Last summer, hundreds of people gathered at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis to mourn and protest the deaths of two young African-American men — one in Florida and the other in Minneapolis. Fortunately, the gathering and brief march were peaceful.
But echoes of the anger and hopelessness expressed by some of the speakers that day can be heard in protests and violence that have followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. What’s happening in that inner-ring St. Louis suburb should be a forewarning in Minnesota, where racial gaps continue to plague a mostly healthy state and Twin Cities region.
Frustration over those factors was on public display last July when local residents gathered following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, the young black man who was shot and killed in Florida by a civilian vigilante, and Terrance Franklin, who was shot and killed by Minneapolis police in an Uptown basement after a chase. Their deaths prompted one protester to hold up a sign that read, simply, “Am I next?”
What ignited more than a week of tension and violence in Ferguson is an all-too-familiar scenario in American cities. An unarmed, young black man ends up dead, and a community wants to know why.
What we know with certainty is that Brown, 18, was shot and killed by police on Aug. 9. A preliminary private autopsy has shown that the unarmed Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head. Police officials said Brown attacked an officer. However, that account has been disputed by some witnesses, and investigations are continuing.
Suspicion of police runs deep among residents of Ferguson, where nearly 70 percent of 21,000 residents are black and most police and city officials are white.
In the days after the shooting, black residents understandably demanded to know how and why Brown was killed and who was responsible. Instead of answering those questions, the small police department refused to release the name of the officer and ramped up a more intimidating, militarylike police presence. Even veterans who served in Iraq and outside police sources have questioned the need for the initial SWAT-team, riot-gear response to what were at first lawful protests. That response only served to escalate tensions.
Some violence and looting occurred and, coupled with the heavy law enforcement response, the TV and online images from the small suburb could have been mistaken for scenes from the streets of Iraq.
Journalists covering the story have also been caught up in the chaos. Last Wednesday, two journalists were arrested by police as they worked out of a McDonald’s restaurant, and members of an Al Jazeera America camera crew said police pelted them with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Leaders in many communities of color around the nation are watching what’s happening in Ferguson and are deploring the violence. At the same time, they understand the root causes and wonder how and when those issues will be addressed in their cities. Median household income in Ferguson is about $37,000 — a 30 percent drop, when adjusted for inflation, from 2000 — and 22 percent of residents are living in poverty.
Minnesotans can point to some similar numbers in communities of color in the Twin Cities and inner-ring suburbs. This state continues to have some of the nation’s widest disparities between whites and people of color in health, education and income. To some extent those gaps can be attributed to racial bias.
In too many cases, blacks and other minorities are underrepresented on police forces and in city government, especially in the most powerful positions and offices. In too many cases, police-community relations are strained in communities of color.
The hard truth is that young men of color in many cities fear the police for good reason: They have seen too many examples of brutality on their TVs and in their cities — or they have been targeted themselves when they have done nothing wrong.
It will likely take weeks or months before we know exactly what happened on the streets of Ferguson this month. But it is not too soon to see the death of Michael Brown as a sign that this country needs to have a deeper, more productive discussion about the racial issues that plague the Missouri suburb and too many other American cities — including some in Minnesota.