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We Are Not Darren Wilson

But the view from Africa kind of makes it look like we are.
Ferguson protest in Palo Alto, California. (Photo: paulgeorge/Flickr)

Ferguson protest in Palo Alto, California. (Photo: paulgeorge/Flickr)

This post was produced in partnership with Beacon Reader as part of a crowd-funded reporting project, “After Ebola Comes Hunger.” Read more about our support for this project, and pledge your support here.

Two months ago, it felt like America had a serious identity conflation problem. Amid the Ebola hysteria, people confused Ebola-afflicted Africans with any other African. A Nigerian girl was barred from school out of fear of Ebola contagion; a stadium crowd taunted a juvenile soccer player from Africa by braying “Ebola, Ebola!” at him. Meanwhile, the country faced its own dark scourge—and here, the conflation of identity was intentional. Cops assigned to the Ferguson protests wore bracelets that said “I am Darren Wilson,” the name of the cop who killed Michael Brown.

By mid-October, Ebola cases faded in America and police stations banned the bracelets. After the Eric Garner killing failed to lead to an indictment, the protesters’ message—that cops’ lack of individual accountability was an important part of why killings occur—gained support from even right-wing TV hosts and a noted war criminal.

"I think America is increasingly becoming unsafe for blacks, and hope that society doesn’t degenerate into an apartheid South Africa of sorts!"

Throughout this ordeal, Americans have been quick to identify how they must look to outsiders. An article on what the coverage of the police violence protests would look like if the country weren’t our own nearly went viral; an Ebola bit by a South African comedian on the Daily Show did. As I departed for Africa, I wondered if Ferguson was our Ebola—a moment when people far away saw every American as afflicted with violence, in rather the same way we misidentified all Africans with Ebola infection for a time. So I asked.

I sought a range of opinions from contacts I made while living in Ghana and teaching an international graduate school class in Bangladesh, which included students from five African nations. This was not a scientific survey, and these responses aren’t necessarily representative of any particular country or place in Africa. But they certainly deliver a different perspective on how our country is perceived from the outside.

Of the five people I interviewed, everyone had heard of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests, and most mentioned Eric Garner, too. The basic story of American police violence has spread into media outlets worldwide.

The collective mood is glum. “It’s absurd that [the violence] has been occurring consistently over the years,” says Michael Jonga, a public health professional from Uganda. “I think Martin Luther King's dream should have been fulfilled by now,” adds Patrick MacAidoo, a former co-worker of mine from Ghana, who calls the situation “very sad.” Others, like Edgar Kagumba from Uganda, call it “very disturbing.”

Overall, their impression of the violence is similar to the viewpoint of many Americans. “I am not impressed with the way the state administrators handled the whole situation. They seem to protect their own,” Jonga says. Hussein Dossajee, a doctor from Kenya, agrees. “The truth will probably never be told until much later.... [But] why six shots were fired is something that needs to be explained.”

My respondents seemed to understand the chronic nature of the violence. “This is already a pretty racially charged society and it is bound to flare up,” Dossajee says, in a comment that sounds like this satire but is entirely sincere. Jonga admits to holding a dim view of America in general: “My opinion has always been that American people have lots of double standards and sometimes act selfishly to serve their interests.”

Kagumba is openly fearful. “I think America is increasingly becoming unsafe for blacks, and hope that society doesn’t degenerate into an apartheid South Africa of sorts!”

Ghanaians are more willing to give the benefit of the doubt—perhaps a reflection of their own uncommonly peaceful national history. MacAidoo thinks that, police bracelets notwithstanding, we are mostly not Darren Wilson. “I do not believe this is a clear case of a general racism.... This has to do with wrong cultural orientation against the black people by some selected white policemen in the police department.”

I ask Emmanuel Darkwa, a public health professional from Accra, Ghana, if the news of white policemen killing black men has damaged his opinion of white people in general. He says, “[At] first yes. But ... I think through the issues before making any conclusions.” He adds that people he knows don’t view all Americans as alike: “The feeling is that some states are very fond of racial discrimination and abuse whiles others are perceived to be a nice place to go to. That’s what people back home think of.”

Jonga, for all his negative feelings about America generally, has a surprisingly progressive take on solving police violence in America. “The cops who kill people are not monsters, but people who are struggling with too much, and they need ... a holistic psychiatric intervention,” he says, sounding like America’s violence interrupters. And he adds that police owe their victims the same consideration: “I think the police should protect the citizens even when they are acting in unreasonable manners ... since the victims would be persons who need psychiatric help and not bullets to their demise.”

The irony of the situation was not lost upon my Ugandan and Ghanaian friends. “I feel very disappointed in the judicial and executive systems of America. I thought this first world country knew better and must show the way,” MacAidoo says.

“America is pre-occupied with setting standards for China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Africa; for the world,” Kagumba adds. “Standards that are too high to attain, even for itself.... When America fails to practice what it preaches, it loses its moral authority. It loses its relevance on the global stage.”