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The Pastor, the Police Officer and the Political Activist: Three Perspectives on Ferguson

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Posted on Aug 21, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

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Police brutality against black men has become a shockingly common phenomenon in the U.S. The names of those who have died at the hands of law enforcement or their unofficial vigilante deputies over the past few years are too numerous to count. Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Kendrec McDade, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin are just a handful of names on the list of victims.

On Aug. 9, 18-year-old Michael Brown joined the list when he died from gunshot wounds at the hands of Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson. The subsequent protests and police response in Ferguson have thrust the long-simmering issue of police brutality against black men into the national spotlight.

To make sense of the crisis, I spoke with three African-American men who have strong opinions on the unfolding situation in Ferguson. One of them is Tommie Pierson, a pastor at the Greater St. Mark Family Church just outside Ferguson. His church has become a popular site for community meetings since Brown’s death. In an interview on Uprising last week, Pierson did not hesitate to decry Ferguson police officers’ attitudes toward residents, saying, “The police don’t like us. And we’re developing that attitude against them that we don’t like them.” He explained, giving a personal example: “The police have this ‘us against them’ mentality, and they provoke young people into doing something so that they can punish them or hurt them. I have a straight-A student here who was detained by the police because he was running home. And they stopped him, handcuffed him and threw him in the car.”

De Lacy Davis is a former member of law enforcement who served for years in New Jersey’s East Orange Police Department before retiring and founding the group Black Cops Against Police Brutality. He told me in an interview last week that Ferguson’s residents and protesters are “people who have been oppressed, people who have been beat down and will not take it any longer.” Davis pointed out that police tend to have double standards in communities of color, saying, “It is unfortunate that law enforcement still does not get it, post-Rodney King, post-Emmett Till. And they don’t recognize that we don’t police white America the way we police black, Latino and poor America. And we don’t tolerate it in white America, yet we tolerate it in our communities.”

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Kevin Alexander Gray is a longtime political activist and author. He has written such books as “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.” He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming book “Killing Trayvon.” In an interview Monday, Gray echoed the sentiments of Pierson and Davis on the events in Ferguson, saying, “This isn’t just something that happens as an anomaly. This has happened all the time, even beyond Emmett Till. And I think it’s at the point now with the militarization of police departments and using racial profiling, and the war on drugs, and the age-old stereotypes that black people have no rights that whites or anybody in authority are bound to respect. I think that people have had enough.”

The three men, who are from widely diverse professional backgrounds—the pastor, the police officer and the political activist—all see common patterns of police impunity against blacks. This should come as no surprise to us. African-Americans view police brutality quite differently from white Americans. A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll on the situation in Ferguson found that blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to view Brown’s killing as raising issues of race.

Ferguson seems like a tipping point for a community that has been in the crosshairs of law enforcement for far too long. “We’ve been treated like second-class citizens by the police for years, and now it’s time to stop it,” Pierson said. Gray went further, describing the police treatment of blacks in “low and moderate income communities as predators and enemies.” He added, “In this country, black people, but in particular black men, throughout their history of living in this country are viewed as being something more violent, less than a human, expendable.”

Despite communities of color saying through their protests that enough is enough, the police response to activism in Ferguson has only escalated the situation and has shocked even mainstream journalists, some of whom have been inadvertently caught in the crossfire of a military-style operation. The words “war zone” have been appropriately used to describe scenes from Ferguson. Davis explained to me that law enforcement has access to wartime weaponry that comes from “surplus equipment that police departments can apply for, and it’s a pretty easy process. And we see small American police departments with very little crime, if any at all, arming themselves to the teeth.”

 


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