6 Months Since Michael Brown's Death, Has Anything Changed?

Photo: REX USA.
On August 9, 2014, an 18-year-old named Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, by a police officer. Brown’s death set off a national debate about the use of force in policing and the way some communities — particularly low-income black communities — are frequently the targets of violent, race-based treatment under the guise of law enforcement. Now, half a year later, has anything changed? 

For those who want to see the officer who shot Brown put on trial, there's no good news. A grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson. In the months since, there have been numerous reports that the prosecuting attorney, Bob McCulloch, manipulated evidence and allowed witnesses who were "obviously lying." Attorney General Eric Holder called for a federal investigation into the events in Ferguson, briefly introducing the possibility of federal charges, but in January it was announced that not enough evidence had been found.

Meanwhile, police officers who may have used excessive force are rarely held accountable. Most cases like Wilson's are tried by local prosecutors who have a lot of influence over whether officers face trial. Within a given jurisdiction, prosecutors and police officers typically have very close relationships, which may prevent a fair outcome.

Reports of excessive force remain commonplace. This fall, Eric Garner died in New York after being placed in a banned chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Pantaleo was similarly not indicted by a grand jury, in a decision many found particularly shocking since the encounter was videotaped. And, those are not the only two stories: In the aftermath of the Garner decision, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund started tweeting the names of unarmed people of color killed by police since 1999. It posted 76 names — and it's likely there are others, but we don't know. No one keeps reliable data on how many people are killed by police every year.

There have been some small steps forward: The White House is trying to figure out how to hold police accountable for using unnecessary force, both with individuals and during protests. Solutions may include police body cameras to record officers’ interactions with citizens.

And, thanks to the Ferguson protesters, discussions of race, racism, and policing tactics are again in the national conversation. The fatal shooting on August 9 set off protests that continued for months, with many peaking in the days after the grand jury’s non-indictment was announced in November. In the day following that news, at least 170 protests took place in American cities, and tens of thousands of people marched in protest against police brutality in the weeks after the announcement.

Just last night, at the Grammys, dancers made the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture in a silent tribute to Brown.  

The increased awareness is late coming for black America, but it’s a tentative step forward nonetheless. In a recent interview with NPR, President Barack Obama was asked whether the U.S. was more racially divided now than it was when he took office as the country’s first black president. His answer: “No, I actually think that it's probably in its day-to-day interactions less racially divided,” he said. “… It's understandable the polls might say, you know, that race relations have gotten worse — because when it's in the news and you see something like Ferguson or the Garner case in New York, then it attracts attention. But I assure you, from the perspective of African-Americans or Latinos in poor communities who have been dealing with this all their lives, they wouldn't suggest somehow that it's worse now than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago.”
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