A New Day in Ferguson
Change is on the way in Ferguson.
Over the last 10 months Ferguson, Missouri has become the epicenter of the growing movement against police brutality and misconduct. The outrage after Michael Brown’s death sparked protests across the country, particularly in other cities with high-profile police shootings, investigations by the Department of Justice, and new elections. In less than one year, this small Missouri city became an example of how everyday citizens could fight back against institutional racism and affect substantive change. While we’ve seen signs of progress, it hasn’t come without serious challenges.
The Department of Justice released reports in March on its investigations into Darren Wilson’s use of deadly force against Michael Brown and the Ferguson Police Department (FPD). The first investigation found no evidence to disprove Wilson’s contention that he feared for his safety. It also revealed found that the statements given by Dorian Johnson (Witness 101), specifically the notion that Michael Brown was shot with his hands up in a sign of surrender, did not square with the forensic evidence and other witness testimony. The report found evidence to support Wilson’s testimony that there was a struggle in his vehicle for his gun and that Michael Brown was moving toward him when he fired the fatal shots. The findings in the DOJ report are not what people in the anti-police violence movement wanted to hear. Next to “black lives matter”, the slogan “hands up, don’t shoot” has become the most common rallying cry of protestors and allies across the country. The report’s findings don’t diminish the importance of the movement but they do serve as a reminder that the search for truth takes time. And sometimes what we find is complicated and doesn’t fit neatly into our agenda, regardless of how righteous it may be.
The second DOJ investigation into Ferguson police practices gave the public a glimpse into why tensions were running so high after Michael Brown was killed. The investigation found significant evidence to support the claims of Ferguson residents that the police force targets black residents. The DOJ report found that Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are driven revenue, through municipal fines and fees, rather than public safety. Officers from all ranks told investigators that revenue is stressed within the department and that the message comes from city leadership. The report also found that the municipal court uses its authority to “compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests.” The court also issued arrest warrants in response to unpaid fines resulting from minor violations such as traffic tickets or housing code violations. In fact, the DOJ found that over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants, a staggering number considering the city’s population is only about 21,000.
The actions of both the police and the courts were found to have a disproportionate impact on Ferguson’s black residents. African Americans, who comprise 67% of the city’s population, accounted for 93% of arrests made from 2012 to 2014. Blacks also accounted for 85% of vehicle stops and 90% of citations. The courts were no kinder to black Ferguson residents. Blacks were found to be 68% less likely than others to have their case dismissed by the court and 50% more likely to have their case lead to arrest warrant.
Ferguson law enforcement’s targeting of African Americans isn’t the only evidence of how city officials felt about black people. For those who only recognize racism when it comes in a klan robe or a through white person videotaped using the n-word, the DOJ report gives plenty to chew on as well. The report found that prominent Ferguson officials circulated racist emails that included references to a black woman’s abortion as a tool for crime prevention as well as one that compared President Obama to a chimpanzee.
The DOJ’s findings present a rare opportunity to see with such explicitness racism in both its institutional and personal forms. The racial animus demonstrated by the emails that were exchanged between city officials can be seen in the policies and practices of local law enforcement. Feeling comfortable enough to share racist jokes on government email, messages that were forwarded multiple times, paints the picture of public servants who forgot who they were supposed to be serving. These revelations led to a number of resignations and terminations, including the police chief, city manager, court clerk, and multiple police officers.
Last week Ferguson residents took another step toward change when they elected two African Americans to the city’s six-person city council, making it 50% black for the first time. The city had higher than normal turnout, presumably a result of the work of local activists and national attention on this election. No one can say for sure how these institutional changes will impact the everyday lives of Ferguson. Do they guarantee that another unarmed black teen won’t be shot by the police? No. But nothing really can. There’s nothing that guarantees any of us will never be the victim of a crime. But institutional change does provide an opportunity for a different type of Ferguson to emerge. One that uses the police department to protect and serve the citizens, not to generate and collect revenue. One where government officials don’t openly display their contempt for black people, either through personal bias or official policy. And one where the local government sees and serves all residents equally.