Often when I jogged before dawn in Hyde Park, I’d see Hazel and Emily Brainard walking in the street.
Sidewalks are everywhere in that older neighborhood. I joked with my early 1980s neighbors, who were in their 70s then, that they behaved like the teenagers who walked in the street on their way to Westport High School.
I think about that now a month after the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of 18-year-old, unarmed Michael Brown by Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson. Brown, who was African-American, was walking in the middle of Canfield Drive in a residential area with his friend, Dorin Johnson, another black male. Wilson, who is white, stopped the two, saying they were blocking traffic. The shooting followed.
Protests over Brown’s death resulted in nearly two weeks of violence and confrontations with police. Memorials of flags, teddy bears, candles, flowers and notes remain where Brown was killed. Calm has since returned to the St. Louis suburb with some positive signs. On Sunday, new glass replaced boarded-up windows in some businesses damaged in the unrest, and signs directed people to register to vote. Better representation is needed in the city with a majority black population run by mostly white police and government.
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Concerns that residents voiced to Attorney General Eric Holder on his Ferguson visit last month resulted in the Justice Department’s civil rights division investigating how Ferguson police use force, conduct traffic stops, searches, arrests and treat detainees. The department also is investigating whether Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights in the slaying. In addition, a St. Louis County grand jury is hearing evidence in the case. The investigations may take months to complete.
What’s clear now is that if Brown and Johnson had been treated like my white, elderly neighbors, Brown would be alive today and in class in a technical college. But Ferguson, like Kansas City and the rest of Missouri, has a racial profiling problem. Law enforcement officers stop, search and arrest African-Americans at disproportionate rates. What also has surfaced is how divided America remains along the color line.
One man, who is white, sent me an email about Holder, saying, “He has gone to Ferguson to convict the cop, not to get to the bottom of the incident.”
A New York Times/CBS News nationwide poll showed that most whites reserve judgment on whether Brown’s death was a justified police shooting, while most blacks say it was not. The poll said most whites thought the protesters went too far compared with 38 percent of blacks who thought the actions were about right.
A second email I received said: “It is impossible to have respect for black people when they have no respect for themselves as shown by (violence ) and looting that is taking place in Ferguson.”
The poll showed that blacks were nearly twice as likely as whites to fault the police response for the problems. An overwhelming majority of blacks think that police generally are more likely to use deadly force against a black person while a majority of whites say that race is not an issue in a law enforcement decision to use force.
An email correspondent from Liberty told me: “I have not heard of any person, black or white, who attracted the wrong kind of attention from police that was not their fault. They were either doing something illegal, wearing a gang-banger uniform or not showing proper respect for the police uniform.”
What law enforcement and the rest of America have to do is get to the point where they see no difference between Hazel and Emily walking in the street vs. Michael and Dorin. Then no one would die, no property would be destroyed, no protests would occur, no political careers would be threatened and no justice would have to be served.
It would be just another day on the streets of America, and people could go on with their lives content and unmolested.