Protests erupted across the USA after the Grand Jury investigation into the fatal shooting in St Louis, USA on 9 August of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown concluded on Monday 24 November.
Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, could have faced charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. However the jury (nine white and three black) decided that “no probable cause existed to indict Wilson.” An indictment required support from nine of the twelve jurors.
St Louis Governor Jay Nixon has called in the National Guard and declared a state of emergency. Several school districts closed schools on Tuesday 25 November. Police have attacked protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets and “hornets' nest sting grenades” which carry rubber bullets and a toxic chemical powder repeatedly throughout the night. A no-fly zone has been instigated around the area, and the media have been asked repeatedly to leave “for their own safety”.
In Oakland, California, dozens of people blocked traffic on Interstate 580. Rubber bullets have been fired on protesters in Los Angeles. Protests have also happened in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Washington and Philadelphia.
Police report 29 people have so far been arrested in St Louis, but the figure may be much higher. One local preacher stated “you cannot shake a soda can repeatedly and not expect it to explode.”
The background is inequality in the USA: growing inequality in power, wealth, and substantive rights between the rich and the poor, and between white Americans and African-Americans.
An African-American president has not stopped that inequality increasing. In 2007 inequality in net median wealth between (non-Hispanic) white and non-white families was 6:1; in 2013 it stood at 8:1. Inequality in median income between (non-Hispanic) white and non-white increased from 1.4:1 in 2007 to 1.7:1 in 2013.
The white 64% of the US population own 88% of its wealth. 11% of the workforce are African-American, but 14% of those on the minimum wage. Officially-defined "poverty" covers 28.1% of African-Americans and 11.1% of the general population. Unemployment is double that of white workers. In St Louis it is three times as high.
Black workers are disproportionately represented in low-paid and insecure service industry jobs. In St Louis campaigners for “Show me $15”n are fighting for a $15 minimum wage, and have staged strikes in fast food outlets across the city, including in Ferguson.
Young African-American men are jailed at seven times the rate of young white males. There are about 840,000 black men in prison in the USA, fewer than the 1.4 million black men in universities or community colleges, but not that many fewer. Black Americans account for 40% of the USA's prison population.
Under Missouri law, police officers are entitled to use deadly force for two main reasons: if they believe that a threat of death or serious injury is posed to the officer or others, or they believe that a suspect is trying to escape and would then pose that same threat of death or serious injury.
St Louis County prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch claims some witnesses changed their accounts or were unclear. However none other than Wilson himself came even close to describing a scene where Wilson was in fear for his life.
Evidence presented to the Grand Jury showed that when Michael died he was too far from Wilson's police car to offer Wilson immediate harm. At least seven bullets hit Michael, and Wilson's gun discharged 12 bullets in total in the encounter. Wilson testified that after he stopped Michael and his friend for “jay walking” [walking in the street illegally] Michael attacked him in his car, punching him twice to the face. Wilson repeatedly referred to Michael as “it” and “being like a demon”.
Wilson then says he fired two shots out of the car and that Michael then started to run away, before turning and advancing on Wilson again. Wilson states that Michael kept advancing as he shot at him, until he was fatally shot in the head.
Several eye witnesses, while supporting a confrontation, dispute that Michael advanced on Wilson when he was shooting. Many described how Michael understandably doubled up after a few shots Some claim he stumbled a few steps forward as he fell. Michael was 35ft (10.7m) from Wilson's car when the fatal shot was fired.
Photographic evidence of Wilson's injuries presented to the jury [pictured] shows small red patches on the face and the back of the neck, no cuts or bigger bruises. Wilson was not carrying a taser (which can temporarily disable people without killing them). He reports that he doesn't like to carry one.
Police are given broad latitude as to what constitutes “reasonable” force.
In 2012, 426 people were recorded as having been killed by police officers in the USA (records are patchy and there is no national legal requirement to report).
31% were black, though only 13% of the US population is black. 39% of black people killed were classified as “attacking” when shot, and 42% as “not attacking”.
Many young black men reasonably fear that any wrong move can lead to their death.
Popular culture propagates a fear of young black men. The 30% white population in Ferguson are buying guns to arm themselves against this imaginary threat, yet that 30% control the political structures and the police. Just 17% of city councillors are black, compared to 67% of the population.
The shooting of Michael, the failure to indict him, is the result of a deeply unequal society. The law applied by the Grand Jury reflects that unequal society.
When all police are armed, they are allowed to use “reasonable” force when they see a threat, and their thinking is shaped by a culture which sees young black men as routinely a threat, then they will shoot young black men like Michael.
Police kill 12 year old
On Sunday 23 November, 12 year old Tamir Rice died after being shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio.
A member of the public made a 911 call, saying that Tamir had something like a gun, but also (twice) that the gun was “probably a fake”. The 911 responder twice asked whether the boy was black or white before dispatching officers.
Witnesses say he made no verbal threats and did not point the replica gun towards police officers.. Police officers shot Tamir twice in the upper body.
Tamir's father, Gregory Henderson, said that police should have used a stun gun to subdue his son rather than shoot him.