AFRICANGLOBE – The shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, a district of St. Louis County in Missouri, and the spate of civil unrest that followed, could set a precedent for the future of American society according to a senior Iraq war veteran and Pentagon defence analyst. Terron Sims, an African American active in local Democratic politics who had previously served five years in the United States Army, told me during an interview last month that without a fundamental cultural and institutional change in American policing across the country, the US could see more Ferguson-type events in the near future.
In an interview in Washington DC where Sims is president of the North Virginia Black Democrats and on the Board of Principals at the Truman National Security Project, I asked him whether the Ferguson crisis offered a taste of things to come.
“This is a taste of the present, my friend. We’re already here. This is America, today,” said Sims. “And if we don’t deal with the root cause in terms of widespread racial discrimination against Black people, this will be our tomorrow.”
The Ferguson crisis has sparked a national debate on the culture of policing in the US toward Black communities, as well as the increasing militarization of the police due to a federal Pentagon programme providing military-grade equipment to local police forces at little or no cost.
Last Tuesday, Lt. Col. Jon Belmar, the top police officer in St. Louis County, justified the extensive deployment of military-grade equipment to respond to Ferguson unrest. “Had we not had the ability to protect officers with those vehicles, I am afraid that we would have to engage people with our own gun fire,” Belmar told USA Today. “I really think having the armor gave us the ability not to have pulled one trigger… I think the military uses armor to be able to provide an offensive force, and police departments use trucks like that so they don’t have to.”
The recent provision of three grenade launchers, 61 rifles and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle to the Los Angeles School police department prompted civil rights and education groups to write to the US Defense Department demanding an end to the federal supply programme to the LA school system. One unidentified police official reportedly said that the weapons were needed “for the safety of staff, students, and personnel” and that the grenade launchers and armored vehicle would only be used in “very specific circumstances,” but did not elaborate on the nature of those circumstances.
In contrast, Terron Sims, a West Point Military Academy graduate and company commander during the 2003 Iraq war, said, “Police conduct in Ferguson is a travesty and wake-up call. There are simply no circumstances in the US where the use of military-grade equipment could ever be justified to police civilian communities.” During his Iraq service, Sims was principal civil military officer responsible for liaising with civilians and civilian authorities in Baghdad. He went on to become deputy chief of the US Army’s Joint Training Readiness Center at Fort Polk, finally serving as a senior Pentagon analyst before retiring into civilian life. “Our squadron had an exemplary record”, Sims said. “We had to deal with far worse than what the cops on the streets of Ferguson were facing. I’m talking about US troops faced with swarms of angry civilians who look at you as invaders. Riots? Protests? You name it. But we had to be disciplined. My squadron didn’t use force against a single civilian. In fact, part of my job was making sure that our squad worked with and alongside the civilians in Tisa Nissan district, in Baghdad, to ease the transition from a military-run institution to civilian-led government.”
During our interview, Terron Sims could barely conceal his disgust at the behaviour of police officers in Ferguson toward civilian protestors. “I can’t speak for the whole US army in Iraq, but if our squadron could do it, I don’t understand why American cops can’t.” The problem, he said, is that racism continues to be a major problem in American police forces: “This is about an entrenched culture of policing that doesn’t work with and alongside communities. Instead, we have police officers roaming around seeing the local community as outsiders, or even worse, as a homogenous enemy. The cops that are capable of shooting peaceful, Black Americans don’t have relationships with the Black community. They don’t have any outreach.”
I asked him how the police should have handled the situation. “The first thing I would’ve done if I was the police chief was reach out to Black community leaders,” he said. “Get their take on things and work with them to restore justifiable confidence in the police’s ability to actually behave lawfully and accountably. But obviously in this case, the police clearly don’t have the first idea who the community leaders are. But to be honest, if I was the police chief, I’d be asking myself hard questions about how I’d allowed it get to this point in the first place.”
Sims is hardly an ‘anti-establishment’ activist. A believer in the political process, he is currently outreach director for the Arlington County Democratic Committee and chairman of the Veterans and Military Families Caucusfor the Democratic Party of Virginia. In that context, his verdict on what Ferguson means for the state of America today is damning. “The shooting of Michael Brown did not come out of the blue,” he told me. “Let’s not beat about the bush here. It came about through a deepening culture of unaccountable racism. And it’s not just about police racism. Obviously in Ferguson we’re looking at years of police repression targeted largely at Black people, but it goes deeper than that.”
Police repression, Sims explained, must be understood as part of a wider racial crisis in American society. “You look at a place like Ferguson and you see rampant unemployment, poverty and illiteracy in the Black community. These trends have persisted and worsened for years. And there’s no money to improve things,” said Sims. “Local government is not investing in education. It’s not investing in jobs, in infrastructure. But Ferguson is not an isolated case. Shootings of innocent Black people in the US by cops is at epidemic levels. That follows on the back of massive inequalities between white and black people across America.”
It is now widely recognized that the racial divide in the United States has worsened in recent decades along economic lines. In 1970, 33.6 percent of Blacks and 10 percent of Whites were impoverished. In 2012, 35 percent of Blacks lived in poverty, compared to 13 percent of Whites. While 5% of White Americans are unemployed, more than double — 11% — are Black. Nearly three quarters of Whites own their own home, compared to just 43% of Blacks. And in the last 25 years, the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks has nearly tripled. Median household wealth for Whites is about $91,400, but a measly $6,400 for Black people.
Economic inequalities are compounded by the acceleration in police repression of Black and ethnic minority communities over the last two years. Official police records demonstrate that, notwithstanding deficiencies in the way information is catalogued, the victims of police shootings are overwhelmingly male, heavily young, and disproportionately Black.