Virtually unknown a little more than a week ago, Ferguson, Missouri has, in part through social media’s ability to bring light to many of the world’s dark corners, come to dominate national, and even global, attention in the days since police officer Darren Wilson ended Michael Brown’s life by shooting him six times.
As difficult as it may be to envision now, amidst the tear gas, rubber bullets, and arresting of protesters young and old, eventually order will return to the suburban St. Louis community.
And, when that time comes, Ferguson residents could look at the actions of members of Champaign’s black community in thinking about how to enhance their power going forward.
At first glance, the connection between the city in open revolt where the National Guard has been summoned and the site of Illinois’ flagship state university seems tenuous at best.
But a deeper look reveals that the two cities share some important and distressing similarities.
Both erupted in protest after the death of an unarmed African-American teenager at the hands of a white policeman.
In Champaign, it was 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington who died after being shot in broad daylight on a Friday afternoon in October 2009.
Carrington’s death sparked a protest movement that led in early 2012 to the retirement under duress of then-Police Chief R.T. Finney.
And both cities have black communities that simmered for years about its treatment by the majority-white police force sworn to protect it before taking direct action after one of their youth was killed.
The disparate treatment is visible in numbers.
In a New York Times article, Jeff Smith, a former state senator from St. Louis and a professor at the New School, cited a recent Missouri report that found that African-Americans were about 67 percent of Ferguson residents, but 93 percent of traffic stops by police.
This pattern occurred despite the fact that white people were more likely than black people to have contraband found on them, Smith wrote.
Champaign had even greater disparities.
Black people in Champaign were 16 percent of the population in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but accounted for at least 40 percent of all arrestees, according to an analysis we did of arrest data in 2012 when I worked at Hoy Chicago.
For some crimes, it was even higher.
Black people accounted for close to 90 percent of jaywalking arrests in Champaign as well as in neighboring Urbana, we found. (One of the most surreal developments that has taken place since Brown’s death was Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson’s revelation that Wilson initially stopped the teenager for jaywalking.)
These numbers tell a potent story; the words of the residents speak even louder.
In John Oliver’s biting Last Week Tonight, Robert X, a young Ferguson resident talked about the daily, lower-level harassment he and other black people have endured from the police before Brown’s shooting. Check about 2:17 for his comments.
For his part, longtime Champaign resident Charles McClendon described the negative consequences of police aggression, discriminatory practices and profiling on community-police relations. See his statement at the 2:25 mark.
Yet members of the black community fought back not only through the gritty protests being waged by many resilient people in Ferguson, but through a way that has the potential to bring about more enduring change: they voted.
Whereas turnout in black neighborhoods in Champaign historically had been low, leaders organized a stealth voter turnout campaign that some attributed as playing a critical role in underdog independent candidate Don Gerard defeating three-time incumbent and “birther” Jerry Schweighart by a margin of several hundred votes.
One of Gerard’s first major appointments was to name Anthony Cobb, a black Champaign native, to head the police department.
Many members of the black community expressed their confidence in Cobb’s ability to improve community-police relationships.
Champaign-area activists maintained that they needed to stay active after Cobb’s appointment, and an analysis of arrests data appeared to confirm their point. Although the total number of arrests dropped during the first six months of Cobb’s tenure, the percentage of black people arrested remained essentially unchanged.
Activist Martell Miller said Monday that the community has grown disillusioned with Gerard in the years since his victory, but gave Cobb high marks for communication.
As Oliver and others have noted, the repeated communication gaffes from various levels of law enforcement and politicians have been the proverbial gasoline on the fire caused by Brown’s killing, with the latest being the dramatic understatement of the number of arrests Monday night.
It would be both naive and facile to say that better information sharing could have avoided the outrage that has been sparked and that continues to rage on Ferguson’s troubled streets.
It’s also important to be clear both about the limitations of the comparison and the extensive amount of multi-layered change needed in both communities.
Still, when the turbulence ultimately subsides, Ferguson residents can continue to strategize about the longer-term steps they and others can take to bring about the deep changes that are sorely needed to end the mistreatment and injustice they have endured for so long.