Analysis Race

From Ferguson to SXSW, It’s a Long Way to Erase Implicit Bias and Racism

Auditi Guha

"Until we close that gap, there will be no such thing as police accountability. Racism and implicit bias will persist unabated," said Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

Two-and-a-half years after the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old Black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a new video is raising questions about what happened at the convenience store Michael Brown visited on August 9, 2014.

The confrontation, in which Officer Darren Wilson fired 12 shots and killed Brown, set off a series of protests in the northern suburb of St. Louis. These protests, in turn, spilled into coordinated actions across the nation.

Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing, first by a St. Louis grand jury in 2014 and then by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2015, fueling racial tensions and continued conversations about implicit bias and racism in police departments.

Implicit bias or unconscious racism happens when an individual carries certain negative attitudes or believes in stereotypes about a population without their conscious knowledge of that belief system. This is exemplified in studies showing white people often, and unknowingly, associate criminality with Black people, according to the Perception Institute, a consortium of social scientists who study bias.

Rachel Godsil, co-founder of Perception Institute, told Rewire in a phone interview that the Brown case and the previously unreleased video really show how implicit bias works.

In Brown’s case, those who looked at his family, life, and experience, and what law enforcement said about the shooting, judged Brown for a minor crime he may not have committed instead of examining the facts of the shooting independently. It exemplifies how Black men are disproportionately seen as a danger or a threat, Godsil said.

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The previously unreleased surveillance footage was shown in Stranger Fruit, a documentary by Jason Pollock that premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, earlier this month. The documentary tells the story of the shooting from Brown’s family’s perspective and shows Brown entering a Ferguson convenience store more than 10 hours prior to the fatal noon shooting. Not previously released by the Ferguson Police Department, the surveillance video from the early-morning hours of August 9 appears to show Brown exchanging a bag for a pack of cigarillos and a soda, in what Pollock claims was a marijuana trade. Brown leaves the cigarillos behind, presumably to pick them up later.

A previously released security video documented the next sequence of events when Brown returned and, as the police reported it, robbed the store minutes before the fatal shooting.

Pollock argues in his film that the unreleased footage challenges the former police narrative because it shows Brown returning for goods he had already acquired. However, investigators and attorneys on both sides had viewed the footage after Brown’s death, according to St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. The prosecutor said the video had been deemed irrelevant to the investigation.

Following the SXSW screening, McCulloch released the unedited surveillance footage, parts of which were included in Stranger Fruit, to counter claims that there was a cover-up. “It’s not as though it was hidden away somewhere,” McCulloch said, according to news reports.

The store owners also dispute Pollock’s narrative, while the convenience store’s attorney told CNN that the bag Brown left on the counter was marijuana. Meanwhile, a co-owner of the store told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he wasn’t there that night and cannot confirm or deny whether there had been some kind of transaction between Brown and the clerks working at the time.

The new video led to renewed protests in Ferguson on March 12, CBS News reported.

Michael Brown Sr., who has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Wilson, former Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, and the City of Ferguson, told the Daily Beast he doesn’t see the new footage as “just stupid,” which is how McCulloch labeled it.

“For the protesters and everyone else that was out there fighting for justice, it was a smack in the face that they felt they needed to do something, but now they know they were right. There was a piece missing,” Brown Sr. said.

“We, as his family, it’s a big pill to swallow … it’s like, damn, Mike is still working from the grave,” he added.

This new development and the protest it sparked are unlikely to change the outcome of the case.

Tara Tee of HandsUp United told Rewire in a phone interview that those people who have already made their minds up about what they saw will not use their critical thinking to see that “things don’t match up”—a sentiment Black people in Ferguson have cried themselves hoarse expressing, with chants like “Hands up, don’t shoot!” She said she has no hope that those people will see things any differently than they did before.

“Who was that video for? White people?” Tee said.

“Why are we having this conversation again?” she asked. “There are wounds that have not closed, and there are a whole band of people who made their minds up about who Mike Brown was a long time ago.”

Ashley Yates, a prominent Black Lives Matter movement organizer originally from St. Louis, echoed Tee’s comments that the new footage is provoking conversation that Ferguson sparked more than two years ago.

“Mike Brown’s body was left in the middle of the street for 4 1/2 hours and, before identifying the cop that killed him, Ferguson made sure to attempt to vilify Mike Brown and convince us all a box of cigarillos were worth his life. Rather than address the brutality dozens of police departments were inflicting on citizens, Ferguson chose to place [Brown] on trial for his own murder,” Yates said in an email to Rewire. “I do think it’s ironic that the very tape they produced to use against Mike Brown is actually causing people to take a deeper look into the lies Ferguson told and helping spark a renewed call for justice​.” ​

At the end of the day, many people in our society see Black lives as less valuable than others’, so it’s easy for those not affected by that injustice to just go on leading their lives, she said.

Scientists are in the early stages of determining how to “de-bias,” according to the Perception Institute. 

Godsil explained that even police departments aware of and trained in avoiding implicit bias have a hard time separating calls from citizens who tend to alert them about Black men spotted in the streets, irrespective of whether or not an actual crime is being committed.

The Center for Policing Equity, a research and action think tank, has been pushing for more data and dialogue between communities and their local police departments to combat racism and bias at the district level, said Chris Burbank, director of law enforcement engagement at the center and a former police chief in Salt Lake City, in a phone interview with Rewire.

“We are absolutely focused on bias in policing,” he said. “We know that men of color, especially Black men ages 18 to 35, are more likely to be engaged by police or have force used against them, and we work with many police agencies across the country to give tests and surveys to determine individual officer bias.”

It is not just individual bias in communities and in police forces, but agency and policy that often inject bias into a department, Burbank said. He mentioned the stop-and-frisk tactics in New York as an example of racial profiling in Black neighborhoods.

Rewire has reported on how the program was deemed racist and an abject failure by civil liberties advocates, as it allowed police to stop and frisk a person without reasonable cause to do so. This then led to racial profiling and infringements on constitutional rights, especially in poverty-stricken and racially segregated neighborhoods.

The controversial practice was significantly reduced after a series of lawsuits that resulted in changes to this flawed policing tool.

The center is currently working with 140 law enforcement agencies to change policy and practice to bring about racial equity in policing.

Burbank said it’s not just about training police officers but about acknowledging the high correlation among poverty, education, and race, as well as an imperfect criminal justice system that gives root to bias. His job is to try to figure out what the role of the police agency is to lessen or change that bias, he said.

“If we don’t acknowledge that and work to change the perception, we are doomed to have history repeat itself with negative outcomes,” like in the Brown case, he said. “Whatever your history, you deserve to live your life and not be threatened or fired upon” during a police encounter.

Change starts with having good data that is open and accessible to determine exactly what is going on. It is “ridiculous,” he said, that we have information on how many cars are stolen in the United States in a given period but no data on how many times police fired their guns. Force is a tool to reduce crime. If data don’t show it is reducing crime, then why are we doing it? Such data are critical to inform, discuss, and make policy to affect change, Burbank said.

DOJ last year announced it would start collecting comprehensive data on police killings nationwide starting in 2017, something civil rights groups have long pushed for.

The first-of-its-kind plan called for “accurate and comprehensive data on the use of force by law enforcement” that “is essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations.”

The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database counted 963 people shot and killed by police in 2016 and 991 in 2015. So far in 2017, 237 people have been shot and killed by police.

A review before the Human Rights Council in Geneva last year slammed the United States over the high number of Black people killed by police. Al Jazeera reported that the United States accepted 44 recommendations from United Nations member states on eliminating racial discrimination and tackling excessive use of police force, but rejected creating an independent commission to prosecute racially motivated crime.

While many agree police shooting reform is long overdue, the new administration at the White House has said little on the issue. Instead, President Donald Trump issued an executive order enhancing the protection and safety of law enforcement last month. Republican lawmakers have also introduced legislation this year aimed at penalizing and punishing protesters. Trump and his cabinet have openly supported hate groups and systematically opposed efforts aimed at protecting basic human rights.

So while research plays an important part in the advancement of equity and justice, activists emphasized the need for immediate action to show Black lives matter.

“America will look for any excuse to justify the murder of marginalized persons, Black people specifically. What I hope people continue to realize is that racism doesn’t change via talk, it changes via action. It’s great to study bias, but we have enough dead Black bodies as our data. What we need now is the action,” Yates said.

Yates said she is always shocked by how little folks outside of St. Louis know about Brown, Ferguson, and the accomplishments achieved by the movement.

“We’re beginning to see some of that truth make its way out now, via films like Stranger Fruit and the documentary Whose Streets? co-produced by Damon Davis, who is from St. Louis, and as a result, I have seen people’s ideas begin to shift already, questioning and turning away from popular media narratives and tuning in to hear what happened from people who lived it firsthand,” she said in an email.

“It’s beautiful ​to see that hearts and minds are still changing and people are still waking up to the reality of racism and systemic methods of enforcement. It’s wonderful to see people’s compassion for Mike Brown extend beyond court rulings,” Yates said. “I hope what comes next is another swell from newly galvanized people who are willing to fiercely organize in defense of Black people and our lives.”

In light of the new video, protesters in Ferguson have made several demands, including requesting the state’s attorney general reopen the Brown case, Colorlines reported.

“The Ferguson Market for years has received free range to sell drugs in the Black side of Ferguson while the community complained to the police department to no avail,” Tory Russell, local organizer and mission director for the International Black Freedom Alliance, said in a statement at Colorlines, referring to the convenience store from the footage. “Why were the store clerks not brought up on drug charges as any other Black person in St. Louis would have been if they were caught on camera selling drugs?”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, also explained in an email to Rewire that the broader context of discriminatory policing that makes every Black citizen a suspect, including Brown, is what reform should be focusing on.

“We’ve got a long way to go to build bridges of knowledge about the discriminatory and punitive culture of policing in Black communities in the United States. Criminality is a proxy for Blackness and much less so for structural inequality as is true in white communities. Until we close that gap, there will be no such thing as police accountability. Racism and implicit bias will persist unabated,” he said.

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