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Racial tensions

Jan Fritsche, WashingtonAugust 14, 2014

The town of Ferguson in the US state of Missouri remains on edge after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Racial unrest has once again reared its ugly head in the United States.

Image: Reuters

For the fifth night in a row, angry protesters rioted in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of 18-year-old teenager Michael Brown. Some threw Molotov cocktails, which the police answered with smoke bombs and tear gas. Two journalists were also briefly detained as riot police tried to clear the area.

The protests are a stark reminder of the sensitive issue of race relations in the United States. When a white police officer shoots a black teenager, race matters - especially in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb in which two in three are black, but only three out of 53 officers are black. "This is an opportunity to fix what's wrong," Police Chief Thomas Jackson said at a news conference. "We're working on finding ways to get involved with the community. Race relations are our top priority."

Night after night, anger has been growing about Brown's death and for the protesters the police response is adding insult to injury - above all the face that officials have still not released the name of officer who shot Brown. The police in turn say the officer in question has received death threats.

What exactly happened this past Saturday, however, remains unclear. The police say the shooting followed a struggle between Michael Brown and the police officer. But a witness who was walking with Brown at the time has said in media interviews that the unarmed Brown put his hands in the air and was not struggling with the officer. Brown had just graduated from high school and was supposed to enter college in only a few days time.

Familiar pattern?

This latest shooting also triggers comparisons with the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, who was fatally shot in February 2012 in Florida. That incident sparked angry protests in the African-American community and revealed the deep racial tensions that are still very much part of US society. The most prominent lawyer involved in that case will now be representing the family of Michael Brown.

The Trayvon Martin case is still a sensitive issue for African AmericansImage: Reuters

"The killing is a wrenching reminder of the criminalization of black and brown bodies from the moment they are introduced to society," says Charles Blow of the New York Times. Indeed, the statistics of the Ferguson Police Department suggest heavy racial profiling in a town with mostly white police and a predominantly African-American community. In 2013, most of the vehicles stopped by police were disproportionately those owned or driven by African-Americans. While only 686 white vehicle owners were pulled over, police stopped 4,632 black car owners.

"Generally speaking, all people of color are underrepresented in police departments," Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told Deutsche Welle. According to her, this is also a reason why there is so little trust between the police and their community in places like Ferguson. "Black officers say that they tend to look at black people with less suspicion than their colleagues."

The Pew Research Center suggests in a study from late 2013 that 70 percent of African Americans feel that they are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police. Only 37 percent of whites said they feel unfairly treated. A Gallup poll from the same year found that just 38 percent of African Americans said they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police. Among whites, the figure is 60 percent.

As the tensions continue, President Barack Obama and other national figures have called for calm and a measured response to the tragic events in Ferguson. With regards to the racial tensions in the United States, Obama said: "We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds."