A protestor holds her hands up in front of a police car in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty
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Ferguson has reinforced racial fear and lethal stereotypes

As long as racial fear can be used to justify disproportionate force, killings like that of Mike Brown in Ferguson will continue.

The decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson with the unlawful shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown has reignited protests across the US. The judgment was met by violent outrage on the streets of Ferguson.

After months of deliberation, a grand jury ruled that there was “insufficient evidence” to convict Wilson of acting illegally. At the heart of the controversy is whether this incident was motivated by racism or the officer’s “reasonable fear” for his life. American law enforcement officials are permitted to use deadly force when their safety is perceived to be in mortal danger. Opponents charge, however, that this shooting had little to do with fear and everything to do with the unjust racial profiling by police.

These are not mutually exclusive. The public stereotyping of black American males still justifies the use of lethal force against them by authorities at increasingly alarming levels. And as long as racial fear can be used to justify that force, killings like that of Brown will continue.

Scare stories

Racial fearmongering has long been used to legitimise violence against African-Americans. Before the civil war, black slaves were commonly depicted as savages who needed to be tamed by the white race. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in particular, an image of blacks as sex-crazed threats to white moral decency was used to justify their lynching and the rise of white supremacist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

In today’s America, racial fear is most obviously manifest in the widely held stereotype of African-American males as dangerous criminals. The image of the “violent thug” terrorising the inner city and increasingly the suburbs remains a strong.

It is this fearful representation that has helped to legitimise the government’s war on drugs that has disproportionately targeted black communities and led to the incarceration of African-Americans at a staggeringly disproportionate rate.

It is not surprising, then, that police officers would “instinctually” have a heightened fear for their safety when confronted by a black suspect. This is not just their individual racism coming into play. Instead it is the result of years of social conditioning to see blacks as “dangerous”. In the words of one expert: “The fact of the matter is that whiteness presumes innocence and blackness presumes guilt, and you have to prove yourself otherwise.”

Lethal force

This purportedly “reasonable” fear of African-Americans makes them especially vulnerable to aggressive and often lethal policing tactics. These tactics are needed, police argue, to effectively deal with “thugs” whose lifestyle is supposedly defined by the use and celebration of violence. Otherwise innocuous fashion choices – hoodies and low-slung jeans – become coded as warnings that people should fear for their safety.

The infamous 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is a case in point.

Not surprisingly, the parents of Trayvon Martin have supported the Ferguson movement, saying publicly that the officer “should be held accountable” and even visiting the Brown family and protestors in Missouri.

Smear campaign

In the case of Ferguson, much has been made of the fact that the vast majority of the town’s police force is white, while the vast majority of its citizens are black. It’s also been reported that more than 90% of all arrests in Ferguson are of black people – despite evidence that they are less likely to be carrying contraband, for instance, than white citizens.

Tellingly, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the Ferguson police made an ill-planned attempt to depict Brown, who had just graduated from high school and was headed to college, as a “typically” dangerous black youth. They released a video showing him appearing to steal an item from a local shop where he briefly fought with the store owner.

The police were widely criticised for taking the time-honoured approach of demonising their black male victim as “dangerous” to imply he somehow “deserved” his violent end. And yet, the strategy has not only persisted; it’s been extended to the protesters now taking to the streets of Ferguson.

What started out as peaceful demonstrations in August 2014 soon turned violent when riot police armed with military-grade weapons began attacking the protesters.

According to an Amnesty report, police met protesters “using armored vehicles which are more commonly seen in a conflict zone rather than the streets of a suburban town in the United States”.

This echoed video footage of police taunting the crowd. One CNN video showed an officer saying to the protesters: “Bring it you fucking animals! Bring it!”

Some sections of mainstream US media, however, have largely blamed the protesters for the violence, depicting them as an angry black mob creating “chaos” who the authorities were acting appropriately in aggressively putting them down.

Equally, the Ferguson protesters made much of another example of the racial double-standard: a violent riot among mostly white individuals intoxicated after a “pumpkin fest” in New Hampshire, which was widely depicted as merely being “rowdy” and chaotic despite the fact that police used tear gas to shut it down.

Now, instead of talking to the media, the Ferguson protesters are increasingly relying on social media outlets to get their message out and present themselves as constructively fighting for justice. As one woman who went to the protests to observe what it was like for herself first hand, put it:

They (the media) totally took advantage of stereotypes about race and making any black person that shared emotion seem violent. They painted all these protests to be violent mobs of people terrorising, and that’s absolutely not the experience I had.

In response to the police’s racial stereotyping, a national twitter campaign has begun, with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

Black men in particular have used the feed as a forum to post everyday pictures of themselves next to ones that could be misused to portray them as “thugs” (for instance holding a fake gun at a costume party).

After the jury’s decision on November 24, the first concern of the authorities was to make sure the protesters didn’t engage in widespread violence. This masks the broader message being promoted by those in the movement, one they expressed in an open letter in the aftermath of the ruling:

This fight for the dignity of our people, for the importance of our lives, for the protection of our children is one that did not begin Michael’s murder and will not end with this announcement. The “system” you have told us to rely on has kept us on the margins of society … housed us in her worst homes, educated our children in her worst schools, locked up our men at disproportionate rates and shamed our women for receiving the support they need to be our mothers

To end this cycle of violence and preserve the dignity of black lives, we have to end the stereotype of the “dangerous” and “violent” black threat. Until then, as Ferguson has so tragically shown, American racism will continue to make the fear and killing of blacks seem “reasonable”.

Peter Bloom does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt