There are no helicopters in the sky.
There are no billows of smoke wafting from a burned out quick-mart and no angry voices shouting in the darkness. The battalions of riot gear-clad police officers are gone now. The protesters have stopped coming and so have the news crews. Several years ago, with no story left to tell, national media outlets packed up their gear and moved on to other cities in search of calamity and rancor.
Ferguson remains what it has been for decades—bruised in too many places, broken in all too familiar ways. Situated just west of St. Louis, the once all-white enclave covers a mere six square miles. But to know its history, to understand its present-day fissures, is to understand the impact of public policies designed to contain rather than remedy poverty and to wall off black people from meaningful economic opportunity. It is to grapple with the knowable outcomes that stem from policing-for-profit schemes that were prevalent across St. Louis counties and elsewhere. It is to witness the marginalization and debasement of black lives, writ large.
On what was supposed to be a quiet Sunday afternoon in August, four years ago, I stared at a computer monitor. I was transfixed by photos of a black boy laying face-down in the street, splayed across the hot asphalt, blood streaming from his lifeless body, his hands tucked beneath him. The news had not yet captured national attention, but it had mine. After all, in the late '80s, I once called Ferguson, Missouri—the small close-in St. Louis suburb straddling Interstate 70—my home. I had lived only a few blocks away. I had attended the same high school as that boy. For me, the social media images were soul-searing.
I arrived in St. Louis that Monday morning and I was the first national journalist on the ground. It took me just over an hour to track down the young man who had been with Brown that day. He was sequestered in a hotel just outside of downtown St. Louis. He was afraid, he said, for his life. I arranged an exclusive interview with MSNBC. The world, I told him, needed to know what you saw.
None of us can know for sure what unfolded in the moments before a police officer killed Michael Brown on Canfield Drive. We do know that the 18-year -old was unarmed and that he was shot at least six times, including twice in the head from a distance of just over 150 feet. We do know that despite the pretense of an investigation, Officer Darren Wilson never faced criminal charges.
There had been another high-profile killing. Two years prior and 1,000 miles south in Sanford, Florida, a self-anointed neighborhood watch captain stalked and murdered Trayvon Martin. It would take Roland Martin and me nearly a month to get the attention of national news networks. Others, including Rev. Al Sharpton, joined that effort.
He had been armed with only with a can of iced tea and a bag of candy, but the teenager’s death would capture national headlines for months on end. In the years since, documentaries have been produced, books published and—at least in this case—there was an indictment and a trial. But, ultimately, his parents would be forced to watch the man who murdered their son walk out of a central Florida courthouse free of criminal consequence.
There are other names, among them Eric Garner, LaQuan McDonald, John Crawford, Freddie Gray, Jordan Davis, Botham Jean. And there have been other cities—Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Dayton, New York and now Dallas—marred by state-sanctioned violence against black men, women and children. In November 2014, a few months after Michael Brown was gunned down, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was summarily executed by a Cleveland police officer near a recreation center in a snowy city park.
Rice was an innocent child playing alone in a neighborhood park. Still he could not escape the barbarism. Officer Timothy Loehmann, who had previously been declared unfit for duty in another jurisdiction, shot Rice within seconds of their encounter. Rice had been seen playing with an airsoft gun, the kind you can find at any toy store. But Loehmann never saw it, because Rice never reached for it.
The child never had a chance.
For those who defended Loehmann, Wilson and Amber Guyger—the off-duty Dallas police officer who broke into her neighbor Botham Jean's home and shot him—there can be no perfect victim. Michael Brown was “no angel,” a New York Times reporter wrote after he was murdered.
The fact is “there are no circumstances in which the responsibility for a police shooting of an unarmed black person cannot be placed on the victim," as Adam Serwer wrote for The Atlantic. Blackness, in and of itself, equates to criminality. The strictures of probable cause, imminent harm, due process and equal protection are rendered mute and moot.
I continue to struggle with the notion that two years ago my own son was illegally detained, with a weapon pressed against his back, by Atlanta police officers. At 27, my son is among the oldest men in my immediate family and I am grateful for his life. Photos of Joshua’s reddened wrists are unfortunate reminders of that day outside a coffee shop. Had they killed my son, they would have found a way to make him culpable for his own death.
Even before Dallas businessman Botham Shem Jean could be laid to rest, a smear campaign took root—as if the post-incident discovery of marijuana in his apartment could somehow justify the unlawful entry into his home, erase his Fourth Amendment protections, and vindicate the woman who shot him in the chest as he stood in his own living room.
Justice is inextricably tied to the race of the victim—especially when the shooter is a police officer. And, if that victim has a criminal record of any kind, no matter how minor the infraction, the chance of an attempted, let alone successful, prosecution declines exponentially.
Protesters, as they have in other cities, shut down Dallas’ I-30 in recent days. They are, as are other social justice activists in other cities, pressing for reform. They are seeking the promised accountability that is enshrined in our nation’s constitution. They want to know that they will be safe carrying a pack of candy, listening to music in the back seat of a car, playing in a snowy park, shopping in a Walmart store or—as in Jean’s case—relaxing at home after a day’s work.
It appears a jury will get to decide Officer Guyger’s fate. However, the history is clear: The chances of a conviction are narrow and the punishment is not at all likely to match the crime. The burden of proof is higher when a police officer pulls the trigger.
It is extraordinarily rare for a law-enforcement officer to stand trial on criminal charges, as former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager did, for shooting an unarmed suspect—on or off-duty. Slager, who chased down and shot Navy veteran Walter Scott three times in the back, was captured on video planting evidence near the dead man’s body.
Scott’s crime? A broken tail light.
In all, according to the coroner, Slager fired eight shots and hit the victim as he trotted away. He hit Scott five times from around 30 feet away. As the motorist lay dying, Slager handcuffed his arms behind his back. Had the roles been reversed, Scott would have faced the death penalty in South Carolina. Slager got 20 years.
In recent years, a loose-knit group of reformists organized marches around the country. Without question, the re-emergence of social justice activism has been one of the most prominent stories over the last decade. However, police violence in non-white communities is not and has never been the exclusive focus of Black Lives Matter and similar advocacy groups. When the victim is black, activists understand that intra-racial homicides routinely go unsolved. If you are black, in this country, there is every likelihood that your death will go unprosecuted and unpunished even when the shooter is a civilian. Media attention will be scant.
And I know. The murders of my father and brother, in separate incidents, have remained unsolved for decades.
In the wake of Martin’s death in 2012, I made that point on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. The race of the victim matters more than the identity of the shooter. Martin’s blackness mattered to George Zimmerman. And it mattered to the jury. Blackness, for Martin and other victims, becomes probable cause.
A recent Washington Post story, written by award-winning journalist Wesley Lowery, corroborated that assessment. Lowery, it should be said, was among the first to arrive in Ferguson and among the last to leave.
“Ain’t nobody been locked up,” Deangelo Norwood told Lowery in Chicago, where gun deaths consume the headlines. “And they ain’t trying to solve nothing.”
That these deaths occur with such impunity, the rarity in which anyone—let alone a member of law enforcement—is held criminally liable, and the relative speed at which news organizations will move on, gave rise to Black Lives Matter. As a consequence, its leaders have been targeted for surveillance by federal law enforcement and demonized across the conservative media landscape for daring to question a system that does not value black bodies. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sacrificed his career, by silently kneeling during the national anthem, to center our collective attention to the issue. In return, he has received rebuke and scorn from conservative quarters for simply demanding accountability for the loss of a human life.
The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was killed by Baltimore city police officers, is a place defoliated of its wealth and any ability to produce it by segregation, housing discrimination, and mass incarceration—by immoral federal and state policies designed to press down, trap in, and lock out. Its proverbial bootstraps were stolen and twisted around its neck until an entire community nearly lost consciousness and died. If you are looking for hope, you won’t find it there. Everything wrong about policing in this country is wrong in Baltimore.
I had been in Baltimore, covering the marches and riots, in the days after Gray’s death. I could still hear the echoes of the righteously indignant shouting, shutting down shopping malls and blocking major thoroughfares when I returned a year later. I went back to where Gray was loaded into a police van.
Then too, I retraced Walter Scott’s last steps in North Charleston through a parking long, along a side street and across an open field. I took a MTA train to Staten Island and stood on the corner where Eric Garner once sold individual cigarettes to passersby, the place where he was choked to death by a police officer. And I returned to Ferguson—to Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown bled out on the pavement.
I wanted to see the world as they saw it in their final moments, the moments before the helicopters arrived.
Goldie Taylor is editor-at-large for The Daily Beast and author of the upcoming novel Paper Gods.