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.

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