Johnathan Bowes’ column “Stone by stone: Refocusing the Ferguson protests” raises a few valuable policy points but falls a stone’s throw away from addressing the heart of the issue: the widespread belief that black men are inherently more criminal than the rest of society. Protestors are not simply “reacting,” as Bowes puts it, but instead making a valuable effort to get us as a society to acknowledge racial prejudice. The consequences of not doing so are, quite literally, life and death for too many young black men.
Though, to many, Michael Brown may seem to be an imperfect poster child, it is wrong to suggest that he is a poor illustration of a violation of rights. Ultimately, he was a human being with human rights, and petty theft and rudeness towards a police officer would not have conceivably culminated in a fatal shooting for anyone besides a black male. Asserting that black lives matter means that the lives of all black people matter, not simply those who society deems to be respectable.
This message was not always clear in the civil rights movements of the past. Most of us know that, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, but we know nothing of Claudette Colvin, who did the exact same thing nine months prior to Parks. The reason for the discrepancy is simple: Colvin was a poor, pregnant teen with darker skin, whereas Parks was a well-respected member of her middle class community. The rest, so to speak, is history. The recent protests offer us the opportunity to assert that the way someone dresses, talks or looks does not take away from his or her humanity.
Bowes’ call for the demilitarization of the police force is a needed one. However, the police do not only need to be demilitarized in terms of equipment, but in their mindset towards minority communities. A ban on military-grade equipment would not have saved Akai Gurley, who was fatally shot by a rookie NYPD cop who entered a Brooklyn housing project with his handgun drawn. Walking into a residential area with a drawn firearm seems extreme even for a Marine in Afghanistan, let alone a police officer merely patrolling a building.
Similarly, police body cameras, while necessary, would not have prevented the death of Eric Garner, whose last muffled words were “I can’t breathe.” The officer who placed Garner in an illegal chokehold told a grand jury that he did not mind being filmed, since he was sure that he was doing nothing wrong. Apparently, the grand jury agreed, as Officer Pantaleo was not indicted.
The cases of Garner and Gurley illustrate that new policies are ineffectual when they are not accompanied by new attitudes on race. There is something fundamentally and deeply flawed with the way that many police interact with young black men as well as the way that we are viewed by society as a whole. Some will read that statement and think, “Yes, I understand, now can we stop the protests and start generating solutions?” However, the protests provide precisely the moral and social pressure that is needed to hold policymakers accountable. Protests and conversations centered on policy are not mutually exclusive, but instead go hand in hand to affect change.
Bowes seems to express frustration at the longevity of the protests as well as the fact that protestors have dared to interrupt the daily lives of many Americans. However, business as usual should not be accepted in a world in which blacks are shot, incarcerated and sentenced to long-term stints in prison at vastly higher rates than the rest of society. Specific policy prescriptions will only be meaningful if we first acknowledge the painful truth of the current status quo, and we should all join the protestors in the effort to do so.
Jonathan Wosen is a 2nd-year graduate student in immunology. He can be contacted at jwosen ‘at’ stanford.edu.