Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
November 17, 2014

The Ferguson Bigger Picture: Tokenism at Best

Ferguson Chief Jackson 1

FergusonChiefJackson 2

Chief Jackson 3

Chief Jackson 4

These photos were all taken August 15th,the day Darren Wilson’s name was made public as the officer who shot Michael Brown back on August 9th. Note how the two black officers, primarily the woman, are shadowing or fronting Chief Jackson over the course of the media event.

Chief Ferguson Sgt Dilworth

The title of this photo at StLouisToday.com, featuring Sgt. Harry Dilworth, read: “Black Ferguson Officer Offers His Take.”

In the three months since the shooting of Michael Brown catapulted Ferguson into the international spotlight, I’ve been curious about the PR pictures of Jackson featuring the force’s black officers. According to Politi-fact, it’s not clear if Ferguson has three black officers or four. According to Jackson, by way of the LA Times, it’s 3 out of 53 or 5.6 percent in a town that is 67% black.

That LAT article offered a few more statistics:

Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white. Of the six City Council members, one is black. The local school board has six white members and one Latino….

Blacks in Ferguson are twice as likely to be stopped by police as whites, according to an annual report on racial profiling by the Missouri attorney general. Last year, 93% of arrests following car stops in Ferguson were of blacks. Ninety-two percent of searches and 80% of car stops involved blacks, the report said.

What concerns me about Ferguson and the next stage of upset, a huge contingent of journalists and photojournalists already on the scene, is how much or little fate of Officer Wilson will have on the underlying problem of ownership in Ferguson. In the social and visual gap, we’ve seen photo ops, officers from different jurisdictions as well as black leaders and politicians on the scene.

Ferguson reinforcements

Here is a photo of reinforcements brought in from other police departments as the protests escalated. If the non-plussed facial expressions stood out to editors and the photo interjects more diversity, it only obscures the demographic issue.

Holder Johnson Ferguson

And then, there was this “feel good” photo of Eric Holder and Ron Johnson, the former Ferguson resident from the Missouri State Highway Patrol who, in charge temporarily, managed to calm things down for a couple of weeks. The photo was taken in late August in Florrissant. In the context of black representation, however, it highlights both men as imports.

With all eyes on Ferguson to find out if Darren Wilson will be indicted for shooting Michael Brown, what these photos address is perhaps a more intractable problem: the enduring lack of representation and the symbolism in its place.

(photo 1: Scott Olson/Getty Images caption: Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson leaves the parking lot of a gas station, which was burned during rioting, after he announced the name of the Ferguson police officer responsible for the August 9, shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 15, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. The officer was identified as Darren Wilson, a six year veteran of the police department. Brown’s killing sparked several days of violent protests in the city.photo 2 & 3: Lucas Jackson/Reuters caption: Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson departs after announcing the name of the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown, Aug. 15, 2014. caption 3: Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson (C) walks away from a media availability in Ferguson, Mo on Aug. 15, 2014. photo 4: Reuters photo 5: Christian Gooden/Post-Dispatch caption: Sgt. Harry Dilworth (left) of the Ferguson Police Department talks to his chief Thomas Jackson on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Dilworth says that since the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests, he, as one of the city’s four black police officers, has received more hostile reaction from some members of the community. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com. photo 6: Huy Mach / St. Louis Post-Dispatch caption: A crowd is stopped by police as it tries to reach the spot where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., on Saturday.photo 7: Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images caption: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (L) talks with Capt. Ron Johnson, right, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake’s Place Restaurant in Florrissant, Missouri.

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