On 9 August Michael Brown was shot as he walked down the street in his home neighbourhood in Ferguson Missouri, USA.
Michael, a black 18 year-old with no criminal record, was shot with his hands up by white police officer Darren Wilson.
Dorian Johnson, a friend who was with Michael at the time, described how a police car pulled up and an officer asked them to move onto the pavement. The officer pulled his car around to block the road, and tried to pull Michael into the car, at no point stating he was being arrested or giving any grounds for arrest. When Michael tried to run away he was shot six times. Neither Michael nor his friend was armed.
This was just an extreme example of the everyday police harassment of young black men in large parts of America.
In 2012 426 people were recorded as having been killed by police officers in the USA (records are patchy and there is no national legal requirement to report).
31% were black, compared to the 13% of the US population which is black. 39% of black people killed were classified as “attacking” when shot, but 42% were “not attacking”. This reflects a reasonable fear among young black men that any wrong move can lead to your death.
Popular culture propagates a fear of young black men. The 30% white population in Ferguson are buying guns to arm themselves against this imaginary threat, yet this 30% control the political structures and the police. Just 17% of city councillors are black, compared to 67% of the population.
After Michael’s shooting the residents of Ferguson and the labour movement and activists from the St Louis are turning out onto the streets to protest. The National Guard were called in, and Ferguson’s already heavily militarised police force attacked the protests with further violence. They have been using tear gas and weapons more commonly found in war zones.
A labour movement campaign, #handsupdontship, based in a UPS warehouse in Minneapolis, is highlighting that workers there ship products from a maker of shooting practice targets to the Ferguson police. These shooting targets carry “realistic” images of potential targets, largely black, which encourage a mindset of shoot first, ask later.
The situation in Ferguson is also about wider political marginalisation and economic strife.
In 1990 74% of the population of Ferguson was white, a legacy of 1950s suburban expansion with large “American dream family homes” and a thriving electricals industry with several factories. By 2010 only 29% of the population was white. As Emerson electricals outsourced its work and cut jobs, the population shrank and many white workers moved out.
Many black workers moved into Ferguson as house prices fell. With the credit crunch and the bursting of the housing bubble black workers were betrayed. Many faced evictions, lost jobs and faced increased poverty. Many properties were bought up by large scale private landlords who increased the rent.
The school board became privatised and increasingly underfunded, and those who could afford to moved their kids out to “better” schools. Currently unemployment stands at 50%, the median income of $36,000 has dropped 30% since 2000, and one resident in four lives below the poverty line.
When the local school board was privatised families joined together in a campaign to keep the schools public and demand better funding. Lots of the same people had already been involved in anti-eviction campaigns and are now involved in protests against the shooting of Michael Brown.
Mark Esters of the Communication Workers Union in St Louis, who is president of the St Louis Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, says many trade unionists have joined the protests. However, the AFL-CIO national union centre has been weak in its condemnations of the shooting.
In St Louis the “Show me $15” campaign has been organising fast food workers for a living wage. The campaign will have a national strike on 5 September. Fast food workers are mainly black and minority ethnic, and several of the Ferguson rallies have had members of the campaign speak. Two members of the campaign worked at the McDonalds in Ferguson opposite where Michael was shot.
Let’s show our solidarity with the working class people of this community!