Is It Fair to Blame Ferguson Violence on Poverty?

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

On August 9, a police offer in St. Louis County, Ferguson, Missouri shot eighteen year-old Michael Brown to death in front of a few witnesses. Brown was unarmed, and stories conflict between witnesses and law enforcement as to what transpired. Police say that Brown and the officer were in an altercation in which Brown pushed the officer and attempted to wrestle his gun away. Brown’s friend, who was present for the shooting, said that Brown was shot without reason, unarmed, and that he had not attempted to reach the officer’s gun.

Since then, the city has seen racial tensions erupt into violence; riots and protests amidst mourning; and police response some consider overexertion, including SWAT teams, rubber bullets, tear gas, and armored vehicles.

Events Unfolding

Since then, discussions about why what’s happening in Ferguson have grown in parallel with each new development. The racially charged response has been compared to Trayvon Martin’s shooting. The use of police force has been compared to events in Egypt — and the police equipment to military outfits in Afghanistan. Molotov cocktails have been thrown, stores broken into and looted. A pregnant woman was thrown to the ground and a woman received a gun shot wound Sunday on the most recent and violent night of protesting, which resulted in an emergency curfew and the National Guard being called in to help control the situation.

Meanwhile, the name of the officer who shot Brown has been released, Darren Wilson, who has given his description of events — that Brown was walking in the street and was shot multiple times after he failed to stop attacking and advancing upon being shot the first time. In total, early autopsies show a shot to the head that was the one to kill Brown, and at least five others, but don’t answer questions about how events transpired.

So What Does This Have to Do With Poverty?

As with any terrible and explosive situation, people are eager to explain events. Why such a sudden and intense reaction to a shooting — even a suspicious shooting — and why such conflict with local PD. Some have posited that Ferguson is about poverty. It’s an interesting consideration, depending on what precisely you mean. First of all, even asking the question is somewhat problematic. People react to death and potential violation of rights from a position of power in a myriad of ways — and violence, anger, protest, and mourning are all reasonable reactions. Just because race and poverty can be tied together does not mean that Ferguson is about poverty. Can poverty and violence be connected? Yes, absolutely they can. But angry reactions to racial injustice is also historically documented.

Brittney Cooper, a writer for Salon, suggested that, “Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream.” She goes on to say “this social mendacity about the way that racism traumatizes black people individually and collectively is a festering sore … ‘turn the other cheek’ now means ‘here are our collective asses to kiss.’”

This is a violent reaction to the potentially unjust death of a young man with no cause, with a public displaying serious distrust of the governing body and poor relations with police forces that may be excessive. This is an entirely understandable reaction. Diagnosing that mistrust seems a more valuable consideration than what Cooper offers. Elizabeth Kneebone of Brookings research organization discussed the way that demographics in Ferguson have changed in even just the last thirty years or so. In 1980, she reports, the population was white suburbia — about 85 percent.

By 2008-2012, the population has changed to 67 percent black. As with much of the rest of the country, economic changes have seen extreme downtrends in the last decade, and poverty in Ferguson has indeed gone way up, with a growing population size as well; 44 percent live below the poverty line in Ferguson as of 2012.

Many of these changing suburban communities are home to out-of-step power structures, where the leadership class, including the police force, does not reflect the rapid demographic changes that have reshaped these places,” writes Kneebone. In other words, there’s a line of white cops with gas masks, and a crowd of black protesters. If it wasn’t about race to begin with, the subject can hardly fail to come up. Kneebone’s line of reasoning is useful in that it suggests a problem with a fix, the contributing factor of racial divides to the power structure that one can see a future solution to.

President Barack Obama on Police Force (Tuesday, 4:00 p.m.)

President Barack Obama spoke on the continued events in Ferguson, addressing the National Guard’s presence as something he’s monitoring and has been in communication about. He noted continued efforts from the Justice Department to continue an independent investigation, the Attorney General Eric Holder’s involvement and eventual meeting with FBI in Ferguson, as well as with “other leaders in the community.”

He discussed community relations services working to ease tensions, and emphasized that, “We have all seen images of protestors and law enforcement in the streets. It’s clear that the vast majority of people are peacefully protesting,” he said, but adding that a small minority are not. He deplored the looting and gun carrying, as well as police attacks, while reiterating freedom of speech interests, the importance of the press, and the need to “rebuild and not just tear down … listen, not just shout.”

On whether or not police are over-militarized, Obama referred to post-September 11 changes, both positive and negative. He said it is “probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone — how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they’re purchasing is stuff that they actually need, because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred.”

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