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Michael Brown is not just another statistic

United States
michael brown debra sweet.jpg

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, sporting the 'Power to the people' sign. Debra Sweet under a Creative Commons Licence

When police officer Darren Wilson drew out his gun on the afternoon of 9 August, took aim and shot six bullets into Michael Brown, he had no idea it would trigger a riot on the very streets he’d been watching over.

After all, who was Michael Brown? Just another black 18-year-old. More importantly, who did Darren Wilson see when he pulled the trigger? A gentle giant, as his family have called him? A potential troublemaker, a thief? A soon-to-be college undergrad? A national statistic?

And later, when Michael Brown lay dead on that hot Ferguson street for more than four hours, for everyone to see, who was he then? An unfortunate victim of an accident, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time? A mistake? Another lynched black man?

Michael Brown, the person, was many things, most of which the media is only now beginning to piece together, and some of which will largely remain unknown. Michael Brown, the trigger for a protest, is another, altogether more complicated story, which begins in a small town in the Midwest.

Ferguson is a suburban belt of St Louis, Missouri. It’s a town of 21,000, with one of the highest levels of segregation in the US, where white flight has been a steady phenomenon since the 1980s, and where 69 per cent of the population is black. The town’s institutions don’t reflect this, however, especially the police force, where out of 53 police officers, only three are black.

Numbers are important. They tell a story of their own, one with fixed parameters, which can shine a light on an otherwise muddled tale. For example, while many might suspect that black people are more prone to a stop-and-search, statistics prove it: in Ferguson, they are 1.3 times more likely to be stopped by the police than their white neighbours.

From ‘2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week’ in the US. That amounts to more than 400 dead. In Ferguson, just 11 days after Michael Brown’s shooting, another young black man was killed by the police.

Institutionalized racism is not a new phenomenon. The slow depletion of young black men and women from their communities is also not news. Still, something about the death of this young man developed into something else, larger than him, which took over a sleepy town and made headline news all over the world.

In a powerful TIME essay, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has argued that the Ferguson protests are essentially about class. In an equally powerful reply in The Nation, Dave Zirin has said that in this situation, racism trumps class.

Why does there need to be a hierarchy?

Michael Brown was so lightly killed because he was black. On US streets, that’s still a synonym for disposable, and it’s still perceived as being inferior.

Just as importantly, he was killed because he was poor. His belonging to a particular community and a particular social class marked him out just as powerfully as his skin colour.

The two, race and class, are not divisible categories here, to be analysed as separate phenomena. They are two sides of the same coin, a reflection of a pervasive social reality. The economics of poverty have everything to do with race, especially in the US. Institutionalized racism leads to fewer social and economic opportunities for non-white Americans, which can spiral into a vicious circle of inequality, anger and injustice.

The ‘wealth gap’ the media talks about is not just between rich and poor; it has a racial component as well. Ignoring that means a dangerous slip down ‘American Dream’ territory. Unfortunately, the American Dream is just that: a dream.

The Ferguson protests are about more than Michael Brown’s death. They link in to a community’s desperation at seeing its members lynched in broad daylight; to its inability to move out of poverty or to make itself heard, and to a complete disconnect from the people who police its streets and the leaders seen up-close only on TV.

In a sad twist of irony, the protests are taking place while the US has its first black president, serving his second term in the White House. If, at the beginning of his presidency in 2008, anyone expected Barack Obama to have a strong position on pervasive racism in the US, that hope has been extinguished by now. His political ties to the conservative right make it impossible for his stance to be anything but conciliatory and neutral, the equivalent of a weary ‘Keep calm and carry on’.

Twelve days after Michael Brown’s death, the protests are still raging. They’ve been re-appropriated and re-drawn on racial and social lines, with violent youth admonished by the elderly, and everyone targeted by the police. There has been looting and teargas, riot gear and more than 60 arrests. A living hell, seen on live TV.

The question is, will it lead anywhere? Can a wider national movement bring much-needed change to a community brought to the brink, or will this stay a disparate protest of a few hundred people in a country of hundreds of millions?

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