Cover Story
Police officers move in to arrest protesters as they push and clear crowds out of the West Florissant Avenue area in Ferguson, Mo., early Wednesday, Aug. 20
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Police officers move in to arrest protesters as they push and clear crowds out of the West Florissant Avenue area in Ferguson, Mo., early Wednesday, Aug. 20

Houses divided

Police | A history of police violence brings police killing in Ferguson to national attention, even as black-on-black murders in far greater numbers remain local stories. Can evangelicals of all races find a way forward?

Issue: "The one and the many," Sept. 20, 2014

The day after 18-year-old Michael Brown died from gunshot wounds inflicted by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., 3-year-old Knijah Bibb was playing in a bedroom at her cousin’s home in Landover, Md.

For the little girl who loved pink bows and Disney World, the Sunday afternoon in a Washington, D.C., suburb would be her last.

Police say an argument about clothing erupted at the Maryland home on Aug. 10. Officials say Davon Wallace, 25, left the home and returned with a gun. They say he fired several shots into the house, but his intended target wasn’t there. Instead, a bullet struck Bibb through her heart. She died later that day.

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The following weeks brought anguished funerals in both Missouri and Maryland. Thousands of family, friends, and activists gathered at Michael Brown’s funeral on a hot August morning near Ferguson. Brown’s father sat across from his son’s graveside casket in a sweat-soaked dress shirt, openly weeping.

Nearly 800 miles away, a smaller group of family and friends assembled in a Baptist church in Washington, D.C., for Bibb’s funeral. Mourners filed by a tiny white casket, where the toddler lay in a pretty white dress next to a soft teddy bear with a pink bow. “I was with my baby when she died,” Bibb’s mother said. “I tried to save her, but I just couldn’t keep her alive.”

It’s a tale of two sorrows, and it’s a story familiar in cities across the United States: Homicides end thousands of African-American lives each year. For black men ages 15-34, murder is the number one cause of death.

While Brown’s death brought international attention after riots and looting erupted in Ferguson over his shooting by white police officer Darren Wilson, dozens of other black deaths slip beneath the national radar every week.

Indeed, at least 100 African-Americans died by white police gunfire each year from 2005 to 2012, according to a USA Today analysis of the most recent FBI data on justifiable homicide by law enforcement. (Police killed at least 400 persons each year during the same period.) Accurate numbers are likely higher, since law enforcement officials self-report the statistics to the FBI, and not all police departments participate. No national database exists for easily classifying such information.

Meanwhile, the number of black assailants who kill black victims is even higher. In 2011, more than 6,000 African-Americans died by homicide. FBI data shows the vast majority were black men who died at the hands of other black men. 

While most white homicide victims die at the hands of white assailants, the FBI reports a disproportionate number of black homicide victims and offenders. Black homicides make up nearly 50 percent of murders, while African-Americans represent 13 percent of the population.

Some say raising that statistic takes away from a focus on Ferguson’s racial inequities and on Michael Brown’s homicide by a white police officer. They say shootings by police carry unique import because of the power officers wield. They speak of an American history riddled by white abuse of African-Americans, including by many in positions of authority. The national reaction to Ferguson showed a racial divide: More than 80 percent of African-Americans said Michael Brown’s death raised racial issues that merit discussion, while 47 percent of white Americans said the incident was getting more attention than it deserved.

Perhaps there’s room to discuss both. As many Americans—including black and white Christians—rightly grapple with the racial undercurrent and broader implications of Michael Brown’s death, there’s also an opportunity for those concerned about the sanctity of all lives to lament the other homicides cutting down thousands of African-American men, women, and children made in the image of God.

Many in the black community have called for more of this focus both in their own circles and beyond. When national media attention fixed on the Florida shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin by Hispanic George Zimmerman in 2012, President Barack Obama lamented the teen’s tragic demise: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”

During the previous weekend, 41 persons, mostly African-Americans, were shot in the president’s hometown of Chicago. One victim was a 6-year-old girl. T. Willard Fair of the Urban League of Greater Miami Inc., told The Daily Caller: “The outrage should be about us killing each other, about black-on-black crime. … Would you think to have 41 people shot [in Chicago] between Friday morning and Monday morning would be much more newsworthy and deserve more outrage?”

In Michael Brown’s case, cries went out for the arrest of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him. By early September, local officials—and the U.S. Department of Justice—said investigations were ongoing into the details of the shooting. A St. Louis prosecutor estimated he would finish presenting evidence to a grand jury by mid-October.

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