Ferguson: through the eyes of a white police officer
If you’re black in Ferguson, Missouri, you’re four times more likely than a white person to be stopped by police. A traffic infringement (speeding, out of date papers) can land you in jail in a heartbeat, unless you’ve enough money to pay on the spot fines. And your relationship with police is in large part determined by history, and defined by the yawning difference of today.
Layer upon that the violent death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot six times by a white police officer one month ago when he was unarmed in the middle of the day, in the street in his own neighbourhood, and you have some sense of the way the black community might see local law enforcement officers.
So how does it feel to be a white police officer?
At a weekend rally in support of officer Darren Wilson – the Ferguson police officer who shot Michael Brown – police, retired and serving, as well as family members and friends, were reluctant to give names, but happy to talk off camera. They feel a sense of persecution, a sense that their colleague has not been treated fairly, a sense that the national media acted with a bias against police, in favour of the protestors.
The conversations are not straight forward. When I ask about racial tensions in greater St Louis, one man tells me there are none, that the whole race issue has been blown up by “race-baiters”, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
But St Louis’ outlying communities are colour-coded, to the point that for many young black people the only white person they see is a policeman. I remember the policeman who told me sotto voce during the violent protests that followed Michael Brown’s killings that they need to keep the protesters moving because if you leave “these people” to mill about, they start fighting amongst themselves.
As for Darren Wilson and the choices he made, firing his gun six times toward a young man who eyewitnesses say held his hands high, even as he was shot? One police supporter told me, “I’m sure it’s a living hell for him now.” She describes the reaction against him as “opportunistic” – “I think they were looking for a reason, and this was good enough for a reason, to start.”
There’s anger at the President, and the Attorney General, who are considered to have passed judgement on the policeman, whose supporters are convinced was only protecting himself.
We take a ride with a rookie cop, after putting a request into his chief at St Ann’s police district, just next to Ferguson. Officer Luke is from Michigan, where there were only three African Americans in his senior class at high school. He’s in another world, and after what happened in Ferguson, the job he’s only just begun feels much more complicated. “We get a lot of people yelling,’Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ at us. It’s put a turn on the way people look at the police.”
Nineteen year veteran, Sergeant Scott Roach, is still on special patrols around Ferguson, and bracing himself for a grand jury decision that’s likely in the next few weeks. That will decide whether Darren Wilson should face criminal charges, or not. Sergeant Roach says he’s worried, either way. “If they do indict him, it will be a celebration by the criminal element. But if they return a no true bill (ie don’t recommend charges) then they’re going to be angry. So I feel pretty strongly we are going to be out there again dealing with nastiness.”
One former policeman, at the rally for Wilson, told me he thought in the long run it might be good for the country. “Why? Because it’s going to shine a light on this issue. If they’d stop calling it racism, stop calling it harassment, and start looking at the root of the problem, and start looking at why it happens, maybe some things would change.”
But until basic inequities and injustices are recognised (“they tell me there’s a divide, why would I not believe them?”) it’s hard to know how anything can change for the better.