‘We’re Like Animals To Them’: An American City’s Daily Racism
By Markus Feldenkirchen
The slaying of an 18-year-old African-American man in Ferguson, Missouri, shows that racism and racial profiling remain a serious everyday problem in some parts of America. Some worry things will never change.
As they pull up to the place where Michael Brown was killed, shot six times by a policeman, they sink to the ground and stare at a cross bearing his name.
“I don’t get it,” says Jurmael, 22. He and Tyler, 21, live in the neighborhood. Like Brown, they are African Americans and are close to his age. “I do get one thing though,” Tyler says. “The name on the cross could just as well be one of ours.”
Michael Brown was stopped on Canfield Drive by a white officer for the same reason that people are stopped everyday by the police. Roberts and Greer even have a name for the “offense” — a common one in Ferguson, Missouri: “WWB,” “Walking while black.” Every black person living in Ferguson knows the meaning of the abbreviation because it is a constant part of their lives.
It took the shooting of 18-year-old Brown on August 9, a young man who was unarmed, before anyone took an interest in the everyday reality of the city’s African-American population and their demoralizing harassment by the police. It also took this tragedy before people began to ask an important question: Why does a city whose population of 21,000 is two-thirds African American have a police force that is 95 percent white? And why, a half-century after Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the civil rights campaign and the end of segregation, are African-Americans still complaining today about persistent racism?
Jurmael and Tyler make the sign of the cross before returning to their car. A police car is parked two blocks away from the site of the shooting and Jurmael can see it from the distance. He twitches briefly and then reflexively applies his foot to the brake pedal. “Police,” Tyler calls out. “Will they lets us through?” Jurmael asks.
There’s no reason to stop the men. The car is in perfect shape and they’re not speeding. But in Ferguson, it appears that different rules are applied to blacks than to whites. They may not exist in writing, but they are there in the minds of the police.
As they drive by the police car, Jurmael and Tyler don’t dare to look at it. Jurmael says his father told him at a very young age what to do when police are in the area — how he should speak and how he should look. “The best thing to do is to act as if you’re not even there,” his father said. The two grew up with the feeling that they were somehow suspects, yet both young men are perfectly polite. They both go to church and they work, even though they barely earn enough to make ends meet.
They continue driving through the streets, past the places of their youth, and past places where they were humiliated.
Tyler points to a house where he recently mowed the lawn for a white couple. He says the woman at the house had agreed to pay him $75. But once the work was done, he claims her husband then only paid him $25, saying that was enough. For the first time in his life, Tyler called the police. When the officers arrived, they asked the man if Tyler had stolen something. “But it was me who called the police,” he says. He claims the police then told him the man could pay whatever he wanted and that Tyler should get lost.
Jurmael then points to a place where he said he recently got pulled over. He says the police immediately spoke to his girlfriend, who happens to be white, and asked, “Why are you with him?” “He’s my boyfriend,” she said. The officer said, “You shouldn’t be with him,” and then left.