“Hands up! Don't shoot!”
This slogan was taken up by community protesters right after the murder of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown by police in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9.
Brown had his hands up in surrender and shouted “Don’t Shoot!” when a white cop shot the unarmed teen six times.
His body was left lying on the ground for four hours before the police had it picked it up. This callousness further angered the Black community, who make up about 70% of the small town.
As of August 20, there had been huge demonstrations for 11 days demanding justice for Brown and in opposition to the militarised police attack on the demonstrators.
Solidarity demonstrations quickly spread across the country. These were largely Black crowds, but included whites and other supporters holding their hands up with “Don’t Shoot!” signs.
In one photograph, hundreds of students at Howard University, historically Black institution in Washington, DC, all had their hands above their heads.
Across the country, another manifestation of the protests has been the spread of Twitter messages with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. These posts document personal stories by young Blacks of their experiences being confronted by police. By August 13, the hashtag was used 168,000 times.
St Louis county police chief Jon Belmar denounced the protesters' use of social media, complaining: “They [Black youth] have the ability to understand where they’re all going to be, and they can basically plan where they want to go next.”
Another slogan, “No justice, no peace!”, was raised in Ferguson after militarised police in combat uniforms, accompanied by armoured vehicles, tear gas, stun grenades and US military rifles, assaulted peaceful protesters.
News photographers captured a striking image of a team of cops dressed in military fatigues pointing high-powered guns at a young Black man who had his hands in the air.
There have been peaceful rallies during the day, but at night, the police come out to smash protests, demanding they disperse.
This has further galvanised the protests. Patricia Bynes, an African American committeeperson in the town, said: “The protesters and residents who support this cause are not going to be forced to stay in their houses when they want to show just how unjust this really, really is.”
The scenes on TV look like Cairo under Sisi’s military dictatorship. Hundreds have been arrested, beaten, gassed and shot with rubber-coated bullets.
Among those shot by a rubber bullet was a white woman pastor at a local church who joined the protests. The extent of her injury showed rubber bullets cause more than minor wounds.
On the night of August 18, a series of startling images were published on Twitter. A human rights monitor from Amnesty International photographed a police armoured car charging through a crowd of protesters.
A reporter for the Wall Street Journal published a photo with the caption: “Just saw AR-Style rifle with Harris bi-pod on top of armored vehicle.”
An NSNBC reporter said: “Riot police aiming guns at journalists who are on the ground holding their hands in the air.”
Journalists have been a special target providing shades of Cairo. Some have been ordered to stop filming.
Among the 11 arrested reporters were those from the Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Intercept and Getty Images.
Al Jazeera America reporters were hit by tear gas and rubber bullets. CNN cameras caught an officer yelling at a group of protesters: “Bring it on, you fucking animals, bring it on!”
In the face of the attacks designed to drive people off the streets, some young people have fought back with whatever they could find bottles, stones and Molotov cocktails against vastly superior militarised police.
There has been some looting ― blown out of proportion by the media and police ― by unknown people, possibly including provocateurs.
In one scene I saw on TV, young Black protesters, men and women, with red bandanas symbolising Brown’s blood, lined up to protect a store from looters. Later, witnesses reported, the police tear-gassed those protecting the store.
Further stoking community resentment was the fact that police and town authorities have held back information while they work out their defence of the murderer behind closed doors.
It was only after huge pressure that the cops released, after a week, the name of Brown's killer Darren Wilson. They simultaneously released a video purportedly showing Brown stealing a box of cigarillos from a store.
This further outraged the community, who rightly saw this as a transparent ploy to divert attention away from the murder and to smear the victim as the real criminal.
The protests are now demanding that Wilson be arrested and charged with murder.
As of August 20, the cops were yet to release the findings of their autopsy of Brown. The Brown family got a renowned expert to do an independent autopsy, which revealed that the teen was shot six times, and not at close range a fact the cops tried to cover up.
Witnesses to Brown's shooting are in remarkable agreement that he and a friend were walking down the middle of a street when a patrol car pulled up. Wilson shouted that they should “get the fuck on the sidewalk.”
Some sort of scuffle ensued, and Brown and his friend ran away. Exactly when Wilson started shooting is unclear, but Brown was about 35 feet away when he turned with his hands up and the fatal shots were fired.
The police have yet to release their version, but hint that Wilson feared Brown.
The “Hands up, don’t shoot” reaction among young Black men across the country reflects the reality that, when they come in contact with the police, they fear that any wrong move could lead to their death.
Racial profiling is commonplace in cities and towns large and small. Accountability for police violence is not.
Popular culture propagates fear of African American young men among whites. Since the murder, guns are flying off the shelves at gun shops in the St Louis area as whites arm themselves.
The dehumanisation and disrespect that Black men suffer from society reflects a broad culture of institutionalised racism. It is no accident that a white cop feels threatened by an unarmed Black teenager. That portion of whatever concoction the police come up with is probably true.
Whites, including white police, are saturated with the message that young Black men are to be feared.
Out of Ferguson’s police force of more than 50 officers, only three are non-white. As is true in many police forces in the country, many cops in Ferguson do not live in the town. Wilson reportedly drives 25 miles from his home each day to report to his police job.
But there is a bigger problem than the racial composition of police forces. It is police training and policies.
Racial profiling and targeting of minority communities are taught to all cops ― white, Black, Latino, Asian, male or female.
New York City, for example, has a police force that is majority Black, Latino and Asian. Yet it is notorious for its “stop and frisk” policies directed at racial minorities, as well as its own murders of young Black and Brown men.
Just a few weeks ago, a Black man, Eric Garner, was choked to death by NYC police. The murder became public as it was caught on video. The person who took the video was arrested, while the cops involved were exonerated.
The scenes from Ferguson not only look like contemporary war zones. They also remind me of the Black rebellions of five-to-six decades ago that were suppressed by huge levels of violence by police and the armed forces. I’m old enough to retain vivid memories of them.
As a result of those uprisings in the 1950s and '60s, a special presidential commission was formed. The commission concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies ― one Black, one white ― separate and unequal.”
In spite of the great victory of the Black civil rights and liberation movement of that time in smashing legal segregation and winning other gains, Ferguson demonstrates that the commission’s conclusion is true today.
Black communities suffer from more than just police violence. Racial segregation in housing remains true for most working-class Blacks. School segregation is worse today than in 1970. Unemployment rates are double for Blacks compared to whites. Every other social statistic confirms the divide.
These facts, made worse by the Great Recession and its aftermath, underlie the anger in Ferguson and throughout Black communities across the nation.
Another fact that Ferguson has brought to national attention is the militarisation of police forces, even in small towns. Since Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s, this has been an incremental policy.
It has accelerated since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US military has supplied the nation’s police departments with military surplus, for free, from those wars. This includes everything from camouflage uniforms, assault weapons, ammunition, body armor, armored vehicles, to helicopters.
The Department of Homeland Security paid for the US$360,000 Bearcat armoured truck now on patrol in Ferguson. It also spent $3.6 million for two helicopters, other vehicles, rubber bullets, body armor and night vision equipment being used against the protesters.
That’s for just one small town. Multiply that by hundreds for police departments across the country.