A little town called Ferguson

Nicholas Watts

From Future Perfect Issue 2, Summer 2014–15. Buy a copy here.


On August 9, a young unarmed black man named Michael Brown was shot to death by a white police officer in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. The next day the town erupted into both peaceful and violent protests, the culmination of long-running racial tension between black residents and the small white ruling class. 

In the following days the bumbling Ferguson police endured so many gaffes that they stopped being called gaffes and instead became known for what they were: hopeless and embarrassing deficiencies. The name of the officer that shot Brown was not revealed for some time. When it was, it came with what John Oliver described as “a DVD extra no one wanted”: a videotape of Brown and a friend robbing a nearby store in the moments before his murder. This video was released by police to the public ostensibly to try and quell the protesters, as though it were some excuse for the six bullets that destroyed his body. Naturally, it only inflamed the protesters.

A county police chief at a press conference was asked by a reporter how many times Brown was shot. In a moment of early-onset dementia, the commissioner replied, “it was more than just a couple but I don’t think it was many more than that”. It was six. Brown was not armed.

For Ferguson’s black residents, Brown’s shooting death by police and the four hours that his dead body spent skewed across the footpath were only marginally more offensive than the usual way they’re treated by the law. Blacks make up 92% of all arrests despite only being 52% of the local population. Three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers are black. Examples of hysterically disproportionate police violence during stops, searches and arrests of blacks in Ferguson became so numerous they risked becoming a joke. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the tremendous writer for The Atlantic, reminds all of us what enormous chasm lies at the centre of a racially divided America. A country where actions of flagrant injustice like Brown’s death, just like the racially targeted 2012 shooting of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, are rewritten into something other than a heinous crime, something defensible and legitimate. 

We are being told that Michael Brown attacked an armed man and tried to take his gun. The people who are telling us this hail from that universe where choke-holds are warm-fuzzies, where boys discard their skittles yelling, “You’re gonna die tonight,” and possess the power to summon and banish shotguns from the ether. These are the necessary myths of our country, and without them we are subject to the awful specter of history, and that is just too much for us to bear.

When Barack Obama addressed the situation, he reconfigured it with his characteristic caution, emphasising the huge cultural gap between someone like Michael Brown and the white officer who shot him. “I’ve said this before,” he began. “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of colour are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.” It is not surprising that a young black male will be seen as anything but a threat when the rote media depiction of black victims is of thugs and delinquents. Michael Brown was introduced to the world as a kid who smoked marijuana, wrote “vulgar” rap music and shoplifted. A black murder victim can’t simply be a murder victim. A bizarre refrain emerged throughout newspapers and blogs commenting on Brown’s teenage drug taking, shoplifting antics: “He was no angel.” As though his lack of angelic qualities in some way justifies his death.

Obama was asked to give his thoughts on how he can personally contribute to easing tension in places like Ferguson. He didn’t offer a delicious soundbite in the vein of his response to Trayvon Martin’s shooting death by George Zimmerman, when he said that the young, black Martin “could have been me 35 years ago”. What he did say was transparent enough, even as it betrayed a wariness of micromanaging a situation in a country that rapidly sees his administration as somehow too powerful or simply too “big”: “I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed.” 

When the question of race became too hard for the popular media, Ferguson became a site of protest over the militarisation of police. Officers that resembled combat troops dressed in camouflage and body armour poured into Ferguson’s streets. The state’s National Guard swooped in looking even more ridiculous, brandishing sniper rifles and night-vision goggles. A hideous convergence of the war on terror and the war on drugs had given billions of dollars of military equipment to local police forces. Tanks, armoured vehicles, high powered automatic weapons. All there to help regional police defend themselves from the terrorists. Figures bounced around the internet: there are more than 50,000 police SWAT raids in America every year. That’s one every ten minutes. Since 2006, American police forces have acquired 533 military aircraft and 93,763 machine guns, according to a New York Times investigation from June this year.

As it became clear that Ferguson’s angry protesters would not fade away, the police began their own version of shock and awe. Stun grenades that emit a flash of blinding light were used to disorient the crowds. Tear gas was fired into the mob, interspersed with various kinds of “less lethal” bullets made of rubber and wood. Journalists were arrested and detained for “safety concerns”. Missouri’s Governor Jay Nixon announced a midnight to 5am curfew in a bid to crack down on the “handful of looters” said to be endangering residents. That the governor would describe the protest movement as a “handful of looters” is itself a window into how hopelessly removed the ruling class is from the people it is supposed to rule. One of the most enduring images of the Ferguson episode was of police dressed in so much military equipment that it looks like some of them will fall over, all standing around and on top of an armoured tank-like vehicle, ready to go to war against a group of angry, disaffected and marginalised citizens. It was in the state of Missouri’s infinite wisdom to respond with a show of force rather than with some pacifying words of regret and recognition. 

North Korea is known for its colourful contributions to international conversation, and had the audacity to label an America in 2014 gripped by race riots a “graveyard of human rights”. This comes from an impoverished Asian nation that sends its citizens caught with American sitcoms on DVD to forced labour camps. As ridiculous as this sounds, it is clear enough that for many black Americans, they do live in a human rights graveyard. For what it’s worth, that would make North Korea an all-consuming black hole. 


More in Issue 2

Speaking between the lines

Interview with Robert Lehrman, speechwriter for former US Vice
President Al Gore

Buried at sea

Unpacking the insane rhetoric behind our government’s immigration policies, featuring drawings by children in detention

Malaysia Airlines' altitude problem

A look at the hysteria and conspiracy theory that dogs the world's unluckiest airline