Opinion

In Ferguson, a Tragically Familiar History Repeats

This is not the first, second, or even the 10th time that tragedies like those in Ferguson have occurred.

FERGUSON, MO - Demonstrators protesting Michael Brown's murder walk past tear gas released by police Aug. 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
National Journal
Aug. 19, 2014, 6:39 a.m.

Po­lice in Fer­guson, Mo., have cre­ated one of the greatest con­flu­ences of dis­astrous law en­force­ment our na­tion has seen in dec­ades. And if his­tory is any in­dic­at­or, it will hap­pen again un­less we re­form our na­tion’s law-en­force­ment policies now.

As the tra­gedies have mul­ti­plied—the fatal shoot­ing of an un­armed black teen­ager named Mi­chael Brown; the de­ploy­ment of mil­it­ary vehicles and rub­ber bul­lets to dis­perse pro­test­ers; the ar­rests and tear­gass­ing of journ­al­ists and cit­izens for ex­er­cising their con­sti­tu­tion­al rights of free as­sembly and speech—the cal­lous dis­reg­ard for hu­man dig­nity dis­played by the Fer­guson po­lice has raised alarms both na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Last week, as these tra­gedies began to un­fold, the United Na­tions was re­view­ing our na­tion’s com­pli­ance with the Con­ven­tion on the Elim­in­a­tion of All Forms of Ra­cial Dis­crim­in­a­tion, also known as CERD. CERD is an in­ter­na­tion­al treaty the United States rat­i­fied in 1994, form­ally com­mit­ting to re­duce ra­cial dis­crim­in­a­tion with­in our bor­ders. Trayvon Mar­tin’s moth­er and Jordan Dav­is’s fath­er were in Geneva telling their stor­ies of how ra­cial bi­as in our crim­in­al-justice sys­tem con­trib­uted to the re­cent shoot­ing deaths of their chil­dren. In­ter­na­tion­al ex­perts gathered in Geneva also had many ques­tions about the situ­ation in Fer­guson.

This is not the first, second, or even the 10th time that tra­gedies like those in Fer­guson have oc­curred. In just the few days fol­low­ing the shoot­ing in Fer­guson, New Or­leans po­lice shot Ar­mand Ben­nett, an un­armed 26-year-old black man, in the head. On the oth­er side of the coun­try, Los Angeles po­lice fatally shot Ezell Ford, an un­armed 25-year-old black man with a men­tal dis­ab­il­ity, three times. These deaths hap­pen reg­u­larly and con­tinu­ously. The ma­jor­ity do not draw the na­tion­al at­ten­tion be­stowed on Mi­chael Brown or the 1999 New York po­lice shoot­ing of Amadou Di­allo, but that alone doesn’t make them any less tra­gic or out­rageous.

Po­lice are charged with serving and pro­tect­ing the com­munity. But as the com­munity re­acted to this tragedy with a peace­ful demon­stra­tion of an­guish, the po­lice re­spon­ded with ex­cess­ive mil­it­ary-style force—treat­ing the demon­strat­ors as ad­versar­ies, not as neigh­bors. The wrong­headed de­cision to use tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets to dis­perse peace­ful demon­strat­ors, most of whom were people of col­or, stems from deep and tra­gic roots that in­clude the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Ala.

The linger­ing and tox­ic ra­cial dis­par­it­ies that have shaped our so­ci­ety have also dis­tor­ted our abil­ity to re­spond to them. If po­lice de­part­ments haven’t yet learned les­sons from Selma or New York City, we must take swift ac­tion to write them in­to law. Ra­cial pro­fil­ing is an in­ef­fect­ive law-en­force­ment prac­tice that vi­ol­ates the hu­man rights of the people tar­geted. There are con­crete steps that the Justice De­part­ment and Con­gress can take to out­law it.

Fed­er­al guid­ance from the Justice De­part­ment pro­hib­its some fed­er­al law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials from en­ga­ging in ra­cial pro­fil­ing some of the time. It does not ap­ply to state and loc­al po­lice, who are more likely to en­gage in routine law-en­force­ment activ­it­ies, such as the traffic and ped­es­tri­an stops that have led to re­cent shoot­ings. The guid­ance doesn’t pro­hib­it pro­fil­ing on the basis of re­li­gion (for in­stance, poli­cing that tar­gets Muslims and Sikhs), or na­tion­al ori­gin (for in­stance, poli­cing that tar­gets Mex­ic­ans or people of Middle East­ern des­cent). The Justice De­part­ment’s guid­ance also in­cludes broad and vaguely worded ex­emp­tions for “na­tion­al se­cur­ity” and “bor­der in­teg­rity,” mat­ters that render it en­tirely in­ad­equate to pro­tect a broad cross-sec­tion of com­munit­ies.

About five years ago, the Justice De­part­ment an­nounced an in­cre­ment­al step to­ward up­dat­ing this guid­ance by cre­at­ing a work­ing group of vari­ous agen­cies to re­view these con­cerns. Amer­ica is still wait­ing for the res­ults of this long over­due re­view.

When the re­view is re­leased, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should act on the work­ing group’s re­com­mend­a­tions im­me­di­ately. Con­gress could pass the End Ra­cial Pro­fil­ing Act, which would pro­hib­it the use of pro­fil­ing on the basis of race, eth­ni­city, na­tion­al ori­gin, or re­li­gion by all law-en­force­ment agen­cies. The bill has been in­tro­duced sev­er­al times by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. John Con­yers, D-Mich., but con­tin­ues to lan­guish without any ser­i­ous con­gres­sion­al ac­tion in either cham­ber.

We ap­plaud At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er for open­ing an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the shoot­ing. But mov­ing for­ward, the Justice De­part­ment should more pro­act­ively ex­er­cise its broad jur­is­dic­tion to in­vest­ig­ate, pro­sec­ute, and cut fund­ing to loc­al po­lice forces en­ga­ging in ex­cess­ive use of force.

Here is why: Pro­fil­ing res­ults in a loss of trust and con­fid­ence in law en­force­ment. In the in­cid­ents that claimed the lives of Brown, Ben­nett, Ford, and Di­allo, ra­cial pro­fil­ing ap­pears to have led to death. For­tu­nately, there are also proven steps that loc­al law en­force­ment can take to pre­vent these tra­gedies from re­cur­ring. For ex­ample, loc­al law en­force­ment can build re­la­tion­ships of trust with res­id­ents and hire of­ficers who live in the com­munit­ies they po­lice.

Those who can­not re­mem­ber the past are con­demned to re­peat it. His­tory may be re­peat­ing it­self yet again in Fer­guson, but we should do all we can to pre­vent these tra­gedies from con­tinu­ing to oc­cur.

Wade Hende­r­son is the pres­id­ent and CEO of the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Hu­man Rights, a co­ali­tion of more than 200 na­tion­al civil- and hu­man-rights or­gan­iz­a­tions.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. In­ter­ested in sub­mit­ting a piece? Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com with a brief pitch. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
7 REPUBLICANS ON STAGE
Carly Fiorina Will Not Be Allowed to Debate on Saturday
2 days ago
THE LATEST

ABC News has announced the criteria for Saturday’s Republican debate, and that means Carly Fiorina won’t be a part of it. The network is demanding candidates have “a top-three finish in Iowa, a top-six standing in an average of recent New Hampshire polls or a top-six placement in national polls in order for candidates to qualify.” And there will be no “happy hour” undercard debate this time. “So that means no Fiorina vs. Jim Gilmore showdown earlier in the evening for the most ardent of campaign 2016 junkies.

Source:
×