Ferguson, a sympton of wider malaise in USA

16:28, Aug 20 2014
Ferguson, Missouri, protesters
FEELING THE STING: A protester in Ferguson, Missouri, is doused with milk and sprayed with mist after being sprayed with eye irritant by police.

Last year I moved from the Sydney suburb of Ryde, to Webster Groves in St Louis, Missouri.

Although St Louis had the third highest murder rate for major US cities in 2012, I did not foresee the civil unrest that is unfolding before our eyes. Since Sunday, the northern St Louis suburb of Ferguson, about a 30-minute drive from our home, has been declared to be in a local state of emergency.

On Tuesday night, another person was shot dead, after allegedly threatening police with a knife, and 31 were arrested on the usually quiet streets of the city where my wife was born and which I have been visiting for 15 years. I have previously lived happily in a black community in St Louis. I now regularly play handball with black athletes, some of whom have served time behind bars. I count all of them as friends.

The police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson and the civil unrest that has followed have shocked me. Suddenly this working-class area is filled with scenes that you could imagine coming from a society in disorder such as Egypt, where authorities have brutally clamped down on protesters. How can this be happening in the US, the world's leader of free speech?

The response to protesters by police last week in riot gear - who fired tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades and pointed automatic weapons at the crowds - has been a public relations disaster.

The arrest of journalists from the Huffington Post and Washington Post last Thursday in a McDonald's restaurant as they charged their mobile devices made the police seem unreasonable. So far 11 journalists have been arrested.


Serving as a police officer is a dangerous job -  rocks and Molotov cocktails have followed the abuse hurled at officers and they have had  shots fired at them. One police officer I spoke to at a road block on West Florissant Avenue appeared nervous for the night ahead - there was fear in his eyes.

The protesters I have met in Ferguson during the day and the night have been mainly polite and friendly but also determined to have their voices heard - "Hands up, don't shoot!" and "No justice, no peace!" are their catch-cries. For them, justice means Darren Wilson, the 28-year-old officer who shot Brown, is charged with murder and sent to prison.

But there is also a criminal element to the protesters - opportunists looting businesses, damaging property and attacking police. The more police appear to clamp down on protesters and respond to this criminal element, the more protesters arc up against them. This "Us and Them" mentality has led to the escalation of the situation.

There are two versions of what happened last week: one that Michael Brown - a "gentle giant" had surrendered with his hands up before being shot multiple times (he was hit six times). The second that Michael Brown - a robbery suspect - turned and rushed towards the policeman after he had already assaulted the officer and tried to take his gun.

It isn't right for a viewer to judge whether Michael Brown or the police officer who shot him are to blame for this tragedy. It doesn't help the situation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department are both investigating what happened.  We are giving Michael Brown and Darren Wilson a trial by media.

A more important question to ask is, why has the African American community responded so fiercely?

The shooting of Brown has hit a raw nerve in the African American community here. For them it is another example of police brutality, racial profiling and an unjust system, where black people are not treated equally to white people. The shooting of black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 by white Neighbourhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman is still fresh in many minds.

Before that there were the Los Angeles riots - six days of unrest following the acquittal of four police officers who were charged with use of excessive force and assault with a deadly weapon over the brutal beating of Rodney King after a high-speed car chase in 1992.

But it is the day-to-day relationship with police that many young African American men struggle with. Black parents tell their children how to act around police so as not to incite them. White parents don't generally have this conversation. The young black men I spoke to during the protests don't trust police officers.

"Even though they have a badge on they still say whatever they want to," 18-year-old Joshua Williams said. "And then they dare you to say something back to them."

"We feel like we are not going to get justice because - if history repeats itself - we have never got justice," another young black man wearing a bandana to cover his face told me. "If you want to calm us down, make a conviction."

"I feel like there are no reasonable police," he said. "You guys are blowing children's brains out at twelve o'clock, noon, for nothing."

Fear is a powerful human emotion. It often brings out the worst in us - we are quick to judge others and are suspicious of the way people look. We are less willing to start a conversation and listen to another person's point of view and, in extreme situations, it means we are more likely to pull the trigger first and ask questions later. Our fight-or-flight response to stress is brought into play much faster.

In the US, fear is a big selling tool, too. Whole industries here depend on it. From personal firearms to home alarm systems as well as all the equipment being sold into police departments to prepare them to face mass riots, there are many products designed to give you peace of mind. They do not, however, help deliver peace.

The racial tension and distrust in Ferguson are part of a much wider malaise in America that can't be cured through tear gas or Molotov cocktails. And that malaise is fear.

Daniel Fallon is Digital Night Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and is based in the United States.

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