Ferguson protesters

^ hands up ! — Ferguson protesters took to the streets all across a stunned nation

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The news from Ferguson, Missouri yesterday was to say the least disappointing. A grand jury refused to second-guess a police officer’s actions that led to the death of an unarmed teenager.

I purposely left out the names here, of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, because this sort of event has happened a lot these past few years. The Brown and Wilson confrontation was not an exception. Just the opposite. It happened in Westchester County. Happened in North Carolina. Happened in New Orleans at the time of Katrina. Happened in New York City, more than once. I doubt that these are the only instances.

Some of those instances were, if anything, even more grievous than Brown and Wilson. The officer who killed a college football player, a young Black man in North Carolina killed a man who had been in an auto accident and was approaching the policeman’s car seeking help.

Can there be any doubt that too many police see young Black men as dire threats simply because they are young, Black men ? And if few young Black men get killed by police, hundreds — thousands — more get stopped, or frisked, or hassled in some way simply because they are young, male, and Black.

The situation is hardly limited to police. President Obama has recounted, sadly, eloquently, his own experience, as a young Black man, of car doors being locked as he crossed a street, or of pedestrians moving out of his way. Black taxi drivers talk of rides who pay their fare but shy away from touching the driver’s hand. Black shoppers get hassled all the time by salespeople at high-end stores. Even Oprah has told of being the recipient of such treatment.

Too many Americans see Black people as a danger, not a neighbor. Police grow up in that environ. And yes, most of America’s police are not Black.

But, some will argue, Michael Brown actually was a danger. He was big, he was the aggressor at first, he had a long criminal record, he was hardly Trayvon Martin. True enough. No one, I hope, is suggesting that Darren Wilson should have offered him a cup of coffee. Wilson seems to have had plenty of cause to use force.

Yet the situation need not have escalated that far. When Wilson saw Brown walking in the middle of the street he did not need to wise-ass him, as his words sure sound like. Nor did he need to back up his cop-car and block Brown’s path. Those were inflammatory actions.

Doubtless Wilson had learned, as a Ferguson police officer, that the way to keep the peace on his city’s streets is to intimidate people. It works, because most people being intimidated by an armed policeman do whatever the cop orders. Most people know that if they do not do that, bad things might happen. Unfortunately for Wilson, Brown was not intimidated but inflamed.

Brown’s attack took Wilson by surprise. Clearly it did. Nothing in his experience as a Ferguson policeman had prepared him for a man who would not be intimidated, who would, in fact, attack back.

A serious attack it was : Brown simply lost it. Surprised, Wilson lost it too. Whatever training he had undergone in handling confrontations, it went out the window. There seems scant need to shoot Brown twelve times — once in the top of his head would have been enough — to have stopped Brown’s attack, but twelve bullets Wilson did fire. This was anger, not police work. This was road rage.

One can speculate all over the place as to why Wilson lost it. One can also speculate about why Brown risked his own life by attacking. Fact is that neither man acted in a vacuum. There was clearly a history, in Ferguson, of animosity between police and the Black community. We saw this animosity in full force in the aftermath. We saw it last night.

Hopefully the anger that has arisen, much of it fully justified, will force America’s police departments to change their entire cultures. First, police forces need to hire many more people of color : every community, including communities of color, deserves to be policed by its own citizens. The next step is to require police people to honor the communities they protect; to see those whom they are protecting as allies, not foes.

This step is a must. It has to be done and done now.

Some observers have pointed out that many young Black men are in fact a threat, that 90 percent of Black men who get murdered are killed by other Black men. Sadly this is true even in parts of Boston. But how does it help, if the police in communities of color treat all of its residents as if they too are criminals ? Residents should be a police force’s eyes and ears; but because there is so much disconnect between many police forces and the communities they work in, eyes stay shut and ears hear nothing. It is simply easier to adapt to truly badass young men than to invite an alien police into the situation.

The cry went up : “black lives matter.” yes they do. all lives matter. All lives should matter, first of all to police forces hired to protect those lives. Police departments need to be reconfigured from the ground up, communities and police need to be knitted together; Mayors and the Courts, Civil Rights attorneys, clergy and concerned citizens — police officia;s too — must demand it and see that it gets done — now. Otherwise we are done as a civil society.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere