On August 8th, Ferguson, Missouri was an obscure town nestled northwest of Saint Louis. The next day at noon the city erupted with controversy when 18 year old Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson. As Brown and a friend walked down the middle of a street, officers approached them and told them to move to the side of the road. A confrontation quickly ensued which resulted in Brown’s death. Witnesses report that Brown was unarmed and surrendering to police when shots were fired, leading the community to believe this was more than standard operating procedure, inciting cries of police brutality and highlighting the racial disparity between Black and White offenders: Trayvon Martin gunned down in Florida, New York resident Eric Garner choked to death by police for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. Similarities between Brown, Garner and Martin, and the countless other victims of excessive force by police officers have shone a spotlight on the often underrepresented, disproportionate crimes by police against people of color and the failings of a legal system in which there should be liberty and justice for all.
The increase of what appears to be racially motivated law enforcement action and the surge of police militarization has led to interracial demonstrations across the country, overflowing from the boiling point of Ferguson, even reaching across the 2,091 miles to Tacoma, Washington. Tacoma Stands Up, an organization created by Cathy Nguyen and Matthew Wilson in order for Tacoma’s community to “gather peacefully to call for justice for Michael Brown and to stand in solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri” hosted a rally on the evening of August 19th on the corner of Pacific Avenue and 21st street. Community members heeded the call, with 344 people RSVP-ing via Facebook and spreading the word, they occupied Don Pugnetti Park to peacefully protest for peace and justice in Ferguson, waving poster-board, paper, and cardboard signs reading, “DON’T SHOOT”, and “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE” among many others. Chants mirroring those sentiments echoed through the park and along the streets as protesters crossed back and forth across Pacific and 21st, influencing passers-by to honk in support.
Nguyen and Wilson explain their mission with Tacoma Stands Up as a call for: a “fair, transparent, and thorough investigation of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson”; support for “the exercise of the first amendment right to peacefully demonstrate”; and to bring awareness to “the disproportionate rate at which people of color, particularly Black men, become victims of gun violence at the hands of law enforcement.” According to a study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, one black man is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or vigilantes, but estimate that number could be even higher. With those types of statistics, it was no wonder to see passionate members of Tacoma’s African-American community rallied in full force on August 19th, allies from every walk of life at their side.
Gathered in a circle, comments volleyed like a pinball. Saint Martin’s University graduate Stefan, pointed out that the protest itself represented a “gentrification of revolution” in which one night of yells and whistles on a street corner dissolve overnight into apathy leaving the African-American community no better off than they were the day before. He explains how these protests, rallies, and public outcries are a “symptom, and [are] not addressing the source…white supremacy.”
White privilege allows the majority of American society to ignore the continued abuse of people of color since racism is not an issue that is ever-present in their own lives. The dialogue between White children and their parents seems radically different than that of the kids growing up on the Hilltop and other communities of color which one man illustrated saying, “My son is 16 and just about to get his license. The first lesson I taught him was not hand signals, rearview, it was how to react when police stop you.” Stefan’s mother, a mother of four sons, explained how she felt, that “the value of Black men’s lives are zero.” She said, “I have to talk to my sons every single day, making sure they talk a certain way, act a certain way, be so docile, just to be able to live another day.” Her words speak of an urban warfare that has traveled under the radar of a society that does not register the pervasive racism that still flows through the United States. She goes on to say that “statistics say that one of my children are going to be a victim of black-on-black crime or police brutality and I don’t know one of my sons that I’m willing to part with. I don’t want to be that woman, I’m not going to be that woman.”
So what do we do? That question resonates within every corner of the march toward justice and equality borne by the most recent outrage. Most present at the Tacoma Stands Up rally concluded that there must be changes economically and politically. One man with a sister living in Ferguson explained that there must be “transparency within law enforcement. These situations are reactionary, but there needs to be policy in place that keeps the problems from happening in the first place…keep officers accountable.” The use of dashboard cameras, badge cameras, and even independent investigations outside of the police precinct in question were all suggested as ways to reduce police brutality, but the overall consensus was the need to work to eliminate the fear, bias, and preconceived notions that these officers function with on a daily basis. One woman suggested community involvement, inviting officers to connect with the neighborhoods they police in order to build connections and relationships rather than operating on stereotypes.
One enthusiastic sorority member suggested a key solution may be that “it’s time to end the dichotomy of ‘your community’ and ‘my community,’ this is our community. We can all work together to create the solutions we need to see.”