22 Aug 2014

Inequality and lies on the frontline in Ferguson

Photojournalist Jon Lowenstein has been in Ferguson, Missouri, since last week, as protests seethe and simmer over the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

It is nearly two weeks since Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot dead by police officers in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in America’s Midwest, writes photojournalist Jon Lowenstein. In that time the anger of the local community and the ripple effect around the world has resulted in one of the biggest news events of 2014.

Social media has allowed for a conversation to go global, a conversation that America does not like having, despite having a black president: one about race and power control. People from the community where Michael Brown grew up have lived with what, in their eyes, is an oppressive police force. They feel the police have little or no accountability and can act with almost total impunity in their daily activities. They want these protests to change that.

I arrived in Missouri five days after the shooting. Here I found a community that had had enough. People were extremely upset about what had transpired in the small suburb of St. Louis. This is not the inner city.

In fact, there were no murders in Ferguson this year. The vast majority were active in their abhorrence of an American police system that kills more than 400 people a year, which is itself a conservative estimate (states like Florida and Alabama do not submit their data). Some were radical, wanting to fight back; some would not allow their protest to be hijacked by violence. Not violence from them anyway.

The ‘bigger lie’

It is the police and their levels of violence that are at the heart of this story, from the shooting of an unarmed man to accusations of heavy-handed treatment of protesters and journalists, to their outright threatening behaviour. I had a police officer level his rifle at me. This same officer had just threatened to kill another journalist. The incident was verging on the absurd. People could not believe what the officer was doing.

And it is the treatment of that officer that illuminates the bigger lie of these past two weeks. The officer who pointed his gun was swiftly suspended. The treatment of the officer who shot Michael Brown was slow and indecisive, fuelling community anger.

I live on the south side of Chicago and consistently witness both the ongoing “foot on the neck” treatment of black males by the police, the intense levels of poverty, and the real neglect of one of the most powerful and important African-American communities in the country.

The south and west sides of Chicago saw five police shootings over 4 July weekend, with three killed. Of course, there were 77 other shootings in Chicago that weekend, and violence perpetrated by the police and and by local residents continues to be a huge issue.

Protecting and serving

They are, of course, not equal. The state must do better as the police are charged with “protecting and serving” the residents. It appears that in Ferguson this was not the case. When I went to the shooting scene of Kajieme Powell, in St Louis, the scene reminded me of what I see on a daily basis, yet the chants suddenly changed from “hands up, don’t shoot” to “hands up, we shoot back”.

These issues will not be solved with violent means. We must communicate and find real solutions to the lack of accountability by police forces throughout the country. Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Erik Garner and the thousands of other men who have been unlawfully killed by police should not die in vain. It is vital that we enforce the laws against all citizens in this country – including the police.

This crisis reminds me of Hurricane Katrina, a time when all of America suddenly saw afresh a forgotten and disaffected community. That time the storm took everything from them, this time, they are creating the storm for themselves.

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