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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.