December 3, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: After Ferguson

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By ERIC PESNER

When the grand jury in Ferguson unbelievably, yet unsurprisingly, failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown, people were understandably upset and angry. Some took to the streets to protest or riot, many participated in vigils or walkouts and most wrote articles or Facebook posts. But what people wanted to come of this travesty remains muddled.

Amid calls for justice for Mike Brown and his family and thoughtful reflections on the state of race relations in this country, there were only a few calls for substantive policy changes. Most notably, those in over-policed communities proposed that all police officers wear body cameras. And in cases like this one, where witness testimony differed wildly, these cameras could help provide truth and lead to justice. However, policy changes cannot come on their own — they must be fought for and won.

After Mike Brown was killed in August, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick added a proposal to his budget to fund body cameras for every city police officer. And in the wake of the grand jury decision, President Barack Obama asked forFederal funding for body cameras for many police officers across the country. The pressure put on our elected leaders when large numbers of their constituents demand change is necessary to make real progress in this country.

However, had we elected different leaders, even these modest proposals would likely not have even been initiated. While the Ithaca proposal will take effect, the President’s proposal is likely doomed to languish in the Republican Congress next year. And this should shock no one, especially considering that87 percent of Republicans in the House of Representatives next year will be white men. And prominent Republicans like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani rail against regulating the police, butinstead call for an increase in white police officers patrolling majority-black neighborhoods to stop black people from killing each other. The fact that someone who can espouse views this racist and still be considered a “respectable” member of the political class speaks to the failures and biases of the media and the electorate. It’s almost laughable to think that this man seriously ran for President, but the idea loses its humor when pondering how he would have reacted to the Ferguson situation from the White House.

In order to make real progress on race relations in this country, we have to make sure that people like Rudy Giuliani never get near offices of power. And this means ensuring that people turn out to vote for candidates who will support their interests and their communities. In the most recent midterm election, turnout was the lowest in decades. And even fewer people vote in the springtime local elections in Ferguson. This is why this majority-black city has a white mayor, a majority-white city council and a majority-white police force. Had there been a higher level of voter turnout, the policing situation in Ferguson could have been completely different.

But it’s not just voter turnout that needs to change. There are substantially fewer opportunities for minorities to get involved in politics. There is a significant portion of the population that refuses to vote for any minority, no matter how qualified for office. This is how Mia Love, a newly-elected black Republican from Utah only managed to win by four points despite running in a Republican wave election in a district that voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 37 points.

And the Voting Rights Act, which aims to protect the voting rights of minorities, was partially overturned by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, making it easier for the Republicans to implement new restrictions which disproportionately affect the poor and racial minorities. This makes it harder for people to make their voices heard.

But even if these changes do happen and we elect leaders who are responsive to underprivileged communities, it remains unclear what would happen next. After the dust has settled in Ferguson, there will still be a community ravaged by poverty with limited opportunities for the future. What happened in Ferguson is simply a symptom of an underlying problem in this country where the disadvantaged cannot escape from the cycle of poverty, crime and violence. Treating the symptoms will not lead to real change if we do not change the aspects of our culture that are inherently racist.

As long as anyone, let alone someone like Rudy Giuliani, can make statements saying that white people are needed to control black people and is still taken seriously, then we will always have a race problem in America. But the reaction in the general population has not been this way. Instead it’s been highly divided between those who blame a dead teenager for being shot and those who bemoan race relations in America. Until we can all accept that black lives matter and that no one deserves to be treated like this, there will never be an “after Ferguson” because the cycle of discrimination will never end.

Eric Pesner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at erp55@cornell.edu. Dems Discuss appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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