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Social issues

Learning to Breathe: The USA’s Week of Outrage

– by Hanifa Abdiraihan

Activists in the US have begun planning a ‘Week of Outrage’, organised by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, to protest perceived police brutality in the wake of a number of fatal shootings. Thousands have already erupted in protests all over the United States. Most recently, medical students throughout the US staged die-ins yesterday, a popular form of protest in which those who take part lie motionlessly on the ground in public.

The uproar was sparked by the separate grand jury decisions to not indict police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, who were accused of killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner respectively.

Wilson, who is white, has claimed self-defence as Brown had charged at and assaulted him. Others have equally claimed that Brown had been running away, with his arms up in surrender. Both testimonies were corroborated by conflicting witness accounts. Among the evidence considered were blood in the police car, a close-range shot on Brown’s hand, as well as autopsies showing that Brown had been shot six times.

infCriminal charges considered by the grand jury included first- or second-degree murder, as well as voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. The jury itself allegedly matched the ethnic demographics of St Louis, the county Ferguson is located in. It consisted of nine Caucasians, six of whom are male, and three African-Americans, two of whom are women. Nine out of twelve votes are needed to reach a decision.

Daniel Pantaleo, who held Eric Garner in an ultimately fatal chokehold, was also refused indictment by a grand jury last week. Unlike the vague atmosphere surrounding the case of Michael Brown, the decision to not indict Pantaleo has been described as “astonishing” due to the evidence available.

In a more sinister turn, Garner, who had asthma, could be heard yelling, “I can’t breathe” multiple times on a mobile phone video recording. The video, which showed Garner being piled upon by police officers, has since been shared nearly 1,300 times and accumulated over 680,000 views on YouTube.

Both officers had testified in front of a grand jury. This is an uncommon practice for defendants in most cases, lawyer James Culleton told the New York Times, in speculation that police officers enjoy a “heightened … credibility” with the jury.

Protests were heavily peppered with chants such as “No justice, no peace, no racist police” and produced the hashtags  #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter in social media. They are also, however, voraciously fuelled by similar recent incidents in the US. Last year, 16-year-old Kimani Gray was killed in Miami Gardens, Florida after two plainclothes officers shot first on the suspicion he had a gun.

More recently, in Saratoga Springs, Utah early September this year, 22-year-old Darrien Hunt was shot six times in the back by police. The justification given was a blunted sword he was carrying, part of a cosplay ensemble of the anime Samurai Champloo character Mugen. Aside from Utah having open-carry laws, the widely popular event Comic-Con had been running in Salt Lake City the previous weekend.

Hunt’s mother, Susan Hunt, has blamed his death on racial discrimination, which authorities deny. Mrs Hunt is ethnically white.

In late November, Akai Gurley, 28, was shot by a startled officer during patrols in a Brooklyn public housing complex when he opened the door from a stairwell. The same day, Tamir Rice, who was 12, was shot by police at a playground in Cleveland over what was discovered to be a toy gun.

Excluding Darrien Hunt, who was biracial, all abovementioned victims were black; none survived their shootings.

The Ferguson authorities in particular have come under heavy criticism for lack of transparency during the investigation and trial. There have been several leaks, including CCTV footage of Brown robbing a store of cigarillos the same day of the incident, as well as the existence of seven black eyewitnesses who support Wilson’s account.

Questioning the one-sided nature of the leaks, all of which were favourable to Wilson, CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin commented on a televised report that the US Justice Department considered them “smears on Michael Brown”, and that they were therefore “extremely concern[ing]”.

On one hand, the US protests have resulted in hundreds of participants being arrested, 150 alone on the night an interstate highway was blocked by their activities. On the other, some have argued that it has also broken milestones. For one, Ferguson protesters were the second leading readers’ choice for TIME‘s Person of the Year Award, and even President Barack Obama delivered thoughts on racial rifts in the nation to BET’s 106 & Park on Monday.

“When you’re dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you’ve got to have vigilance, but you’ve got to recognise that it’s going to take some time, and you just have to be steady so you don’t give up when we don’t get all the way there,” he said in the interview. He has before addressed the situation in Ferguson and the issue of police militarisation, shortly after the St Louis jury decision.

Photo credit: Dave Bledsoe via Flickr

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