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My Turn: An officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot Michael Brown, but the system killed him

I have never known what it means to be afraid of the police. In the small New Hampshire town where I was raised (population 1,200), Chief M and his part-time deputies were our friends. If your dog went missing or your car broke down, the chief was the first person you called. Otherwise, “good fences made good neighbors” in our all-white country town.

If I am blessed to someday raise a son, the same will not be true for him.

I first glimpsed the turbulent dynamic that exists between black boys and the police when I left New Hampshire at age 18 to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer with City Year Washington, D.C.

I was assigned to work in an impoverished middle school where black and Hispanic students comprised the entire student body, and white people made up a disproportionate share of the people in charge. I was ill-prepared for the assumptions of student deviance and guilt that marked – and marred – the education system in which I worked as a teacher’s assistant.

Arriving in uniform on the first day of school, I was struck by the eerie resemblance of the dilapidated red brick building – with its burglar bars and peeling paint and police presence – to a juvenile hall. Students were permitted to enter and depart by a single front door, where law enforcement officers greeted them with wands and a metal detector. Searches and seizures were commonplace. Classes were uncompromisingly strict or else a free-for-all, depending on the teacher.

During lunch, the students were herded by class into the basement cafeteria, where a pair of security guards would pace the floor wielding bullhorns and batons and angrily instruct the kids to “sit down and shut up – or else.”

Having been raised with an ample supply of nurturance and play, I could not understand the logic behind removing recess from the school day – in response to substandard test scores, I was told.

Even gym classes had been cut back to allow more room for the “essentials.”

Without a healthy outlet for their youthful energy (not even gym took place outside) many kids found it difficult to concentrate in class and were prone to disturbances.

Fights among a handful of the boys were a recurring fact of life, leading to detention, suspension, and – for one in every three black males – eventual prison time. Sociologists call this system the “school-to-prison pipeline.” For them, it was simply the status quo.

While I cannot speak for the encounters my students had with law enforcement after school – I retreated to the placid white suburbs of northwest Washington, thanks to a kind great-aunt who took me in – the stories they brought to class betrayed an astonishing degree of suspicion between themselves and the police. Their suspicions were sadly warranted.

According to the CATO Institute, nearly 5,000 unique reports of police misconduct involving 6,613 police officers and nearly 7,000 victims occurred in 2010, the most recent year for which data were available. Although police departments generally do not report on the use of deadly force, estimates of the number of Americans shot and killed by the police range from 500 to 1,000 per year – approximately 10 times the number of police officers shot and killed in the line of duty. An estimated 15,000 Americans have been killed by the police since 1976.

African Americans are disproportionately counted among those gunned down by law enforcement in the United States. Although black people make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, a comprehensive study of extrajudicial killings by the police, security guards and vigilantes in 2012 placed the number of black victims at 313 – at least 10 times the rate among white people. A large majority of the black people killed by the police were in their teens or 20s.

Contrary to common assumptions about the violent nature of black youths, the report found that just one in five black victims were confirmed to be in possession of a gun, and fewer than one in 12 fired a shot while the police were on the scene (a clear justification for lethal force by police). In fact, official police reports revealed that black men and women killed by the police were far more likely to have fled the scene than to have wielded a weapon of their own.

Despite these findings, and the well-documented fact of unequal treatment of black people throughout the criminal justice system from detention to death row, few members of my race acknowledge systemic bias – dare we say racism – in the data.

According to a recent Pew survey, just 37 percent of white Americans believe that last week’s shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., “raises important issues about race” compared with 80 percent of black people. In a city where African Americans make up 67 percent of the population, 86 percent of people stopped, 92 percent of people searched, and just 6 percent of the police force, it is hard to dismiss the concerns of their community out of hand.

Consider the socio-political milieu occupied by communities of color in the United States today.

Nearly half of all black children are raised in areas of concentrated poverty, compared with 12 percent of white children. Three-quarters of black children attend segregated schools where a majority of the students are nonwhite, the same percentage as in 1968. Household wealth among black and Hispanic families is less than one-sixth that of white families, and the trends have only worsened over time. Black people are more than twice as likely as white people to be unemployed and seeking work.

And still more damaging to their long-term interests, black citizens of voting age are far more likely to be disenfranchised at the polls and without a voice in American politics.

When one black boy like Michael Brown is shot and killed by the police, it is a tragedy. When hundreds of black youths in their teens and 20s are shot by the police each year, it is an outrage. Much as we may wish to ascribe such deaths to the individual failings of the people involved and embrace the so-called “post-racial” or “colorblind” ideal, the reality of racial bias in the criminal justice system – and the race-based poverty and inequality to which it is attached – is undeniable. The system killed Mike Brown.

Officer Darren Wilson did not begin his fateful patrol on Aug. 9 intending to shoot an unarmed youth. Let no one doubt that fact. Nor do his actions justify the indiscriminate looting and violence by certain disgruntled or opportunistic members of the Ferguson community. But when police officers routinely practice racial profiling and excessive use of force in dealing with people of color, the question must be asked: Does our system assign equal value to the lives of young black men and women as it does to other citizens?

Until the answer is a definitive “yes,” what choice have I but to stand in protest with the victims of persistent prejudice – in Ferguson and my own home?

(Daniel Weeks writes on poverty and democracy at His wife, Dr. Sindiso Mnisi Weeks of South Africa, teaches law and social development at UMass Boston. They live in Nashua.)

Legacy Comments24

I don't like the way that police handle themselves in many instances, particularly in their militancy and in many cases arrogance. On one hand the Obama administration is now talking about the need for the police force to have military style weapons and on the other they supported police departments getting a Bearcat. The narrative here is what is wrong with this whole story. There are several myths: The "teenager" (18 years old and 300 pounds) was a 'gentle giant". He beat a convenience store clerk and robbed the store. Myth 2: He was a great kid just looking forward to going to college (and robbing a store, not such a great kid). Myth 3: He was shot six times in the back (turned out not to be true), Myth 4: He was shot for no reason (no, he beat the officer and tried to steal his gun). Myth 5: Police shoot and kill black youth all of the time (this not true either, it is an anomaly). Moreover, the issue of looting is just brushed upon by the press. You don't loot and steal because you don't like something that happened. No outrage from the press about the looting.

HEADLINE: "29 Shot in Spate of Weekend Chicago Violence"Five people have been killed and at least 24 others wounded in weekend shootings across Chicago. 2) Chicago: 446 school age children shot so far this year with strongest gun laws in country – media silent.

HEADLINE : "Beaten to Death at McDonald´s"

"disproportionate number of black youths gunned down" Are you seriously trying to say they were all innocent of violent behavior? That cops just randomly shoot black guys? Really? Please consider the possibility that violent criminal get shot by cops because they were trying to hurt/kill cops or other people. Really - its possible. Same for incarceration.

There are thousands of pages of good research that demonstrates how empty your position is. Not every Black youth shot by police is innocent - NOBODY ever claimed that. But police violence has a distinctly racist tinge.

If the cop was black, you would have never heard of this.

If the cop were (note use of subjunctive) Black, Michael Brown would likely be alive and with his family. There would be no "this" to hear about.

gracc, do I hear you saying every assailant who attacks a cop so badly his eye socket is blown out -should go home to be with his family? (The inference - if the guy is black - he gets a pass on all the laws and prosecution that would through a white guy , you or me - in prison? How racist!

Eye socket wasn't blown out. It's a right-wing blog Fox So-Called News Channel (let me be charitable here) inaccuracy. ALL the stories claiming he suffered orbital fracture are somewhere between incorrect and lies. They're so desperate to create this story that they couldn't take the time to properly conceal the fact that they had stolen their "Exhibit A" X-ray image from the University of Iowa website. If it weren't for the demonstrations and the persistence of the Brown family, this would be just one more dog bites man story: Keep moving, folks, nothing to see here.

TCB and the rest of you: ´even if the eye-socket thing was/is true (which it is clearly not), it would be entirely irrelevant to this cop's use of deadly force. The inference from yours and many other comments here is that police may use deadly force in response to an act of violence, especially if the perp is trying to run away -- which is what that gloating idiot cop said in St. Louis. Wrong (I would hope obviously): they may only use deadly force where reasonably necessary to protect self or others from imminent threat of harm. Way back during the Trayvon Martin case, everybody seemed to recognize that was the rule and the issue. Now that police have upped the ante by shooting a guy six times with the kill shot being from above to the top of the head, and then LEFT HIS BODY IN THE STREET FOR FOUR HOURS, justifiably outraging people, the right-wing apologists for police thugs are apparently seeing a great PR opportunity to undo the rules protecting people from unlawful force.

The behavior of inner city youth is very evident. No one has an issue with "race" or the color of the person's skin. It is about behavior, attitude, a chip on their shoulder. It is about piss poor parenting or the lack of one or both involved in their lives. This is a systemic problem that politicians have thrown money at for years and more and more and more money to no avail. The answer? Who knows? The race-baiters on the Left, the press, the Al Sharpton's, Jessee Jackson's simply stir up more and more conspiracy theories and constantly harp on "race". It is the behavior of a particular group and their mindset that creates a stereotypes. It is time that we face the truth and admit the real issues.

"even if the eye-socket thing was/is true (which it is clearly not), it would be entirely irrelevant to this cop's use of deadly force."....on what planet?

I agree with Laurie. The cop has been already tried and convicted in this case even though the facts are not all in. Sadly, we even have governors and Pols calling for the cop to be charged with murder. Little by little info is dripping out. So much for our justice system, innocent till proven guilty. We saw this before with the Martin case and the Professor from Harvard. Any facts that come out about Brown that are negative will go unreported by the left leaning media. They will also bury any info about the cop's injuries. Sad, but that is how the media operates these days. They do not report, they just promote their political agenda.

You must be omnipotent to have such insight into a crime where no one knows the facts yet. Guilt is an emotion, not public policy.

Laurie, your comment demonstrates 1.) the fact that you didn't read Mr. Weeks' column which deals with a systemic problem not specific details of the Brown case; and 2.) you seem to have a glib, coldhearted response ready for just about any human tragedy. Do you lie awake at night thinking up this stuff, or is it just autonomic spew?

why do liberals take it upon themselves to criticize and demean and to tell everyone else how to act, live and think? Are they incapable of simply stating their position on a topic? Liberals are without the most smug beings on earth.

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Here's some good advice to the black youths of Furgeson...put down the weed, dont rob your local convenience store, dont assault the owner, dont break a cops face, go for his gun, fire his gun off in the car, and then try to attack him again. That will get you shot in any town. Even in NH.

Stereotype much?

you mean its not good advice?

Addressed "to the black youths of Furgeson [sic]" No. And you don't see racist stereotyping there? No.. of course you don't.

Have you ever considered the trouble and attitude? Attitude instilled through hatred because they perceive that they have not been given a fair shot? Demeanor? Going around developing their own language and gangsta culture, further promoted through things like rap and hip hop. Music and culture putting down "whitey" and women? I don't see other cultures acting in the majority this way. Killing others for sneakers, looting, etc. This is an engrained attitude and culture that stains all folks. People see it on TV and they stereotype. I know many African Americans who distance themselves from the Al Sharpton crowd. They find it distasteful.

You mean its not good advice ( I ask again)????

Sometimes stereotypes fit. Who are the majority of the prisoners locked away for gun crimes?

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