The slaying of an 18-year-old African-American man in Ferguson, Missouri, shows that racism and racial profiling remain a serious everyday problem in some parts of America. Some worry things will never change.
As they pull up to the place where Michael Brown was killed, shot six times by a policeman, they sink to the ground and stare at a cross bearing his name.
“I don’t get it,” says Jurmael, 22. He and Tyler, 21, live in the neighborhood. Like Brown, they are African Americans and are close to his age. “I do get one thing though,” Tyler says. “The name on the cross could just as well be one of ours.”
Michael Brown was stopped on Canfield Drive by a white officer for the same reason that people are stopped everyday by the police. Roberts and Greer even have a name for the “offense” — a common one in Ferguson, Missouri: “WWB,” “Walking while black.” Every black person living in Ferguson knows the meaning of the abbreviation because it is a constant part of their lives.
It took the shooting of 18-year-old Brown on August 9, a young man who was unarmed, before anyone took an interest in the everyday reality of the city’s African-American population and their demoralizing harassment by the police. It also took this tragedy before people began to ask an important question: Why does a city whose population of 21,000 is two-thirds African American have a police force that is 95 percent white? And why, a half-century after Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the civil rights campaign and the end of segregation, are African-Americans still complaining today about persistent racism?
Jurmael and Tyler make the sign of the cross before returning to their car. A police car is parked two blocks away from the site of the shooting and Jurmael can see it from the distance. He twitches briefly and then reflexively applies his foot to the brake pedal. “Police,” Tyler calls out. “Will they lets us through?” Jurmael asks.
There’s no reason to stop the men. The car is in perfect shape and they’re not speeding. But in Ferguson, it appears that different rules are applied to blacks than to whites. They may not exist in writing, but they are there in the minds of the police.
As they drive by the police car, Jurmael and Tyler don’t dare to look at it. Jurmael says his father told him at a very young age what to do when police are in the area — how he should speak and how he should look. “The best thing to do is to act as if you’re not even there,” his father said. The two grew up with the feeling that they were somehow suspects, yet both young men are perfectly polite. They both go to church and they work, even though they barely earn enough to make ends meet.
They continue driving through the streets, past the places of their youth, and past places where they were humiliated.
Tyler points to a house where he recently mowed the lawn for a white couple. He says the woman at the house had agreed to pay him $75. But once the work was done, he claims her husband then only paid him $25, saying that was enough. For the first time in his life, Tyler called the police. When the officers arrived, they asked the man if Tyler had stolen something. “But it was me who called the police,” he says. He claims the police then told him the man could pay whatever he wanted and that Tyler should get lost.
Jurmael then points to a place where he said he recently got pulled over. He says the police immediately spoke to his girlfriend, who happens to be white, and asked, “Why are you with him?” “He’s my boyfriend,” she said. The officer said, “You shouldn’t be with him,” and then left.
Later in the afternoon, Jurmael returns to the street to protest for justice. Such demonstrations have been taking place in Ferguson every night since Brown’s death, the exact circumstances of which may never be fully known. On this day, a few protesters march along the sidewalk beating drums while a minivan plays Hip-Hop and Reggae music. For a moment the protest feels like a party, with women and children dancing in front of the van.
But then members of the police force show up and move in on the dancing crowd. They storm the van and turn off the music. “Why are they doing this,” one young mother asks another woman? “Because they can,” the friend says.
Back on our drive, just as we approach Tyler’s house, he points to a front yard. He says his neighbor, a black man, held a party there three years ago. At some point, Tyler says, the police arrived and complained that the music was too loud. A fight ensured and the host was soon dead. He died of a heart-attack after police zapped him with a Tazer. It had been his birthday party.
‘People Are Completely Powerless’
“They don’t treat us like humans,” Jurmael says. “We’re like animals to them, ones they can shoot down like deer.” The wife of the man who was Tazered still hangs her husband’s photo each year on a tree in the front yard to commemorate his birthday. She never filed a complaint.
“The police know that most of us can’t even afford a lawyer,” Tyler says. Besides, he adds, the judges in Ferguson are all political appointees and are all white. “People are completely powerless,” says Jurmael.
Given that such a large percentage of the population is black, it’s surprising that more locals haven’t taken up politics in order to challenge the status quo. When asked why no African American has run for mayor, people in Ferguson say you need money to do that — and that few have it. But perhaps it is also because those who grew up feeling they were second-class citizens lack the confidence needed to run for public office.
The car is now driving past large, old wooden homes with fresh-painted verandas and well-groomed front yards, small oases of order. “Look right up there,” Jurmael says as he points to the front door of a house. There’s a bronze plaque on the door, as there are at many homes in the area. It notes that a slave owner once lived in the home.
Will Things Ever Change?
The plaques are not intended as memorials. Instead they appear to reflect the pride some of these homeowners have in their house’s history. The neighborhood is the city’s Historic District and is a tourist attraction. Even today, though, the district is inhabited exclusively by white people.
Jurmael says his grandmother told him as a child that things would never change. “She said the whites brought us here by force to do their dirty work,” he says. “People can’t say that openly anymore, but they do continue to think that way.”
For years Jurmael tried to pay no heed to his grandmother’s opinion, but he now agrees with her.
Just about anywhere you go in the United States where young African Americans live, you don’t have to look hard to find ones who feel harassed. But the differences between blacks and whites are particularly apparent here in Ferguson. As a state, Missouri had a hard time eliminating slavery and, later on, it had trouble finding the will to repeal its racial segregation laws.
Shadows of the Past
Tyler wears a red cap with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team logo on it. Several decades ago, black fans were still required to sit in a separate seating area in the stadium with inferior views of the field. But even after segregation ended, the seating arrangement remained. People were used to it. Indeed, the shadows of the past reach right up to today.
In the days leading up to Brown’s funeral on Monday, white signs bearing the slogan of a new movement had been posted in the front yards of the former slave-owners’ district. They read, “I love Ferguson.” On this particular morning, the organizers of the initiative have gathered at the Corner Coffee House. A long line formed at one table with people waiting to buy signs and t-shirts. There’s not a single African American in the cafe — not among the guests or among the service personnel. Only the guy in the kitchen is black. The people gathering here are part of what could be described as the white countermovement.
“We don’t like the way our city is being portrayed,” says Brian Fletcher. “We’re not going to allow this incident to ruin our reputation.” Fletcher served as mayor of Ferguson for six years until 2011. Now he’s sitting at a desk watching over petitions signed by local residents.
The people here have little regard for the African-American protesters who have been marching for justice each night. “They’re like cockroaches,” one woman next to Fletcher calls out. “They only come out of their holes at night.”
Fletcher asks how people can describe these as peaceful protests when local companies are suffering from lost business. He also says there are no problems in the city so great that people need to protest over them.
When asked why only three of the city’s 53 police are African Americans, Fletcher answers: “They just don’t apply. Or they don’t pass the test to get in to the police academy.”
When asked why so many blacks are stopped by the police on the streets, Fletcher replies that it is unrelated to the color of their skin. He says they get pulled over for other reasons, like expired license plates. During his time in office, he says there were no racist incidents. He claims the record speaks for itself.
To be sure, there isn’t much in the official record, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Take the account of Henry Davis. Five years ago, police pulled the 52-year-old African American over one night. They checked his papers and allegedly found there was an arrest warrant against him. At the Ferguson police station, one officer told them that they had picked up the wrong man. The Henry Davis for whom an arrest warrant had been issued looked different, was much bigger and had a different middle initial, the officer said.
Nevertheless, Davis was still forced into a cell by four white policemen. As he lay on the floor, they punched him in the back and in the head. Then they pulled his upper body up by the handcuffs and one of the police kicked him directly on the forehead.
Henry still sounds furious and distressed when he tells his story today. “They hit us blacks and they kill us blacks,” he says. “And they do everything they can to cover it up.”
After his beating in the jail cell, the doctors at the hospital were reportedly ordered not to take any photos. His head was covered in blood and he had a deep wound on his scalp. In the five years since, not one of the policemen involved has been punished. In Ferguson, officials accused of excessive violence fill out the investigation reports themselves — so it comes as little surprise that cases like the Davis beating never crossed former mayor Fletcher’s desk.
The police claimed that Davis had fallen against a wall. Instead of justice, Davis was charged two weeks later with counts of destruction of property, for “knowingly bleeding on their uniforms,” and ordered to pay $3,000.
“I don’t believe they would have done this kind of thing to a white man,” Davis says today. He says he was incapable of working for a long time and that he still suffers from migraine headaches and memory loss. He continues to challenge the fine he was ordered to pay, but he hasn’t had any success so far.
Back on our tour of the town, Jurmael and Tyler park their car downtown, not far from the protest area. They say they want to keep going to the protests, even though the number of people attending began diminishing last week and most of the journalists have already packed up and left town. The two say they’re pleased the world has finally taken notice of the kind of harassment they are forced to put up with. He says he hopes that the names Ferguson and Michael Brown will one day pop up in school books and that they are cited as an historical turning point. “This could be the beginning of something big,” Tyler says.
There’s another potential outcome of this story as well. It’s also possible he and Jurmael will find themselves getting pulled over by the police again soon, the victims of racial profiling.