Three years later, on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s inexcusable death at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, it is challenging to contemplate the United States of 2017. So much has changed since that terrible day, yet so much has remained the same. Michael Brown’s death sparked genuine conversations about race relations throughout the country, yet America still has such a long way to go.
Three minutes. One hundred and eighty seconds. That’s how long it took – from the moment Officer Darren Wilson arrived at the scene until the fatal bullet was discharged – for Michael Brown’s life to be taken. In the flash of a gun muzzle, Michael joined the list of too many black men senselessly killed by law enforcement, simply because of the color of their skin.
Clearly, the relationship between law enforcement and African-Americans is broken, with the system built to oppress the black citizens of our nation. We have seen time and again that our nation’s fundamental promise has a caveat: liberty and justice for all — as long as you are white.
Michael Brown’s death sparked genuine conversations about race, yet America still has such a long way to go.
From start to finish, the law enforcement system is predisposed against African-Americans. Blacks are more likely to be stopped, searched and targeted for unprovoked force than their white counterparts.
Unfortunately, we can no longer look to the highest ranks of our government for even a glimmer of hope to heal this chasm. It is hard to make progress when our ostensible leader continues to perpetuate, even encourage, a flawed system. We looked on in horror when President Donald Trump advised an audience of law enforcement officers – “joking,” the White House claims – that they need not be gentle with suspects in custody. The rough handling of suspect detainees like Trump jokes about is the reason Freddie Gray is dead. This astonishing arrogance surrounding our law enforcement breeds a culture of violence.
Nationally, the rash of highly publicized incidents has not changed anything. The number of deaths at the hands of police officers so far this year almost exactly mirrors that of the previous two years, with 492 people being fatally shot by police at the midpoint of the year. That’s more than two officer-involved fatalities per day, and black men are the victims at more than double their share of the population – over a quarter of the deaths despite representing only 12 percent of the U.S. population.
Despite what happened to Michael Brown, and the unrelenting litany of black men being killed by police in the three years since then, I remain hopeful. To be sure, this is not easy. But Michael’s hometown, of all places, gives me reason to believe all is not lost.
Michael’s hometown, of all places, gives me reason to believe all is not lost. Maybe Michael’s death was not entirely in vain.
Maybe, just maybe, Michael’s death was not entirely in vain. In response to the death of one of their own, Ferguson has shown a beautiful resilience. The city could have crumbled under the weight of another dead black man. Instead, hope has flourished.
Ferguson’s first black police chief, Delrish Moss, has taken charge and been making change. The police force now has a more representative makeup of minority officers, each officer is equipped with a body camera, and the number of African-American drivers stopped by officers has declined.
The Black Lives Matter movement was driven by this horrific event to become a real movement with concrete goals and an agenda to inspire change.
Like a phoenix from the ashes, the site where Michael died has been reborn into the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, a facility that will provide job training and placement services for African-Americans in Ferguson. Michael was murdered a mere two days before he would have begun a similar college vocational program, but now young black men will receive the tools to succeed, with a community revitalized by waves of change standing behind them in support.
It starts at home. We cannot expect to see change at a national level without individuals, communities and law enforcement taking a critical look at themselves and starting a real conversation about race in their everyday lives and in America. Ferguson stands strong as an example of how a city’s fight or flight instinct can motivate change. Other cities must band together to make America take note.
So here we are, three years later. On one hand, our nation’s first African-American president has been replaced by Donald Trump. On the other, the location of Michael Brown’s last moments on earth has given rise to a community center. We truly stand at a crossroads, and so we must ask:
Which way, America?
Ben Crump is the nation’s leading civil rights attorney and advocate. Crump has served as president of the National Bar Association and the National Civil Rights Trial Lawyers Association. He has represented clients in some of the most high-profile cases in the United States, including Michael Brown who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; and Trayvon Martin who was killed in Sanford, Florida, by a neighborhood watch volunteer. He recently launched a national law firm, Ben Crump Law.