Jean Barker

Missouri: The past bites back

2014-08-22 08:19

Jean Barker

The National Guard started pulling out of Ferguson, Missouri after almost two weeks of protests, sporadic looting, speculation, anger and polarised discussion resulting from the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

The people who “know exactly what happened during the shooting” are at this stage only crazy people who shout at you on TV from either side. Really, the autopsy results are open to interpretation. Eyewitness accounts seem unreliable. And there's so much bad news at the moment, with ISIS in Iraq, and Ebola in Liberia, Putin diddling around in Ukraine and of course, the mess in Gaza, that it's tempting to say enough, already, not this, too. But we can't, because the protests and anger are motivated by bigger issues that need to be addressed.

Trayvon Martin's shooting raised some of the issues that are coming up again over Michael Brown's death. Regardless of the merits of the cases, these issues aren't going to go away.

Every 28 hours...

Racism is still real. The days of the KKK holding public lynchings may be over (although the organisation recently dropped fliers in Orange County mailboxes). But that doesn't mean it's safe to be a black man in the USA. In fact, a black man is killed every 28 hours by a security officer of some sort (police, security guards and armed vigilantes).

African American parents still give their sons "the talk" - no, not a sex education. It's a list of ways to avoid being shot because you accidentally scare a trigger-happy racist.


Why are more black men killed by security? This may surprise some racist online trolls to learn, but the racial profiling is not as justified as many secretly imagine. In Missouri, for instance, black drivers are far more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs. Guess which racial group are actually more likely to be carrying contraband in Missouri? Whites. Racial profiling has a lot to do with image and media perpetuates it. Fox News is famous for this of course, but others are guilty too. When the media initially used a photo of Michael Brown looking menacing,  Twitter users took action by posting two photos of themselves, one more gangsta, one unthreatening, highlighting how easy it is to shape public perception with a choice of images. Take a look.

"Proud Past. Promising Future."

This is the rather overly optimistic, revisionist slogan for the town where Michael Brown was shot. The reality is completely different. Firstly, proud past? Missouri was a slave state. The first police forces formed were derived from the groups formed to hunt runaway slaves and enforce slavery in the state. In 2014, in majority African-American Ferguson, 50 of 53 police officers are white, and most of the black residents see no point in voting resulting in white local government. This doesn't say much for the future.

I sometimes wonder if half the reason I feel so at home in the USA now, is that I'm from South Africa, and the issues America face feel so familiar to me. Back home, we're also impatient for a perfect future, while really we're so close, historically, to the causes of our imperfect present. If America, hundreds of years later, is still dealing with legal, social and political hangovers from our past, perhaps we should be if not patient, at least realistic. A better future means real change, not just changing laws, and we have a lot to learn from American mistakes (and successes) here.

The most important lesson of all is that “forgetting the past” and “moving on with the future” are not, and never will be, compatible courses of action.

- Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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