Ferguson exposes US policy fail

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 4:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 9:39am

The force used by US police to quell riots in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson creates eye-catching images. But the story is less about an oversized hammer being used against a nail than that five decades after the civil rights movement triumphed and with a black man in the White House, much still needs to change in America. Racial segregation remains rampant, yet is little mentioned until the simmering anger boils over, as with the killing of teenager Michael Brown.

Exactly how Brown came to be shot by a white policeman remains murky. Two investigations and a second autopsy will shed light. But the findings will not placate a two-thirds majority black community that feels discriminated against, nor will it lessen the racial divisions in the city of St Louis, the state of Missouri or any other place in the US where segregation is still rife. While surveys show circumstances for blacks are improving, there is still a marked gap with whites when it comes to law enforcement, health, education, jobs and wages.

A hope of the civil rights movement was that society would become integrated, a proverbial melting pot of cultures and races. That has happened in some places, but not all; parts of Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and New York have divisions even wider than St Louis. Ferguson is majority African-American, yet 94 per cent of its police officers are white, as are its mayor and all but one of its councillors. It is a case of a white-dominated system not responding to demographic changes and the inevitable consequence that interests are poorly served. Put in that context, while the riots cannot be condoned, their cause is understandable. They are the result of frustration, of a silence that turns to a scream when a killing or beating is perceived as unjust, prompting emotions to boil over. That is what happens from time to time in the US; Brown's case follows a string over the years, among them Trayvon Martin in Florida, Amadou Diallo in New York's Bronx and Rodney King in Los Angeles. It will continue until policies become more inclusive and segregation is recognised as a problem.