United Nations condemns U.S. racism as reverberations over Ferguson continue

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Ralliers showing solidarity with Michael Brown and the black community of Ferguson, Missouri, march down West State Street in Milwaukee on Aug. 18. –Photo: Dave Lauersdorf

Even as Ferguson grows calmer, recent indictments in the St. Louis suburb continue to provoke outrage around the world.

Ferguson and St. Louis County have been sued in federal court for the use of excessive force and the false arrest of innocent bystanders during the civil unrest following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American.

The United Nations has issued a report condemning the United States for widespread violations of the human rights of people of color.

The federal lawsuit, filed Aug. 28, seeks $40 million in damages. Plaintiffs include a clinical social worker who says she and her 17-year-old son were roughed up and arrested after not reacting quickly enough to police orders to evacuate a McDonald’s; a 23-year-old man who says he was shot multiple times with rubber bullets and called racial slurs while walking through the protest zone to his mother’s home and a man who says he was arrested for filming the disturbances.

Attorney Malik Shabazz said the lawsuit could be broadened to include additional plaintiffs. Ferguson and St. Louis officials have declined comment on the suit.

The U.S. Department of Justice is considering a broad investigation into whether a pattern of using excessive force by Ferguson police has routinely violated people’s civil rights. At least five police officers and one former officer in the city’s  53-member department have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force.

In fact, there have been four federal lawsuits, including one that is on appeal, and more than a half-dozen investigations of the Ferguson police department over the past decade. Charges have included killing a mentally ill man with a Taser, pistol-whipping a child, choking and hog-tying a child and beating a man who was later charged with destroying city property because his blood spilled on officers’ clothes. 

Persistent discrimination

On Aug. 29, the United Nations blasted the United States for the use of excessive force on display in Ferguson during the demonstrations following Brown’s killing. After examining records and hearing testimony from witnesses, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that minorities, particularly African Americans, are victims of unacceptable disparities in the United States. The finding was especially embarrassing for the nation coming just months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to scuttle the Voting Rights Act of 1965, claiming that institutionalized animus toward blacks is no longer a problem in this country.

A CERD panel of 18 independent experts grilled a U.S. delegation on Aug. 13 about what the experts called persistent discrimination against AfricanAmericans and other minorities, including within the criminal justice system. U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper told the panel that the nation has made “great strides toward eliminating racial discrimination,” but he also conceded that much work is yet to be done.

Among those who testified before CERD in Geneva was Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Also attending was Ron Davis, father of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old who was shot dead in a car in Florida during an argument over loud rap music in November 2012.

At an Aug. 29 press briefing announcing the committee’s conclusions, CERD vice chairman Noureddine Amir said, “Racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious and persistent problem in all areas of life from de facto school segregation, access to health care and housing. (Ferguson) is not an isolated event and illustrates a bigger problem in the United States, such as racial bias among law enforcement officials, the lack of proper implementation of rules and regulations governing the use of force, and the inadequacy of training of law enforcement officials.”

CERD, which monitors a treaty ratified by 177 countries, including the United States, also concluded that the “Stand Your Ground” laws in 22 states, which indemnify Americans who kill because they fear their lives are in imminent danger, should be reviewed to “remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to principles of necessity and proportionality when deadly force is used for self-defense.”

The Aug. 9 shooting of Brown in the St. Louis suburb, which is 70 percent black and has a police force that’s nearly all white, is just the latest in a long list of police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men in recent years. The protests that rocked Ferguson in the wake of the shooting worsened after local law-enforcement stepped in with military equipment, tear gas and rubber bullets. 

Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown, has been put on paid leave and is in hiding. A St. Louis County grand jury has begun hearing evidence and the U.S. Justice Department has opened its own investigation into what happened to Brown.

Another St. Louis police officer who was assigned to day patrols in Ferguson during the height of the protests was forced into retirement after a 2012 video came to light in which he called himself “a killer” and warned that he would kill anyone who got in his way. In addition, officer Dan Page, a 35-year-veteran of the force, made hateful, racist remarks about President Barack Obama and slurs against LGBT people during the widely viewed rant.

Page, who retired with full benefits, also shoved CNN host Don Lemon on camera during a report from the scene. 

‘Two shootings away’

Since Brown’s slaying, four additional unarmed black men have been killed by police, according to Mother Jones magazine. Marches and rallies demanding justice for Brown and other African-American victims of police brutality have been held repeatedly in cities across America, including here in Wisconsin. 

Citing seemingly intractable conditions of poverty, joblessness, despair and segregation in Milwaukee, Ald. Milele Coggs issued a statement saying that the city is two shootings away from a situation like the one in Ferguson.

“The death of Mike Brown was Ferguson’s spark, and if Milwaukee does not make changes soon, I believe our spark is coming,” she said.

Demonstrators rallied in Milwaukee on Aug. 17 in Brown’s memory. They marched to Milwaukee police headquarters, blocking traffic while officers helped divert drivers.

On Aug. 22, a diverse crowd of about 250 people staged a tearful rally organized by Milwaukee’s African American Engagement Roundtable. The racially mixed crowd included people of all ages and circumstances — students with backpacks and at least one woman with a Coach purse

The event began with rally leaders reading off the names of dozens of unarmed black men who’ve been shot down in the streets of America by police. There was a moment of silence, followed by a chant of “black lives matter.”

The setting was Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park, where 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man suffering from schizophrenia, was shot as many as 15 times by an MPD officer in April. Hamilton’s father presented an impassioned speech, saying that after nearly four months, his family has yet to receive an explanation from police or the district attorney’s office about what happened to his son. The officer who shot Dontre Hamilton has not been charged or named publicly.

Hamilton’s death was the first following the adoption of a new law in Wisconsin that requires outside investigations of cases in which deaths occur while people are in police custody. The state Division of Criminal Investigation has issued a report on Hamilton’s case to the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office, but its contents have yet to be released.

Hamilton’s father, who said the wait has been excruciating for him and his family, told the crowd that the white establishment looks at black men as “bugs” that “need to be exterminated.”

“We need to understand that all of our hearts beat the same,” he pleaded to an enthusiastic response.

The father of Corey Stingley also spoke. Sixteen-year-old Stingley was asphyxiated by three adult white men after stealing a bottle of alcohol at a corner store. Stingley referred to the three men as “vigilantes.”

Following the rally at Red Arrow Park, more than 100 people under the watchful eyes of riot police, chanted, “No justice, no peace,” and stopped traffic as they marched down West State Street to the Milwaukee Municipal Court building, which also houses MPD’s administrative offices. There, they staged a sit-in and called on Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn to meet with them.

A third rally was held in Milwaukee on Aug. 19 and more actions are planned.

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