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Neither Michael Brown’s Family Nor Protesters Should Be Held Responsible for the Violence

For two nights since the announcement that a grand jury declined to indict white Ferguson police officer for killing unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, isolated acts of vandalism and instances of looting have been reported. A small number of residents have continued to throw rocks and bottles at police and, at this point, over 100 people have been arrested. And, because Brown’s father put together a public service announcement prior to the announcement calling for people to remain nonviolent, the media have placed a burden of responsibility on the Brown family’s shoulders.

CNN aired video from the New York Times of Michael Brown’s mother as she was processing the news. “I’ve been hurt my whole life,” and “Don’t none of y’all know me, but I don’t do nothing to nobody. Anybody say so, they’re a liar. They’re a damn liar.” She said, “Fuck the police,” and an unknown person with her asked for people to give her a minute to compose herself.

Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, shouted, “Burn this motherfucker down! Burn this place down!” and, “Burn this bitch down!” while standing in a crowd that gathered to hear the decision.

It was obviously a reaction to the moment, not a call to action. Head himself did not proceed to burn anything to the ground. Yet, CNN anchors had this to say:

“It pretty much speaks for itself. Ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances. And the unfortunate thing is that the man said what he said and we know what followed after that,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo stated. “It just goes to how big an influence the family has right now and hopefully that can be used, that influence, today to try to make the situation better. And it’s asking a lot of them. Really, you know, the Brown family has lost the most in this situation right now. And, frankly, to ask them to be the best of what is in human nature is a difficult thing to ask. But that is something that they seem to want to shoulder in the past and certainly the community needs it very much right now.”

While CNN’s Don Lemon did say nobody could know what the Brown family was going through as people watched them react to the decision, he also added, “I’m not sure how the family attorney, exactly right, can explain away those comments because we were out there, we saw the aftermath. Many people today don’t have businesses, don’t have livelihoods because their stores were either looted or burned. It’s gone. And to rile up a crowd and say, you know, we’re going to burn this down, it doesn’t really help the situation.”

Understandably, as the family became aware that the press were going to ask the family to explain these words of anger and if they felt responsible for any of the disorder that occurred, the family became tight-lipped. Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the family, told press Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., didn’t “want to misspeak because of such emotions that are going through him that will later be used against him.”

Brown Sr. stood stone-faced at a press conference, where he was originally going to express how he felt when he heard that the officer who killed his son would not be indicted.

The video of Head’s emotional reaction wound up receiving widespread attention, with the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Daily Beast, a local NBC affiliate, KSDK, each publishing stories with headlines suggesting Brown’s stepfather told people to burn property.

Editors in media organizations across the country played to white fear and turned the video into something significant.

The Brown family has no control over the communities who are angry. Neither do the numerous local activists who have spent the past months engaging in nonviolent demonstrations and civil disobedience.

In fact, protesters have tried to do their best to prevent vandalism.

On Tuesday night, when a police car was set on fire, “Witness Andre Coffer said protesters stopped the man who started the fire at the police car,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Looting has not gone unchallenged by people in the community. CNN correspondents witnessed several individuals on Monday night, who put themselves at risk and went up to people who were breaking into businesses to ask them to stop what they were doing and leave.

What should be understood is that isolated instances of vandalism, looting and throwing of objects at police are not the acts of organizers who have been working tirelessly during previous months for justice for Brown. These are probably additional and new people, individuals who do not think protesting nonviolently has been enough to express their rage.

Rather than only considering the reaction to grand jury decision in St. Louis in terms of public safety, it should also be considered in terms of injustice.

This is a community that understood full well that the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, was not going to lead a process that would end in the indictment of a white police officer. They recognized that McCulloch is the president of an organization that raises money for officers killed in the line of duty and this was a conflict of interest.

Rarely in the United States are police officers involved in police brutality held accountable by the so-called criminal justice system. A study by the libertarian think tank, CATO Institute, found that from April 2009 to December 2010:

…Of the 2,716 law enforcement officers involved in alleged incidents where use of force was questioned, only 197 were ultimately charged with a criminal offense and, of that 197, only 77 were convicted. Of even more relevance, for the 426 law enforcement officers who were accused of using excessive force in incidents where a fatality occurred, only 28 faced charges and half of those who were prosecuted ended up being convicted.

Blacks in Ferguson are three times more likely to be arrested by police than whites. Black drivers are stopped and searched by police at rates much higher than whites. In Clayton, Missouri, where the grand jury process unfolded over a few months, only 8% of residents are black but 57% of the people arrested in 2010 and 2011 were black.

More significantly, as highlighted by Mother Jones, blacks are at least four times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers.

Take into account the militarized police presence that the community has endured and the fact that in St. Louis County the unemployment rate for blacks is getting worse while it is getting better for whites, one can begin to grasp why discontent and cynicism about one’s place in society would lead to what has been captured by television news cameras.

Then, on top of that, the state deploys National Guard to increase the police state blacks experience daily and protect property yet, when people start to burn businesses to the ground, they are only in the white affluent parts of St. Louis County.

As Tory Russell, a co-founder of the Hands Up United organization which has been mobilizing protest throughout the past months, said on “Democracy Now!,” “Not only does this country value property over people, they even put a special caveat on whose property.”

“If you go to Clayton, you go to Kirkwood, you go to some of these affluent places in the city, National Guard and all these people are already there in their station. You go in the black communities. You go on West Florissant, where the most black small businesses — they [politicians] did a press conference talking about [how] they cared about the community” and people’s “dreams” were destroyed, Russell stated.

The famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., uttered three weeks before he was assassinated, is, sadly, more relevant than ever:

…It’s not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent and intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say, tonight, that a riot is the language of the unheard…

What about looking at how people are oppressed and left feeling like wretched disposable human beings? How about ending this focus on what authorities can do to restore some kind of quiet as the sole answer? What about addressing a system that is more of a criminal injustice system to people of color, that discriminates against them and then incarcerates them in American prisons at a gross and alarming rate?

What about questioning the deployment of police and the use of military force to restore order? Is that being done appropriately or fueling the outrage?

How about reckoning with the legacy of white supremacy and why inequality persists instead of only focusing on the police cars being set ablaze by angry St. Louis residents?

All of the above has played more of a role instigating the reaction to the announcement of no indictment than cries of emotion from Brown’s family ever will.

CommunityFDL Main Blog

Neither Michael Brown’s Family Nor Protesters Should Be Held Responsible for the Violence

For two nights since the announcement that a grand jury declined to indict white Ferguson police officer for killing unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, isolated acts of vandalism and instances of looting have been reported. A small number of residents have continued to throw rocks and bottles at police and, at this point, over 100 people have been arrested. And, because Brown’s father put together a public service announcement prior to the announcement calling for people to remain nonviolent, the media have placed a burden of responsibility on the Brown family’s shoulders.

CNN aired video from the New York Times of Michael Brown’s mother as she was processing the news. “I’ve been hurt my whole life,” and “Don’t none of y’all know me, but I don’t do nothing to nobody. Anybody say so, they’re a liar. They’re a damn liar.” She said, “Fuck the police,” and an unknown person with her asked for people to give her a minute to compose herself.

Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, shouted, “Burn this motherfucker down! Burn this place down!” and, “Burn this bitch down!” while standing in a crowd that gathered to hear the decision.

It was obviously a reaction to the moment, not a call to action. Head himself did not proceed to burn anything to the ground. Yet, CNN anchors had this to say:

“It pretty much speaks for itself. Ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances. And the unfortunate thing is that the man said what he said and we know what followed after that,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo stated. “It just goes to how big an influence the family has right now and hopefully that can be used, that influence, today to try to make the situation better. And it’s asking a lot of them. Really, you know, the Brown family has lost the most in this situation right now. And, frankly, to ask them to be the best of what is in human nature is a difficult thing to ask. But that is something that they seem to want to shoulder in the past and certainly the community needs it very much right now.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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