These four words have made their way into the collective consciousness of America as thousands express their outrage at the epidemic of police abuse and killings of unarmed black people. The Aug. 9 killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, led to an eruption of anger in that town that had been boiling under the surface for decades. The subsequent spectacle of heavily militarized police officers rolling into town with tanks, brandishing assault rifles, lobbing tear gas at peaceful demonstrators, and arresting journalists, shocked the nation and the entire world. Many commentators compared what we were witnessing in Ferguson to the war zones of the Middle East. What was happening in Ferguson did not fit with the image of America as a bastion of “freedom and democracy.”
Moreover, the events in Ferguson have sparked a much needed reevaluation of whether the federal government should be equipping our police forces with surplus military hardware, a practice that began about 40 years ago. According to experts, although America’s crime rate has fallen in recent years, the militarization of urban police forces has intensified and the number of SWAT teams has exploded. This phenomenon occurred for two reasons: the war on drugs and the war on terror. The consequences of militarized policing first got widespread attention during the raids on the Occupy Wall Street encampments in 2011. But, for some reason, there wasn’t a massive outcry against it until now.
Still, militarized policing is a symptom of a much larger structural and cultural problem in America: racial inequality. Our nation still has not reckoned with the repercussions of 400 years of slavery and disenfranchisement of its black citizens. Those repercussions fester in the form of de-facto segregation, high unemployment, entrenched poverty, inferior education, mass incarceration and the over- policing of communities of color. Furthermore, negative stereotypes of blacks – particularly of black men – persist after centuries of marginalization. Until America addresses these structural problems – and changes how police officers are hired and trained – there will likely be more Fergusons.