Let me just preface this piece by stating my position. I am strongly for Police being able to go about their business to protect law abiding citizens. I am well versed in the policing system of the U.K. and know that despite a criminal element intent on obtaining illegal firearms , most people in the British Isles are not in contact with guns of any type and so it follows that on an average day most officers, except those designated to be used in situations involving weapons are unlikely to come under fire from guns.
It is my opinion that the prevalence of guns in the USA actually contributes to the number of deaths in the USA because of guns. I also believe that police in the USA would not need to carry or draw guns in normal stop situations if there was not the ever present risk of a gun possibly even held by a law abiding, certificated owner being used against them. The sheer number of weapons available means the likelihood of one falling into the hands of a criminal or person not mentally equipped to deal with it in an emergent situation is increased.
Reggie Yates is fast becoming one of my favourite television presenters. His programmes appeal to a broad spectrum of the tv audience. His three part exposés on the current situation for people in South Africa and Russia were balanced and extremely interesting so I approached this documentary about the aftermath of with some enthusiasm .
The fact this show was broadcast on BBC3 in a Race and Racism Season is a shame as it would actually have been perfectly suitable for a BBC1 Primetime audience. He is youthful, articulate and temperate in the way he expresses himself and approaches and listens to the the contributors of his shows ,but he is also a black man who himself admits to some youthful pushing against authority whilst growing up, so his viewpoint would be very interesting.
The shooting of Michael Brown thrust the issues of racial profiling, police brutality and race relations in the USA into strong relief. The scenes of rioting, of peace marches and the sudden media attention on treatment by police of Black people in the cities focused the attention of the world onto the USA and as yet our gaze has not lifted. People from both sides of the arguments tried to show their experience through traditional media and also the ever increasing use of social media as a means to show the world at large what has been implied but never shown so starkly since the sixties. Racial equality has taken a backslide or so the media would like to suggest and so it was from this was place from which Reggie started his investigation.
In the USA today a young black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by police as white men of the same age.
At the time of the shooting 4 out of 53 serving Ferguson Police Officers were black.
Reggie takes a look around Ferguson, a relatively sleepy place in the so called Bible Belt. It has a fire station, Police Station over 30 churches and sadly the obvious remnants of the mobs and looters.
Clifton is a 17 year old student, who lives in the neighbourhood where Michael Brown was shot. They meet in the Ferguson Burger bar, this restaurant was one of the few that ignored the fear and boarding up of other businesses and remained open. Clifton wants to take Reggie to what he calls Ground Zero, where Michael Brown was shot Around noon that day, it is alleged that Brown stole some cigars. About ten minutes later he is stopped with his friend Dorian Johnson. Officer Darren Wilson spots them there is some sort of altercation and Wilson repeatedly shoots, his friend Johnson states he had his hands up. There is no Video of any kind to reinforce either man's story, but police admit Brown was unarmed.
It strikes me that this and many other crimes could have been best resolved to the good of all by Officers wearing body cameras. The law states the police can fire if there is danger to another life or the Officers or if the suspect tries to run away. A camera would support an officer's choice to fire in an emergent situation and help in investigations of misuse of guns by police. Delivery of a video to independent investigators would possibly have avoided the mass protest that occurred in Ferguson and across the country after the inquest found Wilson innocent.
On August 9th 2014 ,Clifton was walking down the street and came upon the scene, seeing Michael Brown's lifeless body lying in the middle of the road. His body is left in the road in full view of family and friends for four hours. The footage of his body is disturbing viewing. People are outraged and start to congregate at the Police Station which becomes he focal point for community protest.
This behaviour is born out by the very similar reaction to the Mark Duggan Killing here in London where Police shot dead an unarmed man. Similarly the Police response to the death resulted in riots in Tottenham and escalated to several areas of the city and when his s death was ruled lawful people angrily congregated on Tottenham Police Station. See my blog post on for more in depth analysis of those events.
As the days go on the protests get bigger, the news goes global and the Police Presence grows exponentially. 2000 national guard soldiers are drafted in to combat the looting and wanton destruction. Tear Gas and rubber bullets are used to subdue the crowd. Clifton has been protesting at night and attending high school during the day and saw the scenes firsthand.
Hands up Don't shoot becomes the rallying cry for Black Americans as a non violent demonstration.
Matters escalate to 90 cities after the not guilty decision is given against Officer Darren Wilson.
One year on, Reggie goes to a rally outside the Ferguson Police station, but it is a group out in support of Wilson and Law Enforcement in general who are affectionately termed LEOs for short. The people he speaks to there are people who sell items in support of all Police Officers, their placards commemorate fallen officers and K9,which I wholehearted support because all Emergency Services place themselves in harms way daily.
The sale of hats, wristbands and other sundries has garnered close to a million dollars for Wilson. This is a substantial figure . It does not sit quite right with me. He was vindicated by the Grand Jury,and as such I question why he should be rewarded quite so excessively for what is essentially his job. He may well have suffered psychologically but surely if you allow your officers to carry a firearm it is incumbent upon you to provide adequate occupational health provision to deal with when a officer uses lethal force? Why should the public need to supplement your income?
Another articulate man running a live feed from the rally on his phone seems to indicate he feels his first amendment right is being contravened, but finds it suddenly very hard to articulate to Reggie how it is actually being infringed. Reggie asks whether he feels that he himself might be offended by whatever is preventing the man him speaking freely in that he is black himself. He says what he feels would be automatically classed as racist. I am intrigued, but we never find out as Reggie spies a single Afro American in the crowd and goes to ask him why he is against the supporters of Michael Brown? Chris says he cannot understand anyone supporting a criminal. That the incident was about Right and Wrong and not Race. He insinuates that almost all supporters of Brown must also be criminals.
Let us be clear here, he stole some cigars, he shoved the shopkeeper and left without paying, that is at most an aggravated shoplifting. He did not use a weapon to menace the shop owner and he was unarmed when he came into contact with Darren Wilson. He should have been arrested for that theft. Even if he threatened the officer surely one shot would have subdued him enough to prevent the incident escalating? It seems to me officer Wilson was unable to contain the situation because of his inability to curtail his use of his weapon. No one knows the full story however.
Whilst talking with Chris, Reggie notices a gun in his waistband and Chris states he takes it everywhere with him. A lady also pulls a smaller, but loaded weapon out of her designer handbag. When asked why they would bring guns to what is essentially a peaceful rally in support of Police she states the following:
"We've had protestors who are pretty aggressive towards us, they come and get in our faces and and they yell and they have pushed us. I'm a female and I need to protect myself".
I wonder whether this is sufficient cause for either to draw their weapon and fire? At which point would angry exaltation, gesticulation and mild assault become grounds to use potentially lethal force in response? Turned on its head when so many guns are out in the community, is it any wonder when the sweet looking lady next to you might pull a loaded 0.38 out for "getting in her face" that police pull their weapons as a preemptive strike against a potentially trigger happy citizen?
Two young black men come over the road, the white folk look worried. One films continuously, grim faced. The other one is wearing a T shirt that suggests peace and solidarity with all skin colours included in one clenched fist. He and friends handed out seven thousand of them for free.It seems they came over to see what was happening with all the flags. He feels that despite all being one community the different elements are not speaking to each other, that it is important to start interactions,He says it is like segregation already exists in Ferguson. He says no one wants to be stopped on the street or shot on the street, that he himself has children and wants peace. He is peaceable and genuine. In talking to Reggie others are coming close to hear what he has to say and I think despite their initial trepidation find they have common ground. One lady says it well they do not have to agree on everything but they need to work together to heal the community.
Reggie realises that it is not that folk are opposed to each other on the whole, just that they cannot seem to find a place to see the commonality in their goals. Fear has clouded vision, illustrated really well by the fact that Chris the young black man immediately expected a conflict when the two men approached in order to dialogue, you must first approach each other with open and listening hearts, not ones tainted by fear of repeats of past behaviours.
One in five Ferguson families live be low the poverty line and Home ownership for black people is less than half of that of the white population , could inequality like this have contributed to the frustrations that bubbled over in Ferguson? more than likely!
The "I love Ferguson" store is staffed by volunteers. White haired old ladies like Dorothy Kaiser who sell branded products expressing a Pride in the Town. I found myself agreeing with the essentials of their argument, that looting and arson are not the ways show the world that inequality exists or that a injustice occurred. I do not agree with the severity of the officer's actions, but agree in principle that a single police shooting should not have brought down a firestorm on the the town as it did. The ladies there just want to protect their lifestyles and way of life and I was wildly gladdened by Dorothy saying when the riots got close that she got out a long handled barbecue fork as protection. It is the kind of thing I might grab at a push!
I am starting to see the complexity here, Reggie states that sadly due to the actions of the few, that all with dark skin are afforded a level of suspicion by police and the community. This suspicion is perhaps not proportionate to their culpability in the troubles of the town. Statistics show that black men are more likely to be stopped by police for search than white men and this is true in the UK too, although appallingly the number of Asian stops are now on the huge rise now that ISIS and Al Qaeda have entered our consciousness as the next threat to life and liberty.
Straight across the road is a diner, Kathy's Kitchen that again stayed open during the riot. The cook there James explains how police reaction is often over zealous. He was driving his daughter to a University interview where she has just received a four year scholarship. The car was pulled over and he was told to sit on the Kerb, his basketball knee injuries would have prevented him so he refused. His truck is legal, roadworthy and his license is valid. James asked why he in particular had been stopped, he was told it was routine. This does give me pause. Stop and search does have to have a underlying reason or else it can become a tool of harassment. If the truck James drives is similar to one used in a crime, the officer should have told him. If random checks are being done in a road operation, then license and registration should be checked before asking someone to sit on a kerb!! Whilst I am fully cognisant of why it is sometimes important to get suspects out of the car for flee risk, but It does seem more likely that in this case it was a form of profiling.
If this happens often, you can understand why frustrations might start to grow within the Afro-American Community, to feel unfairly scrutinised, victimised or just marginalised is going to increase animosity over time and when perceptions of a death by Police of an unarmed man with hands raised create a rent in that pressure cooker, there will be an explosion.
Social Media has become an effective tool in showing the world how stops and arrests are being performed. There have been a growing number that seem to suggest police are being excessive in the physicality of their arrests. Shooting people in the back , pushing young girls and pregnant women to the ground, the death of Freddie Grey in Police custody lead to riots and looting in Baltimore. Again this mad national news, but less well publicised is the fact that one hundred and seventy six people have died in Police Custody this year so far.
Reggie is invited along to one of the final assessments for rookie police on the day they do a firearms scenario. The instructors play the bad guys, the recruits are armed with guns with paint tips, designed to hurt so that poor decision making by the recruits has a consequence. Each recruit is patted down to ensure they are not carrying their own registered firearm which in the adrenalin of the moment might be used in error. These men are only now being trained to use guns mindfully and yet they may well have been handling and potentially shooting them well before now, it is quite frightening to consider.
Suited up in masks and protective throat wear the recruits are sent out. There are masses of guns in play in the scenarios, is it a hostage siege? No, it is a routine traffic stop!
The Missouri police are definitely like the other forces in the USA a brave bunch as the simulations show at any time a situation can get violent, but I suspect having a weapon makes the likelihood of drawing it more possible but it is also disheartening to see that in the last year they have spent four times as much on Uniform than on training Officers. I would also be interested to know if they are given medical testing to check their suitability for high pressure situations as firearms officers,pilots and child abuse officers are here in Europe.
I appreciate entirely that police put their lives on the line even in what might seem the most mundane of duties, but it does seem telling,that of the eleven thousand stops by Ferguson Police last year, that nine out of every ten were of Afro American ethnicity, although I do concede that there is a higher proportion of the group living in the city, but this still is not proportionate to the actual population.
When Reggie raises the issue of Race with the measured, well spoken and intelligent instructor he says that it is a lazy argument, to boil it down to that and on any given there would have been many ways to "do it right". The power one assumes when you have a badge to back up your gun is immense. It is a huge responsibility to shoulder for what are predominantly young men and women whose worldview may well be in the idealistic, rather than realistic bracket.
The two fresh faced recruits are equally positive in their remarks saying they knew exactly what they were committing to, that they are fully aware of the wariness of a good proportion of the populace and the hills they will have to climb to prove the force is not endemically racist, but that they have to trust each other and the public to see that they will be doing the very best job they can to keep every citizen safe and in the case of the two featured, I whole heartedly believe them.
The disproportionate ethnic make up of Traffic violations takes Reggie to investigate the judiciary side of the issue. Of the 5384 stops in 2013, 4632 were of Afro American drivers. He meets Human Rights Lawyer Brendan, whose opening Gambit is that the relationship between Police and Black Ferguson residents is, and Can only be,one of Distrust.
Municipal budgets are predicated on the ability of police forces to raise money through citations. This is also why there are so many speed cameras on British Roads. Money not misdemeanour seems like more of a driving force than I or Reggie had realised. It can be up to 60% of the budget for a municipality and not just from traffic fines, but also almost laughably (almost, but not quite) "sagging pants " violations or "Manner of walking".
How one determines whether your manner of walking is illegal or not, only heaven knows, but it seems it is groups of young black men who predominantly get them! I have to admit the trousers round the upper thigh look was never one I really enjoyed, but I would not expect anyone to suffer financially for it, a few snickers behind a hand, maybe be even a sharp, "no one wants to see your bum" , but a fine of $250? Overkill.
Brendan is a Legal Aid Lawyer and defends poor people against these low level fines for the smaller offences, Reggie jokes that technically his trousers are sagging,Brendan explains so if he were arrested he would be issued the fine and if you were unable to pay you would serve jail time until you could afford to pay. This reminds me of the debtors prisons of Dickensian times, Arthur Clennam was imprisoned in much the same way in " Little Dorritt".
St. Louis County has ninety municipalities with fifty six police departments. of the ninety, eighty three hold theor own court, one or two times a week. Here the judge hears cases of High grass, traffic offences, sagging pants and the like. The court staff, judge lawyers, guards etc all white in an 85-90% black area.
Representing a man with the classic story, given a speeding fine of $250, if you cannot pay, you are put on warrant and your drivers license is suspended so if caught speeding again, you are arrested . So you are in another town Ticketed for red light, arrested and bound over for driving with suspended license, released taken to original jail and jailed for the original offence and the fines spiral to $1000. Brendan has clients with $5000 fines who have spent months in jail. His client is not in court. Every person who comes to the middle school that is the court for that day is black... Surely not the only people committing Crime in Ferguson?
Reggie struggles with this as a British Black man. He has not really made to feel different , he admits to some minor issues with racism, some minor issues police stops but can see how his US counterparts might feel the system laws weighed against them, especially black people policed in black area with a predominantly white police.
Returning to talk to Clifton, the student campaigner. He thinks when Race and power collide, issues with police happen. None of the people in the Barber Shop where they meet would call police if in trouble. The way they feel safe is a gun for home protection. When Reggie says guns might be contributing to the problem one of the younger boys say that boys still get guns for image, it Clifton thinks there are deeper issues, that it is easier for a young black person to gets a gun than to register to vote or to get access to higher education.
When guns are so freely available are they a part of the problem. There are 280,000,000 guns in circulation which is almost one per person in the nation. Reggie goes to find out about how easy it is to discharge a weapon in a stressful situation.
At Ultimate defence gun store, he meets Paul who explains they conduct training , they have 400 in stock and for a mere $200 legally own a job. One of your biggest sellers for Home Defence is the rather scary looking 12 Gauge shotgun. The need for which was advocated during the riots because as Police were all concentrated in a small area that there was no coverage to deal with Ad Hoc crimes.
In the four months following the Ferguson event, sales at Ultimate at Defence rose by 84% on the pr vinous year previous. He admits four out of five of his customers are white, but the irony is the black men are far more likely to be killed by a gun, by civilian or cop. He is put into a scenario to test how he would react if he were an officer. In the heat of the moment Reggie shoots when approached at speed with a knife. To be fair to him, he is unfamiliar with guns and has had zero training in handling them.
Reggie is starting to make conclusions about his visit, he sees both sides wanting to move on, but the communication lines are still not open and a degree of blame is being attached preventing a forgiveness that would make it easier to unite. The vicious cycle seems to be in place... Fear that a person might have a gun means police are more apt to go into every situation as if it will be a violent confrontation. This in turn makes the community edgy, and if repeated, angry so that they are perceived as trouble, they buy guns to protect themselves where the police have not and they become a self fulfilling prophecy.
Things in Ferguson are improving. The make up of the people who administer the city is now more Diverse, when people feel represented and heard they are more willing to engage.
The story that Clifton will write with his life seems equally promising, he has read a "Stroll towards Freedom" twenty times since Michael Brown was killed and is going to study Political science at university. I have faith that change is possible.