January 23, 2015
Every now and then a nation experiences dramatic social change due to internal or external conflict. Countries like Russia, France, South Africa, Germany, India and China have gone through historical change through public introspection and overhaul of domestic and foreign policy. Smaller nations currently undergoing sociopolitical change experience this dramatic shift on a daily basis as in the case of Syria, Egypt and Libya.
For the larger nations with working social structures in place, often these changes result in drastic restructuring such as orthodox tsarist Russia that morphed into an atheist Soviet Union or the nation of South Africa plagued by apartheid went on to elect its first black President in 1994 marking a symbolic end to a lifelong discrimination process. Yet in a highly developed nation like the United States, the larger issue of social disintegration is being ignored.
In Milwaukee, the death of Dontre Hamilton in April 2014 was a stark display of daily life for African-American– those not already incarcerated for minor offenses. Death in police custody has been a recurring issue with the MPD brought to life by the disturbing death of Derek Williams in July 2011. The disconcerting element in every incident has been the subsequent polarized public reaction carefully redirected from the root of the conflict by a highly active broadcast media.
2014 was a year with plethora of such examples spewed across the country like a giant banner of shame. Erupting in Ferguson, MO with the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, reports of similar instances gained spotlight from New York, Cleveland, Ohio and Milwaukee, WI. Arguably, racial, ethnic and cultural divided has been the most decisive rift for a growing American population. Although a grotesque social construction, race has always played the primary role in most, if not every domestic conflict.
While race may play an important role in some police related death, writing it off as carelessness or blatant racism polarizes the situation ignoring the problem. A deep division between police and society is obvious since most police officers don’t live in the neighborhoods they serve. A tendency to ignore local issues is decisive in creating this division and as a result, an act of indiscretion comes across as deliberate negligence.
Wisconsin like other states has its share of fatal injuries resulting from a confrontation with the police. The most notable case is the death of 21-year-old Michael Bell in Kenosha, WI a decade ago. Although the Kenosha police department justified the shooting, the Bell family received a settlement amount of $1.75 million, which they donated to campaigning for transparency from police departments and raising awareness about the delicate relationship between police and people.
In April 2014, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed into law the only piece of active legislation that may serve as a check on civilian death resulting from confrontation with the Wisconsin police force. Assembly bill 409 is the outcome of a decade long struggle forged by the Bell family since Michael died. Wisconsin law now requires an independent agency investigation in any police related death. However, the process of legislative action was slow and mostly a last minute action.
“It was like the fourth quarter, with two minutes left and we kicked a field goal and we won the game,” Michael Bell’s father said of the state action.
AB 409 was put to a serious test with the death of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, but the outcome was not what Hamilton’s family hoped for. However, there are speculations about body cameras on officers in an effort to have sufficient proof for a death occurring in police custody. President Obama and Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen extended support for the measure, but legislative action is still pending.
The historical examples of inaction when face with travesty are endless from the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) to the second red scare, better known as McCarthyism, bearing roots in the mid 1950’s. Although the message has not successfully transpired into action, many great American figureheads have urged the public towards deep introspection when it comes to domestic and foreign relations.
The election of President Obama in 2008 was a significant moment for the United States, repercussions of which was felt in the death of 17-year-old African American boy Trayvon Benjamin Martin from Miami Gardens, Florida who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Sanford, Florida.
The trial of George Zimmerman was the complicated aspect of this event bearing an eerie resemblance to the Emmett Till murder trials of 1955. Zimmerman was acquitted on the pretext of standing his ground in the altercation, although it was never clear how intentionally following anyone down a dark street is not considered an aggressive move. Again, stereotypical misunderstanding serves as a precursor to radicalized violence.
Any attempt to resolve conflict in America always has violence as a key component and in many cases the primary aggressor. An increasing divide, since the end of the conflict in Vietnam, between those who serve authority and those who are subjected to follow it has severed the cord between police and regular society. Active militarization of the police to combat the war on drugs at home is now having serious ramifications.
It took a century after the emancipation proclamation to get to the Voting Rights Act and another half a century to elect the first African-American person to the nation’s highest office. Unlike most places in the world, conflict in America seldom precedes rapid change. Rather a blind repetition of history is casually passed off as a “tragic time in the history of the nation.”
In the end, it is a loss for everybody as the state fails to achieve its promised objective of maintaining a civilized society when excessive policing results in mass fatalities of children or mass incarceration of youth. The larger issue is still being ignored as we retreat in to enclaves emphasizing on colorblindness rather than active social integration.