After Ferguson

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The widespread anger at the verdicts in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases is striking. Back in the 1990’s, I was involved with a group that organized around police violence in Los Angeles. We would hold panels at which people would tell heartrending stories about their loved ones being killed by the police. For the most part, the media didn’t pay much attention to this. We would organize demonstrations against police violence, sometimes gettting several hundred people at these events, but they were never anywhere near as large or as militant as the protests we are now seeing.

I think there are several reasons for this change. The most obvious difference between now and then is the development of social media. People now share on the Internet stories that used to get buried in the back pages of local newspapers, which has created greater awareness of the problem of police violence. There is also the alarming militarization of the police, a process that has accelerated since the 9/11 attacks. Stories about no-knock raids ending in tragedy have become almost a regular feature of the news. There is the obvious fact that racism is involved with these killings. And it seems that people are finally just getting fed up. The inspiration for all this are the demonstrations in Feguson, where a largely black population has been living in a virtual state of occupation by a white police force.

It’s hard to say at this point where all this will lead. The protests will likely peter out after a while, but they may start up again with the next killing of an unarmed black man by the police. (And you know this will happen sooner or later, probably sooner.) These demonstrations challenge two fundamental aspects of our criminal justice system: the virtual immunity of the police to prosecution, and the targeting of poor and minority communities. The resistance to change will be fierce, not just by the police, but by the entire government and much of the media.

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