One Year After Ferguson: Making Black Lives Matter

Terrance Heath

August 9 will mark one year since officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Too many black lives are still lost to police violence, but movements are now demanding that black lives matter.

Some things have changed in the year that has passed since Brown’s death.

Ferguson has a black interim chief of police, tasked with building trust between the city’s predominantly African-American population and its mostly white police force.
In a landmark election, Ferguson voters turned out in record numbers, and elected two new black representatives to the city council. Half the members of the city council are now African-American.
● In the wake of Ferguson, the Obama administration has proposed implementing policing reforms, and stemming police militarization.
● Two Department of Justice reports uncovered racially biased practices in the Ferguson police department, and found that Ferguson police officers violated the rights of protestors.
Michael Brown is getting a permanent memorial in Ferguson.

August marks the first anniversary of the deaths of at least three other young African-American men at the hands of police officers.

Jonathan Crawford – August 4, 2014

John Crawford, 22, was shot and killed by police officers in an Ohio Walmart on August 4, 2014. Customers called police after seeing Crawford walking around the store with a realistic-looking toy gun that he picked up in the store. Officers claimed that Crawford ignored orders to drop the gun. Store surveillance videos showed that officers shot Crawford on sight. On September 24, 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict the officers. Crawford’s family is now suing Walmart and the police department.

Ezell Ford – August 11, 2014

Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old, mentally ill, unarmed black man was shot and killed by LAPD officers during an “investigative stop.” Ford’s family said he was lying on the ground trying to comply with officers when he was shot three times. In June, the Los Angeles chief of police and an independent watchdog group found that Ford’s shooting was justified, but faulted officers for the manner in which they approached him. A civilian oversight board found that the officers used excessive force and violated standard LAPD policy. Ford’s parents are suing the city of Los Angeles, the police department, and the officers involved.

Kajieme Powell – August 19, 2014

Kajieme Powell, a mentally ill 25-year-old, is shot and killed by two St. Louis police officers on August 19. 2014. Police were called because Powell was alleged to have robbed a pastry shop, wielding a knife, earlier that day. Police released a video of the shooting alongside video of the alleged shoplifting incident. Police said Powell was acting erratically and came at them with a raised knife. The video shows Powell walking towards police, but without an upraised knife, as officers tell him to take his hands out of his pocket.

What has not changed is police violence against African-Americans. Since Michael Brown’s death, hardly a month has gone by without a report of another African-American shot and killed by police, dying in police custody, or injured by police use of excessive force.

A timeline of deaths and incidents of brutality in the year since Michael Brown’s death shows how much hasn’t changed.

It’s easy to view a timeline like this, and conclude that police violence against African-Americans has suddenly reached epidemic proportions. Such incidents seem to have risen dramatically. Researching such incidents for a much longer timeline made it clear to me that these recent incidents are part of what Angela Davis called, “an unbroken line of police violence that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan.”

It’s not that such encounters are happening more often. We’re just seeing more coverage of them, thanks to a “perfect storm” of social media, ubiquitous smartphone technology, and the growth of a movement to focus national attention on police violence against African-Americans.

A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that a growing number of people understand that there’s much to be done before black lives will really matter as much as others. Fifty-nine percent of Americans now believe that changes are needed to ensure African-Americans have equal rights. That’s an increase of more than ten percentage points from 46 percent last year, before Ferguson. Much of that is due to the passion and work of the #BlackLivesMatter movement activists, and their unapologetic insistence on the urgency of their message.

Majority Says Nation Needs to Make Changes to Give Blacks Equal Rights

What happened to Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown has happened for generations in our communities. What has changed is that we’re more likely to hear about it. The availability of smartphones and social media means that more people have the tools of the media in their hands.

These tools have an unparalleled impact when combined with intent. When people use them to bypass the gatekeepers of conventional media, stories that wouldn’t have spread beyond local media become national stories. This exposure makes a difference in a couple of important ways.

More people hear more of the truth about what’s really happening. In the past, the police version of events was usually the accepted version, even when witnesses told another story. In the cases of Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, Tamir Rice and Jonathan Crawford, video footage revealed the police version of events was far from the truth.

It’s one thing for witnesses to say that police kill unarmed black men and then plant weapons on their bodies. It’s another to see North Charleston police officer Michael Slager on video shooting Walter Scott in the back as he ran away, falsely claiming to have fired in self-defense when Scott grabbed his taser during a struggle, and then planting his taser on Scott’s body. In the past Slager’s version would have been accepted, and the shooting ruled justified. Instead, Slager is charged with Scott’s murder. He now awaits trial in a jail cell next to Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and eight other parishioners of Emanuel AME Church.

When people see that’s what’s happening in their community, and connect with others who are experiencing the same in their communities, movements are born. In the year since Ferguson, movements like #BlackLivesMatter have put police violence in African-American communities on the national radar. Activists have pressured local officials to press criminal charges against police officers and release video footage of police attacks, and lobbied for policing reforms at local, state, and federal levels. From abolition to civil rights, movements have made black lives matter, by demanding that the law recognize and protect black humanity.

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