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US riots put spotlight on country's racial divide

By Arun Kumar

Washington, Aug 13 (IANS) Three days of protests, rioting and looting in a small US town sparked by the police killing of an unarmed black teenager has put the spotlight on the persistent racial divide in America.

Ferguson, a predominantly African-American city of some 21,000 people northwest of St. Louis, Missouri, in midwestern US, has been turned into a virtual war zone since Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by the police on Saturday, according to media reports.

A peaceful vigil on Sunday was followed by rioting and looting that has led to 47 arrests. With unrest continuing for the third day Tuesday, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.

The Federal Aviation Administration has banned flights over Ferguson airspace “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities.”

The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown has gone viral on Twitter, where young people of colour are protesting Brown’s killing and posting images of themselves to object to the way young black men and women are portrayed by mass media, according to Newsweek.

Brown’s shooting is the latest recent, high-profile incident of an African American dying at the hands of police, as the Time magazine noted. African-Americans, who are close to 40 million, comprise 13 percent of the US population of 310 million.

On Aug 5, a 22-year-old holding a BB gun inside an Ohio Walmart was fatally shot by officers after allegedly failing to drop the weapon. Last month in New York City, Eric Garner died mid-arrest after allegedly being placed in a chokehold by police officers responding to a nuisance call.

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teen was fatally shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in 2012. Citing safety concerns, police in Ferguson Tuesday said they won’t release the name of the officer who fired the shots.

The case revolves around an altercation that involved Brown, the officer and a third person, CNN reported. Police say the incident reportedly included a struggle over a gun in the officer’s police vehicle, where at least one shot was fired; some witnesses say they don’t agree with the official account. In the end, Brown died in the street after being shot multiple times.

As tensions mounted, President Barack Obama issued a statement giving his condolences to Brown’s family and urged Americans, “to remember this young man through reflection and understanding.”

“We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,” he said.

Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who lives near Ferguson, told CNN that racial tensions in the suburb aren’t unique to Ferguson but part of a larger and wider frustration that has been worsening over time in the area.

In an opinion piece on CNN Iris Baez,the mother of Anthony Baez, who was killed by a New York Police Department officer’s use of a chokehold in 1994, wrote “these cases and many more reveal our country’s systemic criminalization and devaluing of black and brown lives.”

Baez, a member of the Justice Committee in New York and a longtime activist for accountability and justice in police brutality cases, said police-community relations can only start to improve when individual officers who abuse civilians’ rights are held accountable with a zero-tolerance policy for police brutality.

“Anything less is just rhetoric, and I fear that these unjust deaths will continue with more families and communities suffering the same pain,” she wrote.

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