The two images reprinted below have appeared widely in media outlets over the past weeks. Eerily similar? Both show armed police or soldiers carrying shields facing off against unarmed people of color. Without careful perusal, it’s hard to tell which caption belongs with which photo.
The Stories Behind the Photos
In Liberia’s capital city last week, residents of a densely populated, poor neighborhood protested when security forces sealed off their community as a quarantine measure in response to the Ebola outbreak. According to reports, residents asserted that not only had they been cut off from their homes but also that they were being disproportionately exposed to the virus because sick people from outside their community were being brought into an Ebola screening center set up in their neighborhood by the government.
In Ferguson, Missouri, when residents took to the streets to protest the shooting by a police officer of Michael Brown – an unarmed African-American youth, thousands of law enforcement officers as well as National Guard were deployed to contain the demonstrators. As of this writing, several hundred protesters have been arrested.
Poverty, Inequality and The Burden of Disease
Liberia is among the poorer nations of the world. In 2012 the gross national income per capita was $580; 75 babies out of 1000 could be expected to die before the age of five; and the total annual expenditure on healthcare was a meager $102 per capita. The top causes of mortality in Liberia include malaria, diarrhea, respiratory infections, AIDS and malnutrition. Neither money nor the burden of disease is distributed evenly in Liberia. As calculated by the GINI index, Liberia is one of the least economically egalitarian countries in the world.
Fifteen years ago, Ferguson was a predominantly white middle class suburb of St. Louis. By 2010, the population was two-thirds black . Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes that in 2014 every Ferguson neighborhood but one has a poverty rate over 20%, “the point at which typical social ills associated with poverty like poor health outcomes, high crime rates and failing schools start to appear.”
In the state of Missouri, the rate of poverty among Black men is twice that of white men (22.5% vs. 11.6%). Among Missouri women, 24.3% of Black women vs. 14.5% of white women are living in poverty. In St. Louis County (where Ferguson is located), the rate of emergency room visits due to asthma among children under 15 years is 52% higher than the overall rate for the state. (High rates of childhood asthma are associated with environmental pollution and substandard living conditions.) The rate of infant mortality is 9% higher than the state’s rate and 21% higher than the U.S. national rate. The rate of babies born with a low birth weight (an excellent indicator of women’s overall health status and of the child’s future health status) is 8% higher than the state’s rate, and 20% higher than the national rate.
The Legacy of Injustice: War on the Poor and the Ill
Liberians are struggling with the aftermath of two recent civil wars. “Liberian scholars offer a range of explanations for the years of conflict including ethnic divisions, predatory elites who abused power, a corrupt political system, and economic disparities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that underlying those proximate causes, the seeds of conflict were sown by the historical decision to establish Liberia as a state divided between natives and settlers, and the use of force to sustain the settlers’ hegemony.” While many Liberians are incarcerated for the “crime” of being poor or disliked by the police, perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the civil war have not been punished. Following the civil wars, according to Amnesty International, “Senators, Deputy Ministers, police officials, Special Security Service agents and Liberia National Police officers were allegedly engaged in or ordered beatings, looting, arbitrary arrests, abductions, shootings, ritualistic killings and other abuses. In most cases, no investigations were carried out and no action was taken against alleged perpetrators. … Law enforcement forces were reported to have unlawfully arrested and detained people and to have used torture and other ill-treatment, including during attempts to extort money on the streets. … Conditions in police lock-ups were appalling, with juveniles and adults routinely held together. Detainees were often subject to abuse by police and other detainees. … The formal justice system often failed to deliver fair trials and due process. Lengthy pre-trial detention beyond that allowed by law was the norm, with roughly 90 per cent of prisoners being pre-trial detainees. As well as corruption and inefficiency, the system suffered from lack of transport, court facilities, lawyers and qualified judges.”
Residents of Ferguson are struggling with the historical legacy of legally sanctioned racial discrimination, nearly four decades of ‘trickle-down’ economics that have eliminated middle and working-class jobs in the mid-west and throughout the country, and housing policies that price low-income Americans out of the housing market and segregate people of color in densely populated neighborhoods with lousy schools and housing and crumbling infrastructures.
Ferguson residents are also struggling with what Michelle Alexander aptly calls the “New Jim Crow” – decades-long ‘tough on crime’ policies that primarily targeted men of color and have led to the United States claiming the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. In 2012, one out of every 200 Missouri residents was in prison or jail serving a sentence of one year or longer. And, unlike in much of the rest of the country, Missouri’s prison population actually rose 1.3% in 2012. Incarceration rates for white men in Missouri in 2012 were 650.6 per 100,000. Among black men in it was nearly six times that: 3,640 per 100,000. Law enforcement personnel, like members of all three branches of government in Missouri, are overwhelmingly white.
Last year, Ferguson used municipal court fines to fund 20.2 percent of the city’s $12.75 million budget. (Just two years earlier, municipal court fines had accounted for only 12.3 percent of the city’s revenues.) Incarceration rates specifically for Ferguson are not available. But, statistics posted on the Ferguson municipal website hint at the facts on the ground. In 2012 (the last year for which data are posted) Ferguson exhibited a striking gender imbalance in its population.
|Male population 9,279||(43.9%)|
|Female population 11,856||(56.1%)|
Women do live longer than men in most of the world, but the gender disparity in Ferguson is more in line with war zones – with countries like Liberia that have experienced lengthy civil wars — than with American “suburbs.” If I had to make an educated guess as to the whereabouts of the missing men I’d guess dead or in jail. The face-off in the photo above certainly makes that guess plausible.
We Americans like to believe that “this kind of thing” could never happen “here.” We’re shocked by the egregious killing of a young man in Ferguson, by the outraged community response and by the overtly militarized law-enforcement response. We’re less shocked by the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of Ebola in places like Liberia. But – as we’ve seen over the past few weeks – the systemic inequalities that give rise to poverty and disease “over there” also drive anger, distrust and mass incarceration right here in America.
With a nod to the Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 masterpiece: “There’s something happening here / What it is ‘IS’ exactly clear / There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I got to beware / I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound / Everybody look what’s going down.”
Please check out my new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility