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Madison '16: An American tragedy

The tragedy that occurred just past noon on Aug. 9 was not simply an “incident,” not an “accident” and not an “unfortunate situation.” The reaction from communities of color across the nation, protests against both police brutality and the murders of black and brown bodies by police that followed are also not, as Fox contributor Linda Chavez put it, attempts to enhance racial fears and animosity by employing a “mantra of the black unarmed teenager shot by a white cop.”

Instead, the tragic murders of Michael Brown and countless other unarmed victims of color over the past few months are violations of the highest order. This situation served and continues to serve as a bitter reminder for millions of people of color that our lives are valued less than those of our white peers. This serves as a reminder of the continued dehumanization, demonization and devaluation of the black and brown that have been as much a staple of American tradition as apple pie.

On a personal level, both the historical and the recent series of incredible violations of human and civil rights have had a profound emotional impact. Those not of a certain set of “person-of-color” backgrounds take it for granted that the police are unlikely to harass them, harbor prejudices against them or even murder them when they are unarmed. Those who possess such backgrounds are keenly aware that their livelihoods — and even their lives — are at stake at all times, even if they are completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Incidents of police brutality, harassment and even murder are all violations of not just civil rights but also basic human rights. Situations like the one resulting in the death of Mr. Brown are not only “black” problems, nor simply “people-of-color” problems. Any injustice that plagues any of the people of our country, regardless of their identities or backgrounds, is an American problem.

As citizens and humans, we should expect to be able to gather in peaceful assembly without police harassment and intimidation. We should be able to expect that, as long as we are not engaged in illegal activity, the police will serve to protect us — not to murder and intimidate. And we should expect that regardless of our involvement in illegal activity, we have the right to due process. We should expect timely and equal justice in our court systems. We should expect to be treated equally and fairly, to be free from discrimination based on gender, race, class or any other distinction. The issue that Ferguson, Missouri, has highlighted is that we are not guaranteed the protection of our civil — or even human — rights. This fact is an American tragedy. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is time for Americans to realize that police brutality, intimidation, bias, an unjust “justice” system and general identity discrimination are not merely the problems of a certain subset of the population.

The police actions in Ferguson have prompted protest from activists, politicians and journalists across the world. Ferguson has found itself the subject of a human rights investigation by Amnesty International, as well as an investigation by the Department of Justice on the basis of the high possibility that law enforcement violated federal civil rights provisions and, lastly, a $40 million lawsuit — one of several — which was declared by a collective of five plaintiffs to be levied against the Ferguson police.

These civil and human rights violations, committed on American soil — not a new phenomenon but an incredibly visible instance — have drawn international criticism from government and media outlets in China, Iran, Egypt, Cuba, North Korea, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Canada. These violations have also drawn ire from Palestinian activists and Tibetan monks, among many other groups. In an incredibly telling quote, the Russian Foreign Ministry made the observation that though America “has positioned itself as a ‘bastion of human rights’ and is actively engaged in ‘export of democracy’ on a systematic basis, serious violations of basic human rights and barbaric practices thrive.” The Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese state press agency, similarly wrote that “the Ferguson incident once again demonstrates that even in a country that has for years tried to play the role of an international human rights judge and defender, there is still much room for improvement at home.” It is quite apparent, even from an international angle, that something is profoundly wrong in this nation.

Where to start? We must look to raising the bar for the standards required for hired police officers. It makes no sense, for example, that Officer Darren Wilson, who previously was employed in a police department with so much tension between its mostly white officers and its mostly black residents that the city council voted to disband it, was not more closely watched by superiors.

It is imperative that we push for drastic diversity increases in our police forces. A community must feel that it has representation in the force that polices it. Although the town of Ferguson is 67 percent black, only three of the 53 officers employed in the local department are black. We must demilitarize an American police force that employs weapons and tactics against its own citizens that are more appropriate for use in war. We must find a way to force the justice system to punish violations of the law by officers in the same manner that it does for civilian offenders. We must vote locally — for local officials who reflect a healthy set of values. We must more actively involve ourselves in police watch forces and citizen review boards. Lastly and more immediately, we must demand full transparency and accountability of our police forces. That journey starts with the support of the proposed “Mike Brown” law, a proposition that asks the White House to consider imposing a requirement upon all state, county and local police forces to wear body cameras.

It is up to all Americans to take to task every department, organization and force that exercises authority over us. We must make them accountable for their actions, and we must use the tools at our disposal to utilize the latent power that we have to change the current landscape. This issue is not one that can wait until injustice claims the life of another American. The broken pieces of our nation that have been exposed by the recent events in Ferguson are the most pressing issues facing our nation, and the manner in which they are dealt with will determine the nature of our future definitions of “justice.” We live in a broken society. The time to learn, to speak, to act, to vote, to demand accountability and transparency, and to fight for a just future is this very moment. Whatever your identity and background, you have the responsibility and the ability to make a positive difference.

Armani Madison ’16 demands a society in which no innocent person has the need to fear an authoritative force that supposedly exists to “protect and serve” him or her.


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