Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown. The unarmed black teenager, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national movement against police brutality, particularly against African Americans. This weekend, Black Lives Matter activists gathered in Ferguson for peaceful protests pushing for change in our criminal justice system, and moments of silence commemorating Brown and the many others who have lost their lives at the hands of police this year. The protests did escalate at one point: last night, a police officer shot and critically wounded another 18 year-old on the periphery of demonstrations in recognition of Brown. But mostly they have been peaceful and forceful. Today, St. Louis County declared a state of emergency after a group of Moral Monday protesters including Cornel West were arrested after crossing a police barricade and sitting and chanting peacefully.
Michael Brown has, tragically, been joined in the past year by a number of other victims who have become the symbols of police brutality and of racial inequality. High profile incidents and tragedies like the killing of Samuel DuBose, who was shot in the head after being pulled over for driving without tags, and the racially-motivated shooting in Charleston, have continued to push the movement forward and helped shed light on the extent of the problem that we are just beginning to understand.
The depth of the problem, however, goes far deeper than the names of some of its most recognizable victims. Through Friday evening, 585 people were shot and killed by police this year, according to the Washington Post database. Twenty-four of those have been unarmed black men, representing 40 percent of all unarmed deaths. It is seven times more likely that a black man will die by police gunfire than a white man.
Thanks to tireless activists and brave advocates, the Black Lives Matter movement has become a central issue in the political sphere. Speaking in front of a crowd in New Hampshire today, Hilary Clinton acknowledged that “we have deep, unaddressed, systemic race and justice issues.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, after being interrupted during a campaign stop by protesters, has now released a comprehensive racial justice platform, focusing on violence against people of color in the United States. And a question about Black Lives Matter was included in the first Republican debate—although the fact that the issue got less than a minute’s worth of attention from the crop of candidates was met with much criticism.
Both deep grassroots movement and high profile conversation about racial injustice and police brutality are important first steps in making meaningful change, but more has to be done. Our colleagues at the Center For American Progress have made recommendations of things we can do to reform the criminal justice system, including implementing ‘implicit bias’ training, collecting better data, and increasing federal oversight of police conduct.
BOTTOM LINE: One year after Michael Brown’s death, the reality of racial injustice and police conduct in our country is now being discussed in a way that it hadn’t been before. That is real progress. But many in power are still too fearful or ignorant to acknowledge deep systemic challenges our country faces. There is much more work to do to make sure they do acknowledge those challenges, and take steps to correct them.