Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The lessons of #Ferguson, and how they apply today in Wisconsin

The Badger State is riddled with its own problems related to racial prejudices in law enforcement

A young boy is dead in Ferguson, Missouri.

Much about this boy and the events of the day he died is in dispute -- such as whether he fought with a police officer or not, whether he robbed a store or was misidentified as a criminal, and several other aspects of his life that some have brought up, necessary or otherwise.

There’s no disputing these facts, however: this teen was unarmed, and was shot by an officer of the law in the middle of the street.

Whether you believe Michael Brown to be innocent or not, it’s hard to dispute that his death was unjustified. Darren Wilson, the officer who pulled the trigger six times to stop the unarmed boy, may have felt threatened by the teenager. But Michael Brown will now never be able to defend himself, in neither a court of law nor in the court of public opinion.

I question how threatening an unarmed teen like Brown may be. Certainly Wilson should have defended his own person, and I don’t dispute the right of officers to do so when necessary. But could he have stopped at one shot? Could he have aimed for the boy’s leg? Accounts of the event say Brown was running away. Was he a real threat at that point, enough to put his life to an end?

As a result of this unnecessary death, protesters have taken to the streets of Ferguson. Most of the protests have been peaceful, but some have turned violent. Police in Ferguson have rightfully dealt with those individuals who have expressed their anger in negative ways.

It is the response to peaceful protests and to members of the media by law enforcement that is disturbing.

Americans have a right to express their dissatisfaction with society. When an event such as this occurs (in a jurisdiction where law enforcement already has a troubled reputation when it comes to race relations), the community should be allowed to express its anger in ways that are lawful, and without interruption.

When that expression is denied, and when media coverage of the suppression of that free speech is itself halted, the situation gets worse. What’s happened in Ferguson, Missouri, these past few days is wholly un-American. And it’s visually disturbing.

We’re used to seeing a militarized response to citizens in countries where democracy is forbidden, not in our own backyards. Thirty years ago the images we see today would have seemed commonplace in Communist-aligned nations, not in Midwest America.

We must force ourselves to deal with these events, to ask the tough questions that we’re afraid to speak aloud. Americans of all colors must recognize that racism, blatant or subtle, is still rampant in our country. We must all do our part, working within the confines of the law, to change the way we treat each other, and to create a real system of justice that treats everyone equally under the law.


The true horror of Ferguson, however, is that it could happen anywhere, even closer to us. There’s no reason to believe that Wisconsin is immune from such events, and in many ways we’ve already seen problems within our state. Whether it’s the mistreatment and misapplication of justice for African Americans, or the government’s insistence that it can reduce tenets of democracy, Wisconsin, too, has to face the facts and learn the lessons of Ferguson.

Wisconsin incarcerates a higher rate of black men per capita than any other state in the nation. Our metropolitan areas are heavily segregated. And we treat black citizens in a reprehensible way, especially when it comes to law enforcement. Indeed, illegal strip and cavity searches are routinely a problem for black men and women in Milwaukee, where more than 60 people are now suing the city’s police department for such intrusions.

At the same time, in the state Capitol building we’ve seen lawmakers regularly try to regulate speech and assembly rights of the people. From fines to improper arrests, individuals in the rotunda have seen their own share of abuse from some members of law enforcement. Though it isn’t related to race, it doesn’t take much to imagine a situation where black men and women could witness such protesting restrictions like those in Missouri.

For his part, Gov. Scott Walker has expressed concern for what’s happening in Missouri. But when asked about race relations in Wisconsin, the chief executive of our state offers up only one piece of legislation that he signed, a bipartisan bill that requires external review of police-to-civilian killings, as a method of fixing things in the Badger State.

That’s a step in the right direction, and one where Walker needs to be commended. But his other actions don’t leave one too confident in his commitment towards helping things to improve. Racism remains rampant here. Whether law enforcement engages in it or not, however, is largely unknown, thanks in part to the governor’s signature on a key piece of legislation early on in his term.

The law that passed the legislature and was signed by Walker removed requirements to collect arrest records that would ensure profiling wasn’t a factor in any individual officer’s -- or for that matter, department’s -- practices. Citing time costs associated with the previous law, the governor proudly signed its repeal, leaving in doubt the reliability of how just and equitable treatment for minorities really was in the state.

Trainings and investigations into officer-related killings are both helpful, but accountability of local law enforcement is also a crucial step towards ensuring equal application of the law, for blacks and for whites, is being faithfully carried out. By repealing the old law, Walker has ignored the real concerns of minorities, who lose a feeling of justice being correctly executed after events like Ferguson occur.

Wisconsin is in danger of seeing a similar event of racial disparity, if it hasn’t witnessed it by now. Certainly a significant moment like what’s happening in Ferguson could occur here. If (or when?) it does, our state will be ill-adapted to deal with it in a manner that is just, in a way that leaves everyone assured that our laws were applied equally.

Real change is needed, both within society and our law-books, before we can guarantee that justice is allotted to every citizen in our state and nation.

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