communications that work to reveal, analyze, and provide solutions to remove the structural barriers that prevent our society from being just and inclusive – and towards one that cares about and provides justice for the lives of all people, including Michael Brown.

Cross-posted from a message distributed Nov. 25 by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Comments to “A response to Ferguson: Systemic problems require systemic solutions

  1. its funny how this whole ferguson thing has blown over and we dont hear much about it anymore, except for the ferguson council now

  2. In my mind the issue of killing unarmed Black men across America cannot get fair treatment in a White dominated society. Black and White people have tried to live together for hundreds of years and have failed to do so peacefully. These killings are nothing new; what is new is the instant public display of them.

    My suggestion is simple: stop looking for understanding and compassion from America’s White supremacy system that benefits from a system just the way it is. The longer Black people look to White people for justice the more embolden they become.

    What do we do then? In this age of technology we can use the same tool that ushered in the first Black president to usher in our own networks for building a “Black Nation”: Technology. We can form a nation/a state that is governed by our own rules and begin to rebuild our plundered history, religion, education, commerce, etc.

    This is not hate language, it’s the only solution for moving forward as a race of Black people.

  3. What happened to the video that was taken by a lady who had just moved into the neighborhood thinking it was a nice neighborhood. While she was talking on the phone She videoed the last minutes of Michael’s life. She was interviewed and shared her video of Michaels last minutes.

    The video showed that Michael had stopped running, turned and got on his knees with his hands raised. The policeman continued to fire while walking (not running) towards Mike. Then when he reached Mike the policeman shot him in the head, and Michael fell down dead.

    I feel the cop should have realized he had the upper hand before taking that fatal shot. He had already called for backup. But I guess he had it in his mind that he was going to kill this one.

    Ferguson is a small town. Population is about 21,000. Mike was asked not to walk in the street. A video of Mike at a convenience store surfaced I suppose to paint an image of Mike as being a bully. But the walking in the street incident was unrelated. Mike did not have to die; maybe booked and put in jail but not killed. The copy had control of the situation at the end. If he was scared, when Mike was on his knees he could have just waited with his gun pointed for the backup he had called.

  4. In early XX century, the critical spirit and self-critical of society reacted to the acts and “aberrations” imposed by the State against its citizens on a relatively self-criticism way; although it is appropriate to recognize here that there is an appreciable difference between the political regimes, the economies and the number of people who composed the world of that time when compared to human society present in this beginning of XXI century.

    The truth is that, regardless of the time when the human being is the main actor of his personal history, it is very difficult for him to put into practice within the context of his life, a relative semantic meaning in practice words, for example, “freedom”, “democracy” and “civil rights”. Be in the USA or anywhere else in the world.

    Despite this – returning to the reality of the year 2014 – by looking up in a critical manner the conduct of the reactions of American society in relation to the decision of the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, in the case of the murder of Michael Brown by a local police officer, while the whole American society slowly begins to sag and to give up their civil rights in a collective way – under threats and coercion attitudes backed by batons, pepper spray, Taser guns, rifles, revolvers, dogs and all sorts of paraphernalia made to dissolve, suppress, extinguish and destroy any kind of peaceful demonstration for justice, the right to life and freedom of assembly, expression and manifestation – one can safely say that, shortly, will be officially established a fascist police state within the USA. The whole country will be, for tourists and official visitors, a sort of Disneyland: You don’t see the presence of repression, but you know it’s there watching and monitoring far beyond what you could imagine.

    In short, the truth is that, due to things like the murder of Michael Brown, or else, as it was the result of the work of the commission that investigated the incident involving the scam or the “inside job” at 09/11, nothing will resolve from an external changing reality of the world if people are not sufficiently concerned with the transformation of themselves in relation to the whole of reality that surrounds them.

    And even less will resolve the fact that they come together to collectively curse the grand jury of Ferguson, Missouri, the police, the Mayor, the Governor and the President of the country, because without the existence of a consistent self-criticism capacity, the average citizen, the unit of any social event, will not be able to renew as much as it would be enough for the State could be pressured by the American Society for the purpose of it self-re-evaluate in a positive way regarding all this uncomfortable situation happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

    The truth is that this incident did nothing more than a general anger release kept for a long time against the current system of police repression, judiciary, legislative and executive. And when we look through the media critics, experts and the public in general, pro and cons, express their points of view, unfortunately, we have seen many of them struggling to sustain arguments that could come to confirm or then, to repudiate and to categorically dismiss the accuracy of police attitudes and demonstrations all over the country and the role of apparent neutrality of the judiciary, legislative and executive in the course of the protests that took place from coast to coast this week.

    Unfortunately, in aberrant situations like this that had happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, someone who limit to say that the police state only fulfilled routine official protocols against the manifestations of the American people since the beginning of this incident until yesterday during the Thanksgiving celebrations, both locally and nationally, doesn’t give good conscience to anyone with respect to all what was previously mentioned.

    In the same way that decisions such as those taken by the grand jury in Ferguson (hose result seemed to us to be more a matter of “relapse”, color and number of members than properly a matter of abiding by the law and justice) don’t make the American society more pleased with itself. The situation offered by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, to the American people and the consequent repression from the police state with respect to all unarmed demonstrators who were arrested to protest peacefully for justice, leads us to review the past of this nation in the light of what is currently happening.

    To paraphrase Ernst Bloch, the American Society must question urgently on all that is happening in the present, especially on behalf of the future of our children as a result of that which “is being” in the name of what still “isn’t”. And as Bertolt Brecht would say –- if he was still alive today, along with the patriarchs of the independence of the USA –- to observe what happened in Ferguson and in the manifestations of the American people along the country, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are”… because the truth is that the case of Michael Brown was far beyond a “simple” case of murder after the decision taken by the grand jury in Ferguson.

    This case, surprisingly, and totally unexpected, aroused the inevitability of change and the impossibility of concealing the contradictions that bother beneficiaries of interests constituted by the support of a state of truculent police and a judiciary, legislative and executive system that placed itself in checkmate. And that, from now on, at best, will inevitably be waiting for the time of its collapse, if the state itself, on behalf of the American people well-being, don’t come to review itself in a future not far away.

    The democratic, unarmed and peaceful demonstration of the American people unpleasantly disturbed the pragmatic or “utility” of this state system that automatically implemented without consent and questions after the farce of the trial of 09/11. Since then, the state has seen as “subversive” all American citizens who take a compromise position with the democratic state through the use of their civil rights, freedom of expression and peaceful demonstration.

    For the new technocrat and police state that has developed in this country, from the 09/11, the American citizen who is arrested and dragged like an animal by various police officers is nothing more than a rebel, a stubborn inconsequential that refuses to shut up and to be treated as a manipulation machine. And who is handcuffed and dragged into the police car with the status of “terrorist”. The truth is that this technocrat state and police do not know how to deal with democracy exercised directly by the American people that indirectly elects the administrative machine of the state. Direct democracy exercised by the American people in the streets, in technocrats state and police as the case is currently found in the USA, is considered subversive.

    However, when democracy is systematically and violently oppressed by the truculent police state, this same democracy can come to strongly reveal its defiant attitude because no one has ever, nor will come to tame it some day. In extreme cases, where overt repression situations occurred by the state during the history of civilization, the current system in order to survive became tyrannies, monarchies, dictatorships and other palliative forms of government. Where it can be deduced that, in its most legitimate and profound essence, democracy exists both to harass the conservatism of conservatives like to shake the conservatism of its own demonstrators who act on its behalf.

    Democracy is not meant to be treated as dog trained in technocrats states and police. And similarly, saved the appropriate context of proportions in the case of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, when democracy is humiliated in front of all the American people and in front of the institutions in which it should be present, it will invariably ends up on awakening and sprouting in the intimate of every American the “seeds of dragons.”

    The American people, the “dragons” awakened throughout the country after the murder of Michael Brown, humiliated and dragged by technocrat and truculent State police will still scare a lot of people around the world. Perhaps they cause riots when coerced like animals by overt repression of police state; but they are not, in essence, inconsequential rioters. They are American citizens. And their presence in the consciousness of this current technocratic state and police is necessary in order to don’t be forgotten the essence of democracy that laid the foundations of this nation by the patriarchs of independence.

    Perhaps the technocratic state and police can come to think that the actual use of violence to solve the problems they generate, due to the nature of its operation, the same way the SEALS use in missions abroad. However, fool them all to imagine that the American people are a kind of people that easily became fearful and intimidated. They could be quiet for a while. Analyzing and interpreting the whole situation in which they find themselves before they could come to begin to transform definitely a unique and cohesive movement against this technocratic police state that oppresses them ostensibly on their bases.

    This, of course, could be in the future, the greatest legacy that Michael Brown, killed in Ferguson, Missouri, will leave to the people of the USA. A legacy far beyond from what he could ever imagine that he could come to leave through an existence that could go completely unnoticed and anonymous as the millions of others across the country, when it was abruptly killed … Without justice, there is no peace.

    All the best. With love, Neil.

  5. It will be interesting and certainly beneficial to learn of the police methods conducted by the police of the Netherlands, for example, in terms of their less abusive, less fatal ways in responding to misdemeanor crimes.

  6. We need to look more closely at media dramatization that simplifies conflicts between two racial sides — a stance that heightens rather that addresses racial tensions.

    Yes, the African American community rightly tends to fear police. But does that mean when someone steals from a store or attacks an officer or in other cases does not follow public orders, that such actions should simply be ignored because the person is black?

    Yes, white police officers should not escalate with gun fire or at the very least should be trained to disable a person without lethal shots. But does that mean by implication that all white officers are systematically racist?

    We need to look at the culture of violence — what causes it and how to imbue greater respect for fair laws and expected public behavior.

    All interaction should be based on cultural respect — not immediate racial assumptions against either blacks or whites. I am concerned about hard-working young people who want an education and get full university scholarships but are often ridiculed for “speaking like educated whites” only for far too many being gunned down outside a store, perhaps accidentally targeted killing by a “gang” member. Where is the outrage against these tragedies that are not white against black? What causes this culture of violence? More importantly, how can it be stopped?

    I am concerned about the culture of disrespect — vandalism that only intensifies and divides racial perceptions. What should be done? I am concerned that walking up Bancroft one fall afternoon on my way to teach at Berkeley, I can be slapped hard in the face by a group of rowdy teenagers with low slung pants who laugh as I fall to the ground. What should be done about this culture of disrespect? I am concerned that teenager from Richmond can attempt to steal a car from an older woman during the afternoon and then stab her to death. What lens should be applied here?

    My point is not to escalate racial tensions but to honestly talk about a culture of violence that has many causes and needs many good responses — not media sensationalism, not academic abstractions that mean little to the average person — so that we can respect each other and help each other achieve a good education and a good life with measures of safety, something we all desire.

    • John Powell you have lived in the Ivory Tower of Berkeley for far too long. Kate’s experiences are the reality of life off campus. I suggest you read Jason Riley’s “Please Stop Helping Us” and make it required reading for you classes at Berkeley so root causes of societal issues can be remedied. There are young blacks being murdered on city streets, especially in Chicago, but not at the hands of the police but by members of their own communities.

      • You’re comparing apples and oranges Angela. Sure, private black citizens kill other black citizens (and by the way, 83% of white Americans kill other white Americans). If black-on-black crime is an epidemic, then so is white-on-white crime and Latino-on-Latino crime. The point is that the State should not be targeting specific racial communities.

        • Do you mean to say that 83% of white Americans are criminals? I’m a little confused by your statistic.

  7. I do not know exactly what evidence was presented to the Grand Jury. I am therefore not in a position to second guess their decision. I do know that far too many unarmed Americans are killed by police officers and that a disproportionate number of these Americans are black. Racism is obviously playing a role in these killings.

    I have a large number of acquaintances who are police officers. Some of them are very high ranking officers in large cities. I have worked with many police officers professionally. Through my acquaintance with them and through public pronouncements of police officers, I have come to believe there is another factor that plays a role in this tragic violence. Police Officers, in my opinion, have an unreasonable sense of entitlement. In particular they believe they are entitled to use deadly violence to eliminate any threat to their safety. This applies even to threats with low probability and with low potential consequences. Racism plays a role in their perception of threats to their safety. They also believe that they are entitled to use deadly violence with no accountability except to each other.

    Frankly, I don’t know what can be done about this. My acquaintances, for the most part, are sincere and believe that they perform their duties righteously. In fact some of them are exemplary and embody all the attributes I would hope to find in a police officer. However, most of them seem to have little ability to critically evaluate their beliefs and conduct. They are probably no worse than most of my other acquaintances but my other acquaintances don’t carry a gun or this unreasonable sense of entitlement.

  8. I do agree with a lot of your points, but I’ll have to agree more with Jay. It’s very saddening to see the black community in places like Ferguson affected by the poverty cycle.

    However, we shouldn’t use the Ferguson incident to cite another example of pure racism. Yes, we have our biases. But if we evaluate the incident without race in the picture, we see it as a police officer defending himself. The media needs to stop saying “unarmed” as if Mr. Brown was defenseless — fists and feet can kill! In addition any sensible person would not confront a police officer in that way, especially when he’s armed. As much as it’s annoying to, just ignore the guy!

    Yes, there are deaths of blacks by whites, but please compare the deaths of blacks by blacks? That’s a much bigger problem that the media needs to discuss! In that realm the dialogue needs to be – how do we better ourselves to prevent this “injustice”? If there was better access to education, health care, etc., then maybe Mr. Brown and others would have developed into people that can tear down the biases people have against blacks! That’s the way we should be doing it. It’s extremely hard, but it has the best outcome, compared to trying to convince society that their opinions on the black community are unwarranted.

  9. As three white psychologists, we offer this brief essay, “Building a Racially Just Society: Psychological Insights,” with the awareness that our perspective is necessarily limited by our lived experience as members of the privileged racial class. Through our many years of work as both psychologists and activists, we know first-hand how contentious and fraught racial justice discussions and efforts can be, even among colleagues and within organizations firmly committed to progressive social change.

    We share the essay below with the recognition that, to varying degrees, everyone is diminished by racism and racist institutions, and in the hope that this psychology-focused analysis may encourage constructive discussion and much needed action toward a racially just society.

    — Roy Eidelson, Mikhail Lyubansky, and Kathie Malley-Morrison

  10. While there is no doubt that racial profiling and discrimination occurs in our society, the forensic evidence suggests that Mr. Brown punched the policemen and attempted to grab the policeman’s gun. Let’s teach our children common sense and some respect for our elders and people in general. Mr. Brown was no angel as the store videotape revealed. He shoved an old store clerk and violently stole the cigars. The police have a difficult job as it is. You will likely get shot if you punch the police in the face and attempt to steal their gun regardless if you are white, brown, yellow, black, green, blue, or alien. This was not a race issue. If Mr. Brown were White, this would be a non-issue.

    • the problem is if brown was white, he probably wouldnt be dead, and he definitely would not have been left in the streets like roadkill that long of a period after the shooting..

  11. “…but the criminalization of black and brown bodies.”
    In general I can agree with this statement, but specifically, Michael Brown DID threaten the physical well being of an East-Indian storekeeper who certainly came from a different culture and doesn’t have the weight of US history figuring in his consciousness or daily behavior.
    And, Michael Brown DID steal items from the store and then, if one is to believe scientific analysis, attack a law enforcement officer.
    Look at the surveillance video. There are 4 or 5 other people in it Michael Brown’s behavior is completely different than anybody else.
    Grouping this case with say, Oscar Grant or Tamir Rice I think is a mistake. Neither of them committed any crimes prior to their shooting. The same with Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis which were not police shootings. THOSE cases are part of the larger problem. I’m not ready to group Michael Brown in with people who did nothing wrong or use it as a standard to judge all others.
    Otherwise, just more needless lines are being drawn on a picture that is already being overworked.

  12. I am an Indo-American (neither Black nor White) who attended CAL as a Grad Student 35 years ago. I did not encounter racism in Northern California while a student as well as in the Bay Area work force. My takeaways from this tragedy are;
    1. Parents must be there in children’s life until they are in work force. Children must be taught to respect authority, elders, and teachers–it is the parents’ responsibility. Cops in USA put their life in danger several times /day. Arguing with them, rushing them etc is not a smart thing to do.
    2. Parents of Mr. Brown should have apologized to the store owner.
    3. Black leaders must not make everything a race issue–it is not. No Black leader said Mr. Brown should not have fought with the cop, should not have stolen from the store etc. 93% of Blacks are killed by other Blacks–a very big tragedy.

  13. Prof. Powell, the ultimate tragedy is that we keep proving that hate is wired into our brains and far too many refuse to control it, especially when they think that this will give them a superior advantage over those they choose to hate, whether it be another religious, social, political, economic, racial or any other group we choose to define for that purpose.

    The ultimate question is whether we shall continue to allow hate to destroy the human race. So far, the answer is most definitely not in our favor because there is no group that has proven themselves to be capable of the type of leadership that will prevent our destruction.

  14. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis.

    I want to add that we need to address the pervasive attempts by the media to denigrate Black people, no matter how outstanding, famous, prominent, or accomplished. This denigration takes place in pictures, news stories, programming, and other forms. I see it every time I log into email thru ATT or AOL, in particular. It creates an atmosphere that feeds acceptance of Ferguson events and militarization of police.

    Where will it end? Will we all experience a knock on our doors to haul us away as Hitler and this government did to Jews and Japanese in the 1940s?

    • You have a good point. It makes me happy to see the protests against police brutality going on in our country, but it makes me sad to see how the police are at best provoking violence upon those non-violent protestors.

      It is interesting to see our justice system fail. It is those protestors who realize that if the justice system (courts, law enforcement, even including the education system) isn’t doing it’s job, then it’s time to speak up and take matters to the streets. This is the easiest way to make voices heard and to influence people in power – word of mouth. I hope those protestors keep protesting and don’t get discouraged by the police who are trying to contain them.

      We may not be experiencing a holocaust, but we are experiencing a numbing of the human conscious – a precursor to more oppression, discrimination and suffering. I really hope our nation stands up and continues to protest. It could be big, especially if boycotts are involved, which tying back to this article, are very systemic in nature.

  15. Yes, this is very worthwhile to consider – and yet,as you say, the reaction to the incident itself is only an increment of the sustained effort required for justice, peace and each person’s individual liberty and fulfillment.

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