They took to the streets in downtown St. Louis on Saturday, coming by the thousands to march in protest. And what was the festering grievance that cohered these marchers, the noble cause that brought them from every corner of the country to the Gateway City? Was it the new war in Iraq? Global warming, perhaps? Or was it a higher minimum wage they were seeking? No, it was none of these things. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tells it, they came “to protest the death of Michael Brown and call for an end to police violence nationwide.”
You’ll recall that Michael Brown was the “unarmed black teen” who on August 9 was shot and killed by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Many nights of rioting followed. A grand jury has been hearing evidence in the case and its decision on whether the police officer should face criminal charges is expected later this month or perhaps in November.
The crowd was “peaceful and jovial” the Post-Dispatch informs us, and dotted with people who had traveled long distances. “Antonio Cuffee, 30, drove 13 hours from Baltimore with six others to join in the protests,” we are told. “‘We felt we had to come out here to be part of change,’ Cuffee, a policy worker, said. ‘It’s a shame so many black people are getting killed by police,’ he said. ‘Just by the nature of being black we are targeted, we are suspect.’”
The Post-Dispatch also quoted LaDarius Torrey, a sophomore at Georgetown University, who had traveled to St. Louis with two friends. “There’s been a lot of mischaracterizations made about young black males in this country,” Torrey said. “We need to have serious discussions on race or it could get worse. I don’t want to be next.”
There had been a march on Friday as well, this one in the St. Louis County seat of Clayton, where the grand jury has been meeting. And this one, too, brought dedicated visitors from the coasts to the howling wilderness of fly-over country. A Post-Dispatch story on the Friday march brings us 22-year-old Ashely Agbasoga, a student at Brooklyn College, who “drove through the night to get to Clayton for the weekend protests with a professor, his partner and another student.”
And what a rollicking road trip that must have been, with all the vegan snacks being passed around the Prius while Joan Baez tunes and Mumia Abu Jamal’s greatest hits were cranking on the iPods. (You probably can’t pull in NPR very well when you’re passing through Terre Haute in the middle of the night.) “This is the epicenter of the movement against police brutality,” Agbasoga told the Post-Dispatch.
And then there was this, from same story:
A table under one tent was staffed by Holly Wagner, a member of the counseling department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Wagner had brought storage bins containing sand and plastic animals.
In another of the incongruous, if not bizarre, incidents that have sometimes marked the protests, Wagner handed out the toy animals to adult protesters seated at a table. They manipulated the figures under the guidance of Wagner and other graduate students inside plastic bins full of sand.
“We wanted to create a space where people can show with these small toys what they are experiencing,” Wagner explained. “It’s a creative expression technique.”
In any large gathering there are bound to be a few ready targets for ridicule, and grown men and women showing “what they are experiencing” by playing in a sandbox (under the guidance of graduate students!) strikes me as just that. But this is America, and people are free to petition the government for a redress of grievances in any peaceful manner they wish. And better to see them frolicking in the sand than looting and burning the local merchants, right?
But still, the people who marched around St. Louis this past weekend, every single one of them, whether playing in the sand or not, are deluded fools. And even worse, they seek to infect others with their delusion.
“Come, come, Dunphy,” you say, “sounds a bit harsh.”
I’ll explain. Saturday’s march in downtown St. Louis began at 15th and Market Streets, then headed east along Market to Kiener Plaza, across the street from the city’s Old Courthouse. Had the marchers instead assembled just a bit farther west, they would have been standing in what less than 24 hours earlier had been a crime scene, one where a man was shot to death and another was critically injured. Both victims, as it happened, were black.
And if Saturday’s marchers had continued east just one block beyond Kiener Plaza, to the intersection of 4th and Market Streets, they would have found themselves in the middle of, yes, the scene of another recent murder, this one occurring the previous Monday, when two men were killed and another was wounded. And yes, these victims were black as well.
None of these men was shot by a police officer. Rather, they were shot by other black men, most likely in disputes over drug sales. My guess is that neither of these crimes merited much discussion among those who had come to St. Louis to join in all the marching, shouting, and sand playing.
If the purpose of these events in St. Louis was to call attention to the dangers faced by young black men in that city and elsewhere, and to propose solutions that would lessen these dangers, the protesters missed the mark — and missed it completely — by focusing their attentions on the perceived faults of the police.
If you’ve tuned in to CNN for coverage of events in Ferguson these last two months, you may have seen an interview or two with David Klinger, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Klinger is a former police officer who years ago left law enforcement for academic pursuits. (Full disclosure: Klinger and I are friends; we talk frequently on the phone, and we get together when he visits Los Angeles and when I visit St. Louis.)
Klinger has devoted many years to the study of crime, and he is keenly knowledgeable on issues related to use of force by police (he even wrote a book about it). He examined the data from the city of St. Louis for the decade from 2003 to 2012, and what he discovered will surprise no one with even a modest familiarity with law enforcement, but will surely disappoint those who cling to the myth that the greatest danger to a young black man in America is the racist white police officer looking to gun him down with little provocation or even none at all.
In the decade Klinger examined there were 1,265 murders in the city of St. Louis. At least 90 percent of both the victims and perpetrators of these murders were black, giving us a conservative estimate of 1,025 blacks killed by other blacks.
During the same decade there were 239 officer-involved shootings in the city, in which 39 suspects were killed. Klinger did not have sufficient information on one of these fatal shootings, so his data are based on 238 police shootings, 38 of them resulting in fatalities. Of these 38 people killed by police gunfire, 31 were black. Two black men were killed in a single incident, which means there were 30 incidents in which blacks were killed.
In 10 of these 30 incidents, black police officers were among the officers who fired, and in six of these it was only black officers involved. In the shooting that resulted in two black men being killed, both of the involved officers were white. So, in the 10-year period Klinger studied, he found that 21 black men were killed by white police officers in St. Louis.
Compare this figure with the number of black-on-black killings and you see that for every black man killed by a white police officer in St. Louis during this period there were almost fifty (48.8, to be precise) who were killed by black criminals. Even if you accepted the absurd proposition that not a single one of these police killings was justified, you are still left with a statistical disparity that reveals the true menace to black males in the city: other black males.
And yet the protesters, in their willful blindness to these grim numbers, give voice to their outrage over the death of the one while marching along streets where, almost literally, the gutters are awash with the blood of the fifty.
It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. It’s almost enough to make you want to go play in the sandbox.