Over a week has passed since the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri that has led to mass protests, looting, and transportation chaos in the days surrounding Thanksgiving, but nonetheless, protests continue, and the anger over the decision has not dissipated. But there’s a critical problem with these protests: the anger that has caused them is misdirected.
Right now, the protests reacting to the Ferguson decision have done only that — they have merely reacted to the decision without pushing for any specific change. But though the Michael Brown – Darren Wilson case doesn’t perfectly fit the mold of a true violation of rights case, it seems that a good number of people, around the country and here on campus, have become fed up with the problems that black people and their communities face on a daily basis through watching the case unfold.
We have an incredible problem in this country when it comes to violence both in and against the black community, as well as in how the police relate to that community. As of last school year, for instance, black people in this country were murdered four times as often as should be expected given the national average, and despite accounting for less than 15 percent of the general population, black people (and predominantly black males) account for about 37 percent of our prison population.
At this point, though, shouting “Shut it down for Michael Brown!” while parading through shopping malls in St. Louis or while chained to the BART train is a fairly meaningless and insignificant act. Protesting against a grand jury’s decision as a way to achieve some sort of betterment for the situation of black people vis-à-vis violence or the police will ultimately change nothing about those situations.
Even protesting for something as abstract as the concept of racial justice won’t really help stop these problems at this point in time. If asked, the vast majority of people would probably agree that black lives matter, but it would be hard to find a majority who believe shutting down public transit for several hours or boycotting Black Friday will help society move towards a more-equitably just way of operating — and the protests have not changed that at all. If anything, getting in people’s way, especially during the busiest shopping day of the year, will encourage people to close themselves off to any message the protesters want to send. It also seems to encourage people who think of “an eye for an eye” justice as something desirable to join in, which could account for people thinking that burning down pizza places counts as a move towards justice.
In order to actually achieve some meaningful change in our society, the people who have protested peacefully over this last week should actually adopt a concrete, achievable goal. After all, the problems of violence against and criminalization of black people is a mountain of a problem; it’s simply too big to tackle all at once.
So rather than protests calling for something that protests can’t solve, let’s see some protests calling for the demilitarization of the police force. If anything encourages otherwise-good police officers to use excessive force in situations that don’t warrant it, having stockpiles of military-grade weaponry would. We’d already started to see this trend by the time Wilson shot Brown, like with the case of the Atlanta SWAT team who threw a grenade at a two-year-old while looking for a drug dealer. There are few cases when a police officer justifiably needs gear beyond what is standard-issue, and there are no cases when police officers absolutely need tanks and anti-helicopter guns.
Let’s see some protests calling for mandatory body cameras for police officers. Unlike private citizens, police officers do not have a right to privacy while on-duty. So just as people can, and should, film police officers in the course of their duties as a form of accountability, police departments themselves should, through required body cameras, do so too. It’s not a perfect solution by any means, but by knowing that a camera catches everything a police officer does, requiring cameras on cops should help to prevent police brutality — and help to bring about justice when it happens.
Let’s see some protest calling for the decriminalization of drugs. Drugs tend to be the cash cows for gangs, and for people trying to escape poverty, getting involved in the drug trade through gangs could be a risk worth taking. Those gangs bring the lion’s share of the violence to black communities, as well as the increased scrutiny of the police. The end of alcohol prohibition saw the downfall of the mob in many ways, just as the few instances of marijuana prohibition’s end have already started curbing the power of the drug cartels. If the gangs lose their power, excuses for police brutality will rapidly disappear.
So instead of shutting it down for Michael Brown — which does nothing more than shout at the mountain — let’s start pulling that mountain down stone by stone.
Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu.