There is little that can be added to the ongoing national conversation about the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson and its aftermath. Public outrage is pouring in from all quarters over the killing itself, the handling of Brown’s body and the subsequent monumentally tone-deaf and militaristic response of the local and county police. The glaring racism of the killing and the pattern of anti-black bias from police and authority structures in the United States is plain to see, but journalists and essayists all over the country have worked to expose, analyze and deconstruct it nonetheless. Now, with an upwelling of protest on our own streets and in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, Missouri, and everyone who has seen an unarmed black man killed by an armed police force, the Senior Editorial Board of The Daily Californian chooses to add our voice to the chorus of those crying out against this grievous injustice.
Saturday’s anti-police brutality — #FTP — march began in Oakland and eventually reached the historic intersection at Bancroft and Telegraph, where so many other demonstrations have faced a line of armed police officers. Students and citizens demonstrated in solidarity with Ferguson, affecting the now-ubiquitous surrender pose, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot.” These are not empty affectations; the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant is with us every time we pass through Fruitvale Station. The painful reminder that police officers who shoot unarmed black men often face no charges has renewed calls for a New Year’s Eve boycott of BART services in remembrance of Grant, Brown and many others.
Berkeley has been a battleground for civil rights issues since the 1960s. Ferguson is experiencing a battle all its own. Heavily militarized police forces are an inappropriate way to address civil unrest. Protesters are not rioters, and apprehension about escalation does not justify rolling a tank and a mounted machine gun into an already uneasy town. The police cannot prove their equanimity or fairness by reacting with overwhelming force to all situations. The National Guard exists to contain large-scale threats. No municipal police force should be armed in the way that was shown in Ferguson. Legislation must be written to carefully delineate what police should be allowed to wield.
Similar legislation must be drafted to require that all police officers wear a camera on their uniforms. The town of Rialto, California, implemented the use of small personal cameras on each officer and saw very encouraging results. The use of force during arrests declined by nearly 60 percent, while the incidence of complaint against officers fell by 88 percent. Absolute power corrupts absolutely; police are only people. When the citizenry endows them with military weapons and unimpeachable authority without oversight, the result is brutality and, sometimes, murder. A small check on that power such as dashcams and these wearable cameras can ensure that no police officer can act above the law with the expectation of impunity. A camera might not have saved Michael Brown’s life, but it could have made the circumstances of his killing clear. Without objective video evidence, the chief of police in Ferguson has obfuscated events by offering an unrelated robbery event and assassinating the character of a boy who would have been a college student if he had lived just a few more days.
Police brutality is an epidemic. It is overwhelmingly leveled at nonwhite Americans, particularly black Americans. Michael Brown’s death is not an isolated incident of institutionalized racism run amok; it exists in a continuum of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the almost ageless stereotype of the violent black man. It exists in an ascendant culture of totalitarian police who were armed by an ever-growing military industrial complex in a country that strives to be always profiting at war. To the people of Ferguson, it exists in a timeline of tension wherein a mostly black town is occupied by an almost all-white police force. To the people of Berkeley, it exists as oppression that cannot be borne if any of us is to feel safe or free.
The people of Berkeley, Oakland and everywhere that is not Ferguson feel affected by the struggle of a Missouri town most of us have never seen. We can take to the streets with our hands up and be seen, but it will not be enough. We must confront our fear of crime and the way it influences us to vote for initiatives to allow the police to chisel away at our freedoms of speech and assembly. We must accept the fact that our cops are armed like enemy soldiers and allowed to flagrantly disregard our constitutional rights, even locking up members of the press, because no one polices the police. Our technology and our decency can help us do better.
The cost of Michael Brown’s funeral has been covered, but school closures in Ferguson mean many young children who receive free school lunch are going hungry. Those who want to affect tangible aid can contribute to the fund to feed them. Those who want to affect lasting change must work to make sure that this cannot happen again. We must not let this outrage cycle pass. We must demilitarize our police force and put a camera on every cop. We must prosecute murder as murder, no matter what uniform it wears.