The Aug. 9 killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparked a wave of protests in the immediate aftermath, and the incident is emblematic of a nationwide scourge in which the lives of young black men are regarded as “disposable and without value,” Clark University Trustee Steven Roberts ’74 told a standing-room-only audience in Clark University’s Dana Commons on Oct. 23.
Roberts and his wife, Eva Louise Frazer, M.D., who are residents of St. Louis, delivered a compelling presentation that used the events in Ferguson to urge a wider conversation on how law enforcement interacts with men of color in hostile, often deadly, ways. To illustrate the scope of the problem, Roberts began by reading a lengthy and “grisly roll call” of names of unarmed black men recently killed by police.
“As in every decade in American history, black men live with the unjust and unreasonable threat of deadly force for adjusting a belt or a seatbelt in a car, reaching for a wallet, suddenly changing direction while running, or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, for simply being perceived as not having the right to be present at a given place in time despite not violating any law or even [being] on a public street,” he said.
Roberts pointed to FBI statistics from 2005 to 2012 that reveal deadly force is used against a black person two times every week. Seventeen percent of those killed by police were under the age of 21, compared to 8.7 percent of white people killed by police within the same time period.
“Is this America?” Roberts asked. “Each of us must take a stand and make the point that black lives matter.”
Roberts led the audience through a detailed timeline of the Aug. 9 events, which began with Brown and his friends being confronted by Police Officer Darren Wilson for jaywalking and ended with Brown being shot six times, including in the eye and the top of his head. The entire incident unfolded in just over two minutes. Roberts shared cellphone footage broadcast on CNN, which shows nearby workers watching the encounter and gesturing to police that Brown’s hands are up in surrender after he’d fled from Wilson’s cruiser following a struggle.
Dr. Frazer, a St. Louis native, recalled the protests the following night that were met by a police force armed with battle gear, with one officer, later fired, caught on tape saying that protestors “should be put down like rabid dogs.” She soon found herself galvanized to take action. “It really didn’t matter that the officer was white. It really shouldn’t matter that the teenager was black. What really mattered was that an individual had been shot in the act of surrendering,” she said.
In response, Frazer and a group of friends created a group and social media presence called Michael Brown is Our Son. They organized a rally in Ferguson, which coincided with a rally led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The group conducted research into the rates of arrest against the poor, and they’ve been working with county politicians to implement change, she said. It was later uncovered that Ferguson police had been subject to multiple federal lawsuits for violent episodes against residents, including one in which a man was beaten then subsequently charged with destroying city property because his blood had spilled on an officer’s uniform.
Frazer stressed that the problem extends well beyond Ferguson. She played a video clip depicting an African-American man being shot by a South Carolina state trooper after reaching into his vehicle to retrieve his driver’s license. Another case involved a 21-year-old white man from Wisconsin who was shot in the temple when an officer mistakenly believed the man was reaching for the officer’s gun, despite the fact that the victim’s hands were cuffed behind his back. In the latter case, the officer was cleared within 48 hours following an internal review and remains on the force. The victim’s father discovered that since 1885 in Wisconsin there had never been an internal finding against a police officer for an unjustified homicide, and he successfully worked toward the creation of a citizen review board.
The history of police officers’ threatening interactions with young men of color has personal ramifications, Frazer told the audience.
“I have two African-American sons and I have had ‘the talk’ with them,” Frazer said. “I told them not to ever talk back to a police officer, to always keep your hands in plain view, to submit to whatever they want to do, and then when you get to the station make your one phone call — because I want you to survive that interaction.”
Frazer offered three takeaways:
- What happened in Ferguson is a nationwide problem. Part of the solution is that police should be required to wear body cameras and use dash cams. They should also undergo more cultural sensitivity training that Frazer recommended be delivered by colleges and universities.
- The nation must address the problem of implicit racial bias and move toward creating “sustainable equality and opportunity for all.” She noted that the U.S. is spending huge sums on prisons rather than on education and job opportunities.
- Everyone has a role to play in implementing change. “Your voices independently and collectively can and will make a difference,” Frazer said.
“Do not stand silently or turn away in the face of injustice,” she advised. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to stand against racism and systemic practices that divide us and suppress the hopes and dreams of so many.”
The Oct. 23 presentation was sponsored by the Clark University Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of the President.
“I felt that the event, led by a trustee and his partner, and attended by a wide range of staff, students, and faculty, clearly evidenced the entire Clark community’s deep commitment to social awareness and justice,” said Betsy Huang, Clark University’s chief officer for diversity and inclusion.