The police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, yet another unarmed young Black male in the United States, this time in the Black suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, has echoes of the killing of Trayvon Martin, shot to death in February 2012 in a gated community in Florida by a self-styled community watch volunteer.
It also has echoes here in Toronto, where the shooting death of 17-year-old Sammy Yatim last summer is still fresh in the minds of the public, and echoes as well the many Black males shot here in this city by police that resulted in deaths.
Whether the police story about Brown having been a suspect in a “strong arm” robbery of cigars from a convenience store is true or not, the fact that the youth had his hands in the air, a universal sign of surrender, should mean something in this tragic event. Even if he had stolen some cigars – and the suggestion is that the subject officer was not aware there was an alert out for that alleged robbery – those cigars should not have been worth Brown’s life.
Another factor in this high profile police shooting is that the police force that oversees Ferguson and those they police are from two different social and cultural groups, therefore, they are strangers to each other. Consequently, in a tense situation, it is clear that each side will misread the other.
A similar racial line can be observed in Toronto as well but, at least here under Police Chief Bill Blair, there has been an effort to begin to remedy that imbalance. Nevertheless, Toronto police have come under fire for their targeting of Black youth through the practice of carding. They are, therefore, no less culpable in the kind of practice that traumatizes an entire community with the added horror of the threat or the reality of fatalities.
The wave of protests that came in the aftermath of the killing of Brown, who, it has been said, was mere days away from beginning university, was met with military-style response by the police force in Ferguson. That most of the protesters, unarmed and waving placards, are Black and most of the police, heavily armed and armored, are White, is seriously troubling. This and the myriad other killings of Blacks by Whites in the United States have to be put into the context of racial antagonism that remains a strong thread running through the fabric of that nation’s character.
Furthermore, we are now witnessing the transitioning of police constables into a paramilitary force. The images we saw of the police facing off with protesters in Ferguson looked very much like the line of force that we witnessed here in Toronto at the end of June 2010 when the G20 summit was the catalyst for the unprecedented action by police that took from the citizens of this city their civil liberties and right of peaceful protest.
It is time to reassess how police forces are keeping the peace. The armed police tactics used in Ferguson only served to inflame an already volatile situation. Police bullying of a community hurt and angered by yet another killing of one of their own is a crisis management failure in the most practical sense.
While we condemn the vandalism and looting that came in the aftermath of this high profile police shooting, the protests that continued unabated for days tell us that African-Americans are again ready to do battle for their right to live in peace and not continue to be victims of racism.
Racial tensions between minority communities and the police cannot continue to be minimized. This is a serious issue, not just in the United States.
The reason a group such as the Black Action Defense Committee exists in Toronto is because the need arose to take a stand against the unacceptable manner in which the Black community is policed. This continues to be unresolved. The police practice of shooting first and asking questions later must end. If it does not, then we can foresee yet more protests and more confrontation between civilians and those we are paying to serve and protect us.