As an activist who works to pursue equality at every juncture, there was an instinctual pull for me to travel to Ferguson, Missouri where unarmed teen Michael Brown was gunned down by a Ferguson police officer during what witnesses say was him surrendering. I needed to come to bear witness to the historical, divisive, and unprecedented events that have been unfolding and to work to ensure that no more mothers have to bury their sons and daughters because an officer sworn to protect and serve decided to become an executioner. As Ferguson residents took to the streets after Brown’s death protesting the police officer’s excessive use of force and the repeated harassment and rights abuses of the department against black Ferguson residents, I became glued to Twitter. In the beginning, social media was the only medium documenting the full scale of the pain, anger and turmoil felt by Ferguson residents; I could not look away because I identified with their emotions.
In the thirteen days since Brown’s death, people have continued to protest and organize calling for the police department to be held accountable for their non-transparent and unethical handling of Michael Brown’s death. As more Americans take a deeper look, the stark inequalities and dehumanizing injustice faced by black people within the American criminal justice system is something that many Americans are refusing to continue to accept.
The aggressive response of the local Ferguson police department to protesters has also become a point of contention as peaceful protesters and journalists have been arrested, shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed, had LRAD sound technology used and had sniper rifles trained on them simply for exercising the rights granted to them by the Constitution’s First Amendment. For the first time in history, Amnesty International has deployed observers on U.S. soil in response to militarized police violating what executive director Steven Hawkins describes as a clear violation of international human rights. Many images from Ferguson have prompted comparisons between the abuse of residents as eerily reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement. The stark contrast of a nearly all white police force using military weapons and tactics against black citizens has forced many Americans to awaken to the reality that the 50 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act has not produced the equality and basic respect for human dignity that many falsely assume is part of every American’s experience.
As citizens across the country have tried to quantify the injustice faced by black people within the American justice system, data has emerged that shows that a black person is killed by a police or security officer every 28 hours. In addition to statistics that illustrate the violence experienced by blacks, images from Ferguson have laid bare the brutality, militarization and criminalization blacks face as a result of the American criminal justice system. As these images have circulated across the globe, countries such as Russia, Iran, China and Egypt have spoken out about the way black citizens are treated in America with China’s state-run Xinhua news agency stating that the, “racial divide [in the US] still remains a deeply-rooted chronic disease that keeps tearing U.S. society apart.”
Concerned citizens from all over the world have descended on Ferguson. Tibetan monks have even joined in protest with the residents of Ferguson. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who is South African,commented on the violent clashes between police and Ferguson’s majority black population stating the scenes were familiar to her. Pillay, who is a survivor of South African apartheid, also stated that the events unfolding in Ferguson prove to her that “apartheid is flourishing” in America thanks to the law turning a blind eye to racism. American apartheid forces black citizens in the United States to live subjugated by a justice system that actually locks up a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
It has been years since Michelle Alexander documented in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness how the criminal justice system is the paradigm under which America perpetuates a racial caste system. However, little tangible progress has been made in eliminating criminal justice policies and practices that perpetuate the New Jim Crow. In fact, many Americans are just now being forced to acknowledge the abuse and disregard for life blacks face at the hands of the criminal justice system. This realization is due in large part to the fact that Ferguson residents have refused to allow the nation to continue to be blind to the plight of black people in America.
This is one reason I and many others have shown up in Ferguson; we can no longer allow lawmakers and citizens to not acknowledge and address the negative impact race has on the lives of black people through the criminal justice system. As I join activists, organizers and citizens who are determined to hold this country accountable for ending American apartheid, I look forward to sharing the stories of those who have survived and those who refuse to allow apartheid to continue to be a part of the American experience. To find out more about the national movement to end mass incarceration and how you can be involved, visit Stop Mass Incarceration Network and follow updates from the ground in Ferguson by following @AprilVTaylor on Twitter.