By Murtaza Haider
August 21, 2014
Michael Brown and Sammy Yatim are two sides of the same coin. The two 18-year-old racialised men were shot dead by the police. However, unlike in Toronto, Canada, where Mr Yatim died, Ferguson, Missouri, has erupted in riots after the death of Mr Brown.
The riots and looting in Ferguson (a suburb of St. Louis), which have lasted for more than a week, show that in the case that fundamental issues of social justice remain unresolved, even American cities are not impervious to riots and chaos.
Presently, Pakistanis are fixated on protesters trying to take Islamabad hostage. Such crises create an impression that such chaos is unique to Pakistan or other developing countries. But Ferguson is the latest reminder that counterparts are well and active even in the United States.
Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson
Earlier on August 9, a white police officer killed Mr Ferguson, an African-American teenager, by shooting him six times. Successive autopsy reports suggest that Mr Brown was killed in a defensive posture whereby he did not pose any direct threat to the police officer.
Eyewitness accounts reveal that the initial altercation between Mr Brown and the police officer escalated quickly. The police officer then chased down and shot Mr Brown while he had raised his arms, requesting the officer not to shoot. Still, the officer fired multiple shots.
Everything that transpired from Mr Brown’s unfortunate death till now reveals how race remains a divisive concern in the United States.
African-Americans in the United States have been largely excluded from sharing in the riches that the American dream has generated in the past six decades. Their ill-treatment by law enforcement agencies adds insult to the injury.
Racism and cover-up tactics
The contrast between African-Americans and the rest of the Americans is striking.
African-Americans are more likely to be poor, less educated, less likely to obtain loans from banks for self or business, more likely to be profiled, stopped, and arrested by the police, and executed for murder than any other race in the United States.
The death of Brown at the hands of a white police officer and other similar incidents — such as Rodney King being tortured by Los Angeles Police — almost always erupt in riots because of unresolved issues of race and equality in present-day United States.
Police conduct in Ferguson after the death of Brown has raised several questions.
The police initially refused to disclose the identity of the police officer who shot Brown. Later, the police released a video and photographs that showed just before he was stopped and killed by the police; Brown was alleged to be involved in a robbery at a grocery store. This paints Brown as a petty criminal and bolsters the defence of the officer that shot him.
There is, however, a small problem. The officer who shot Brown had no knowledge of the robbery or Brown’s involvement in it when he stopped him and his friend for questioning.
Why did the police officer stop Brown, you may wonder?
That is what officers do in North America. Other racial minorities in the United States and Canada are no exception, and are much more likely to be stopped without cause by the police than white individuals.
Statistics show that whereas 63 per cent of the residents in Ferguson are black, they represent 92 per cent of the police arrests.
Attempts to paint Brown as a petty criminal by the police backfired. Given that the police have been high-handed with African-Americans in Ferguson, and in the rest of the United States, the African-American community stood up in protest. Instead of practicing calm and restraint, the Ferguson police, however, responded with even more force against the protesters, resulting in riots and looting.
The Governor of the State of Missouri, Jay Nixon, was forced to intervene and impose a state of emergency and curfew. He also called in the Missouri National Guard after the curfew failed to control chaos and mayhem.
Sammy Yatim shooting in Toronto
The tragic death of Sammy Yatim in Toronto, Canada, unfolded quite differently. Yatim, a Syrian emigrant who arrived in Canada in 2008, brandished a knife and exposed himself on a streetcar (tram) in downtown Toronto. The driver immediately stopped the streetcar and evacuated other passengers.
The sight of a teenager holding a knife in one hand and genitals in the other, must have been disturbing. Still Yatim posed no immediate threat to the commuters in the streetcar or to the police that responded within minutes.
Eyewitness accounts and video captured by a bystander on July 27, 2013, shows officer James Forcillo discharging his firearm, killing Yatim. He was shot nine times. The city erupted in peaceful protests as sadness descended on the city that mourned the unnecessary and tragic death of a troubled young man.
Where the similarities end...
Just like the death of 18-year old Brown, the death of 18-year-old Yatim was a case of excessive and unwarranted use of police force. But this is where the similarities end.
The Toronto police and city administration made no attempt to paint Yatim unduly in poor light or to defend the police officer, who was charged with second-degree murder on August 19, 2013. Last month, the charges against the police officer were upgraded to attempted murder.
The city administration and civil society in Toronto reacted quickly to address the fact that a young man died because of excessive use of police force. Collectively, they are working to ensure that such incidents are not repeated in the future.
And while Toronto is not the poster child for the perfect place, it is still a place where social justice matters to most. Despite the odd incident of police excess, most Canadians do respect the police. Ask a group of six-year old first graders in a school of what they would like to be when they will grow up, and most boys would say a police officer.
The present mob in Islamabad and the rioting that so routinely erupts in Pakistan is no different from what happens from time to time in the United States. When society fails to deliver on social justice, chaos ensues.
Explore: Model Town tragedy: Court rules case be registered against Nawaz, Shahbaz and 19 others
We have to ask ourselves why is it that the police in Model Town, Lahore, has not yet registered the complaint (FIR) for the murder of eleven civilians who were shot dead by the police in June 2014?
Why is that the Hazara Shias in Quetta had to put their dead on the road before the government responded to their mass murder at the hands of sectarian extremists?
The lack of social justice is a recipe for disaster, chaos, and mob rule. The scenes from Islamabad and Ferguson, Missouri, are two manifestations of the same problem.