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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.