On Al Jazeera English, Hiram College political science professor Jason Johnson discusses possible federal response to the failure of a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Mike Brown.
The new “leaks” from the grand jury on the Michael Brown shooting have once again stoked the imagination of the American public and the world. The implication of these leaks is that Officer Darren Wilson won’t be indicted, so everyone wants to know how Ferguson will react.
Will there be riots? More violence? Nationwide protests? There’s almost a morbid NASCAR crash type curiosity about what comes next in a small Midwest town wracked by naked racism and police incompetence. But most of this curiosity is stoked by fear and ignorance about what Ferguson, Missouri, is actually like.
If you know the real Ferguson, you already know why the riots happened, and you can predict what will happen once the grand jury makes its decision.
A little background: I went to elementary school about 40 minutes south of Ferguson, in the St. Louis military suburb of O’Fallon. I’m pretty familiar with the area, a frothy mix of the South, the Midwest and the Rust Belt.
While the black population in the St. Louis metro area has grown and moved out of the city, teachers, firefighters, hospital employees and most importantly cops in the suburbs are largely white. My school district didn’t hire its first African American teacher until 1986, and my elementary school has never had a black teacher despite having a sizable number of African American students.
This is the St. Louis area in a nutshell, black suburban expansion, slow white acceptance and a dull Midwestern peace as the first integrated generations live together.
Unfortunately the image you get of Ferguson is perfectly encapsulated by this opening I saw from a national television reporter commenting on the fact that the median income is “only” about $37,000 and apartments rent for as little as $450 a month.
National news reporters mostly from New York descended upon this town and when audiences in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles or any of the other major cities in America hear $37K a year, it sounds like poverty wages and rents that resemble public housing fees. But that’s where context comes in: $37,000 year is pretty good for the Midwest.
Ask anybody in the suburbs of Cleveland, Indianapolis or Omaha, Nebraska, or any other part of “flyover county.” You can get a two bedroom apartment across the street from Starbucks for $450 a month just north of St. Louis. While that won’t get you a monthly parking space in Los Angeles, it doesn’t mean the people of Ferguson are in the ghettos of America’s declining Rust Belt. Far from it, most national reporting would lead you to believe Ferguson, and especially the Third Ward where Michael Brown was killed, is like the set of “The Wire” when it’s really a lot more like “Black-ish.”
I don’t think the media misunderstanding is intentional, but there’s been an inherent bias in the way the city and the conflict have been covered.
I saw townhouses and apartments. I saw wooden decks and lawnmowers. This looked like Everytown U.S.A. — not a car on blocks or a busted window pane in sight. If you have any doubt, just ask the residents.
The infamous “QuikTrip” gas and snack station that was burned down is a prime example. If you talk to locals, they’ll tell you that QuikTrips are generally located in nicer neighborhoods, just like there are high-end grocery stores and low-end grocery stores.
Brown’s neighborhood wasn’t spotted with off-brand products and second-tier stores to serve a poor and crime-ridden community. The only thing that distinguished this part of Ferguson from any other was that it was mostly black.
The narrative that has been presented about Ferguson — that it’s about poor black folks rising up against the evil white oppressor — may be sexy and make for good TV, but that’s not the reality on the ground.
As one exasperated resident told me “We moved up here to get away from this type of [expletive]! I’m not putting up with it here — from the cops.”
It’s really the story of regular, taxpaying, law-abiding, lawn-mowing, pumpkin-carving, churchgoing Midwestern folks where the only gunshots you hear are from kids playing Xbox. And they’re wondering why the first killing in town all year was a cop firing 11 shots in a residential neighborhood into a kid with no record of serious crimes. While the new leaks reveal Wilson’s claims that he was “defending himself,” this doesn’t add up for residents.
The fact that the Ferguson Police didn’t release a police report until weeks after the incident, which was full of redactions, and under pressure from the Department of Justice leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. This is not a rabble-rousing community. There’s no history of mass civil action, as a journalist friend of mine from nearby Florissant told me, “the civil rights movement skipped St. Louis.”
Had the police been forthcoming from day one, everyone would have been back to their regular lives within a week. However, when you ignore people, even regular folks, and treat them like collective criminals in their own community, that’s when people get angry.
As we hear more and more “leaks” being conveniently released ahead of what will most likely be a grand jury decision to not indict Wilson, understand who is hearing them.
Then, to quote Matthew McConaughey’s character from “A Time To Kill”: Imagine they were white. I’m pretty sure our national understanding, and sympathy for Ferguson, would be very different.
This article originally appeared on CNN.com.
The days of protests, police repression and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri in the United States has exposed a great deal about the US for the world to see. Whether the images of peaceful protesters gassed and beaten by US police filled you with horror or smug vindication, the fact remains that the image of a peaceful idyllic American heartland devoid of racism and social conflict has been put to rest forever.
Polls show that Americans on all sides of the political spectrum think President Barack Obama has handled the rioting after the Michael Brown shooting well but there is a strong contingent, especially in the African American community, who say the president can and should do more, begging the question: What can he legally do about Ferguson? His options aren’t as wide ranging as many think.
President Obama is secure in his second term as he never has to face re-election again, and the mid-term elections, while they look grim for his Democratic Party, won’t hinge on his actions regarding Ferguson. One would think he is in the perfect position to take bold and sweeping action addressing racial violence and civil liberties violations in Ferguson. However, it’s not that simple.
On a purely personal level, President Obama’s policy options are limited by his own particular brand of politics. Unlike the majority of US presidents who came to the White House after governing states, Obama came to the White House after a career as a legislator. He is by professional and political nature a consensus builder, more driven to come up with collective solutions than bold individual action. This means he has been less likely to make the kind of horrible political and personal decisions of some of his predecessors but at the same time he often looks more nuanced and cautious than the US public wants.
Barack Obama has already sent the US’ top cop, Attorney General Eric Holder, to Ferguson to conduct a thorough investigation; he has already been made aware of initial findings and can no longer claim that he is remaining cautious until “more facts” are known. Regardless of the president’s personal preferences and constitutional limitations, he can act now – and there are three things he could do immediately to address what has occurred in Ferguson using the power of the Presidency.
The president could ask the Senate, the upper house in Congress controlled by his Democratic Party, to formally condemn any abuse of the US press at home or abroad. President Obama has never had trouble condemning restrictions or abuses of the press when it occurs in Egypt, Turkey or any other foreign nation, he could do the same at home. A formal condemnation by the US Senate signed by President Obama is not simply symbolic posturing or a cynical attempt to win favour with the American reporters.
A formal Senate condemnation called for by the president would give legislative heft to any lawsuits or investigations brought forth by reporters who suffered at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department. It would also strengthen the expanded investigation by Attorney General Eric Holder into possible civil rights violations of the press by the Ferguson Police. Lastly, a formal condemnation would set a precedent that, restrictions on the free press in the US are not simply constitutionally protected but the president will proactively investigate and prosecute offenders.
The increased militarisation of local police has been growing in the US since the September 11 terror attacks. Very few Americans have paid attention as increasingly SWAT teams and military hardware began to seep into standard police equipment. The searing images of local police in military camouflage shooting tear gas from armoured cars and using rubber bullets on unarmed protesters has angered and alarmed many Americans and observers from around the world.
This has all happened because of Programme 1033, a Department of Defense programme that allows local police departments to get access to surplus military equipment for free. Currently, the programme allows for any police department in the US to request surplus military equipment which can range from file cabinets and flashlights to armoured vehicles, flash grenades and tear gas.
There is no oversight for this programme, no requirements that local police are properly trained in the use of the surplus military equipment or that the crime in the local area warrants the acquisition of military grade weapons. President Obama can sign an executive order to suspend the programme immediately and impose new rules, regulations and oversight for it.
The president could also institute a policy that any police department with a history of racial profiling or police brutality (data which is collected by the Department of Justice) be suspended from the programme pending department reform and re-application. As commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, President Obama could legally enact this change without approval from Congress or review by the Supreme Court. While this won’t do anything to change what has happened on the ground in Ferguson, it could definitely lessen the chance of similar violent overreactions by police in the future.
The president could ask for a special prosecutor to be assigned to investigate the shooting of Michael Brown in parallel to the Ferguson police department and county attorney. The federal government does have the ability to assign special prosecutors to cases because they are less prone to be influenced by local politics.
There is already tremendous scepticism towards the Ferguson police department’s investigation of the shooting, and many local activists and some elected officials doubt the objectivity of State Prosecutor Robert McCulloch should he have to go to trial against local police whom he has long political and familial ties with. If Officer Darren Wilson is not brought to trial, or worse goes to trial and is found not guilty after a half-hearted effort by McCulloch, the city will likely erupt into violence again.
President Obama cannot unilaterally take over the town of Ferguson, appoint a new mayor, convict Officer Darren Wilson and demand the local police force reflect the demographics of the community it serves. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real concrete options to address the worst rioting in almost two decades. Whether his inaction is born out of personal caution or legal manoeuvring is not clear. However, both history and the US are waiting for the president to act with more authority. He cannot claim that his hands are legally tied.
This article originally appeared on AlJazeera.com.
Hiram College professor Jason Johnson was interviewed by Karen Grigsby Bates for All Things Considered on National Public Radio to discuss President Barack Obama’s response to the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“America did not vote for Eric Holder, OK? America voted for Barack Obama,” says Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Ohio’s Hiram College. He traveled to Ferguson to observe the protests and says having Holder appear there was good, but not enough.
“When it comes to gravitas, power and symbolism, there is no substitute for the president of the United States speaking,” says Johnson.
Click here to listen to “Obama’s Reaction To Ferguson Raises Questions About President’s Role.”
On The Daily Rundown on MSNBC, Source Magazine Politics Editor Jason Johnson discusses the launch of the “I Love Ferguson” campaign with Craig Melvin and Amanda Sakuma. Dr. Johnson attended two town hall meetings on Thursday night: one majority-white, one majority-black.