Ferguson, Missouri, has made its way back to headlines. What is the aim of the protests this time and what makes the Ferguson cased so special? Radio VR is discussing it with Susan W. McGraugh (US) and Alexander Petrov (Russia).
Earlier this week the town of Ferguson was swept by the "Weekend of Resistance" protests which ended in police arresting more than 50 people.
Now all eyes are on the grand jury which needs to determine whether charges should be brought against a white police officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in August this year. The shooting triggered off violent protests that rocked the town for weeks.
Now, with more details about the protests and the case here is Susan W. McGraugh, Associate Professor, Supervisor at the Criminal Defense Clinic, Saint Louis University School of Law:
Over the last couple of days there was an event called Ferguson October. And it was organized by many of the groups that have been working in St. Louis after the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by the police in Ferguson, Missouri. The Ferguson, Missouri is just a suburb of St. Louis. This young man was shot and there’ve been protests. It’s been about 65 days since that happened. And last weekend the different groups put together this Ferguson October.
It involved the protest marches and educational programs, rallies, music – a number of different activities. This last Monday, a couple of days ago, was the day of civil disobedience. And there were several kind of pop up rallies, demonstrations and protests all over St. Louis and Ferguson.
But when we are talking about what’s been happening there, is it an isolated case for the US or there are other cases?
There are other cases. This year alone in St. Louis there have been 5 homicides of young black men by the police, which is not to say, you know, given the opinion on it and whether or not the police were justified, but that’s an incredibly high number of young men killed by the police officers in a city the size of St. Louis. So, this is not a onetime problem. The US justice system has been plagued by allegations of institutionalized racism for years and years. But this was seen as such an egregious case, that it really sparked a fire in the St. Louis community and other communities in the US.
But what is the core problem? I mean, why has this actually happened in St. Louis and Ferguson? Why has it become so bad?
Susan W. McGraugh: I do agree that it reflects a much deeper problem. I mean, the police are enforcing laws in a way that unfairly burden poor people and people of color. And that has a lot to do, I think, with poverty and inequality of wealth. There is something called racial profiling that we see all over the US, which is that police stop and ask questions, and kind of harass people of color at a very high frequency.
I think it is part of a larger movement where people are realizing that in order to get their voices heard, they can’t take normal channels anymore, that most legal channels are closed to people who are poor. And so, they are starting to realize, from watching other examples, that protesting and shutting down streets, and creating commotion is a good way to draw attention to the problems that they face.
Well, has it worked until now? Have they been heard?
Susan W. McGraugh: They’ve been heard, yes. I mean, they’ve not only been heard locally, they’ve been heard nationally and they are being heard internationally. So, you can’t say that it didn’t work.
But if we recall the Occupy Movement several years ago, I remember that those demonstrations and protests have been actually dealt with in a pretty decisive manner, let’s say so, and nothing seems to have changed. But on the other hand, I don’t remember these young people having a clear agenda.
Susan W. McGraugh: Right! And the people who are protesting here have, I think, a relatively clear agenda. The number one on their list is: they want the police officer, who shut this young man, whose name is Michael Brown, to be brought to justice. They want to see him charged with the crime. They see this as a symptom of police brutality and they want to see him charged with the crime for shooting an unarmed man.
They have other demands, like a civilian review board, which would mean that if the police officers do things like this, it will be handled by a board of people who are not police officers. That would give more transparency to the goings on at the police department, which people feel to be a problem.
You’ve also been telling me that, as far as I understand, the racial issue has somehow come to the fore in police dealing with protesters and with people. Could it be one of the implications of the global campaign of the war on terror and radical Islam?
Susan W. McGraugh: I don’t think so, except for the fact that has been increased police surveillance in the US and a loss of privacy, which some could attribute to the dealings the US has had with some other more radical Islam groups. That would be the closest that I could come. There might be people, who would see a closer link. But I do think that since 9/11 we've lost more and more of our privacy rights in the US. And the people have really used what happened then, as an excuse to broaden police powers.
Then, how would you explain the racial issue coming up?
Susan W. McGraugh: I've been a lawyer for 25 years and people who are people of color – black people or Hispanic people – get targeted by the police. You know, a group of young African American men walking down the street are much-much more likely to be stopped by the police and asked about what they are doing, and may be searched or arrested, than a group of Caucasian people doing the same thing. I don’t think that there is any doubt that that’s happening in the US.
Why would the police become so uneasy about those guys? Do they have any real grounds to be so uneasy?
Susan W. McGraugh: I don’t think they have grounds to be so uneasy. But I think that poor areas are populated by people of color in a lot of urban areas. I think that in order to demonstrate that they are doing something about crime, they’ve decided that intensive policing in areas where there are people of color and poor people will produce results. These are also the people who don’t have access to legal resources to fight back, to defend themselves. So, I think they’ve kind of been easy pickings for the police.
But in its turn, like you are saying, that actually creates more tension within the society. And the tension might one day explode.
Susan W. McGraugh: Yes. I mean, that is the real issue here. No one knows what is going to happen, whether this police officer, whose name is Darren Wilson, is going to be charged with the crime. And everybody is very-very concerned that if he is not charged with the crime, the violence is really going to escalate. That is a very big concern in St. Louis.
As an expert, do you see any way out of this situation? I mean, do you see any kind of solution to the problem on a national level?
Susan W. McGraugh: On a national level, I see that what we need to start doing to change the way that our police are treating people of color. And I think that is something that has already sparked a number of nation-wide discussions. The Attorney General here, Eric Holder has really started to begin a process of not decriminalizing, but changing the criminal penalties for minor offences, offenses that have resulted in an over-incarceration of people of color. For example, the drug laws have been changed, mandatory sentences are beginning to change. And that’s the kind of thing we need to see just to start to study how to take racism out of our criminal justice system.
Could the media do something about that?
Susan W. McGraugh: I think the media has been terrific in St. Louis and other places, showing the protesters, helping them voice their concerns on a national level, covering some of the inequities in our system and broadcasting stories of people who have been either wrongfully incarcerated, or otherwise treated unjustly. So, I think that we've been really pleased with the media coverage.
So, your forecast?
Susan W. McGraugh: I don’t know. I’d like to believe that this is going to lead to some real changes. No one is going to know what will happen, until we know whether or not Darren Wilson – the police officer – gets charged with the crime. So much is going to hang on that. And I'm one of a number of people who are fearful about what will happen, if he is not charged with the crime.
But if he is charged with the crime, do you think that the problem would go?
Susan W. McGraugh: I hope not, because this is a bigger problem and we’ve been seeing this for years and years. The homicide of Michael Brown really just brought everything to its boiling point. But I would hope that the conversation about removing institutionalized racism from our criminal justice system would continue. And I'm hopeful that it will.
Says Alexander I. Petrov, Senior fellow at the Center for North American Studies at the Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences:
Actually, I think that what we are seeing right now in the US, it is quite a serious issue and quite a serious problem, because that is basically the second major accident after the events in Los Angeles. Before that, if think even in the longer terms, in the civil war context that is the division between the south and the north and the problems of slavery and other issues. And we actually need to find the real roots of the conflict.
In my opinion, what is going on in the US – in Ferguson, in St. Louis and in other places – means that the US needs to find a solution regarding the relationship between different categories of people, different levels of education, different understanding and different ways of behavior. So, that’s the issue that still has to be solved.
Do I get you right that you believe that the core issue is still a remnant of the notorious racism, and that those issues could only be solved eliminating the social problems in those societies?
Alexander I. Petrov: Basically, there are less social problems in the US, if we think historically. If we take, for example, the situation in the middle of the 20th century and even at the end of the 20th century, the situation is much better now. And the President of the US Barack Obama mentioned in his famous speech, when he was elected for the first term, about the issues between different nationalities and different groups of people. And that has actually helped him in many ways, in my understanding, to be elected as the President of the US.
So, the situation is much better than it used to be. But still, there are problems in different areas that we have to understand in different contexts, because we still have, for example, specific areas in the US, like in the south, where we have the majority of the population belonging to different categories that still have to have better education, than, for example, if we speak about the regions in the so-called New England and the Silicon Valley. So, the division between the regions, we still have that as a problem.
Then, I have another question. If we are saying that the situation is getting better, why do we witness this kind of major crisis? Is it something targeting Mr. Obama himself?
Alexander I. Petrov: In my opinion the situation in Ferguson hasn’t been solved yet. And we still have the problem, because we have the lack of evidence on what has actually happened with the person who was shot by the policeman and what is going on with the investigation. We still have to find the answers.
And we are also witnessing the publications in many newspapers, and not only in Russia and other European countries, but also in the US. For example, the famous newspaper Washington Post has published, in my opinion, a controversial article, trying to find the reasons of how and when, and why special forces have to use force, and when and why the policemen have to shoot or not shoot, and what is the difference between the law in this or another state, and should the state law be applied in certain cases or we have to think in federal terms. There are still many issues that we still have to find answers to.
And that’s why we still have these events in Ferguson. As soon as we have honest and complete answers to these questions, I think the situation in Ferguson will be solved.
Are we going to get the answers?
Alexander I. Petrov: I think in a while, yes. I mean, in the longer term, yes. But in the short term, we see that the President of the US has major issues to be solved in international relations, in his own countries. So, in the longer term, yes, but in the short term, I think that we have to wait.