Want The Trouble in Ferguson to End?

A desire to heal emotional wounds is understandable, but it can also be a distraction. Police accountability is what really keeps the peace and makes us safe.

On Aug. 20, 2014, demonstrators pray outside of the Buzz Westfall Justice Center where a grand jury was expected to begin looking at the circumstances surrounding the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on Aug. 9. Despite the Brown family's continued call for peaceful demonstrations, police have clashed with protesters nearly every night in Ferguson since his death.
National Journal
Aug. 21, 2014, 1 a.m.

“If they re­fuse to hear us, we will make them feel us.” Those are the words of Sy­brina Fulton, the moth­er of slain un­armed teen Trayvon Mar­tin, in an open let­ter to the fam­ily of Mi­chael Brown.

They have par­tic­u­lar mean­ing to Con­stance Mal­colm, the moth­er of slain Bronx teen Ramar­ley Gra­ham; Col­lete Flanigan, moth­er of murdered Dal­las youth, Clin­ton Al­len; Mar­tinez Sut­ton, the broth­er of 22-year-old Rekiya Boyd in Chica­go; and count­less oth­ers. We know that they res­on­ate with the par­ents and neigh­bors of Mi­chael Brown in Fer­guson, Mo.

They should have par­tic­u­lar mean­ing to all of us. Un­for­tu­nately, they don’t.

A re­cent poll con­duc­ted by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter for People and the Press re­veals glar­ing ra­cial di­vi­sions in the way Amer­ic­ans view what I re­gard as the murder of Mi­chael Brown. Ac­cord­ing to the poll, 80 per­cent of blacks sur­veyed be­lieve Brown’s death raises or is con­nec­ted to ra­cial is­sues, while only 37 per­cent of whites also be­lieve that to be true. Sim­il­arly, 65 per­cent of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans say the po­lice have gone too far in re­spond­ing to the shoot­ing’s af­ter­math. Whites are di­vided. Some 33 per­cent say the po­lice have gone too far, while 32 per­cent agreed that “the po­lice re­sponse has been about right.”

What al­lows fatal po­lice shoot­ings of un­armed young black people to con­tin­ue un­checked is something per­vas­ive and ugly. In this coun­try, black bod­ies and lives are reg­u­larly de­val­ued and crim­in­al­ized.

This dy­nam­ic was made clear in 2013 and again this year when Flor­ida jur­ies failed to con­vict armed ci­vil­ians who cited a sense of grave danger when they shot and killed un­armed black teens.

Sim­il­ar sen­ti­ments have been glar­ingly re­vealed in New York City, where in 2011 alone the so-called Stop and Frisk policy al­lowed po­lice to stop 685,724 people, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights. Of those stopped, pat­ted down, and at least tem­por­ar­ily de­tained, 84 per­cent were black or Latino. New York’s po­lice man­aged to do so des­pite the fact that blacks com­prise only 23 per­cent of the city’s pop­u­la­tion and Lati­nos an­oth­er 29 per­cent. Sim­il­arly, as New York’s po­lice force has ramped up the so-called “Broken Win­dows” strategy—ag­gress­ively patrolling and poli­cing com­munit­ies in search of low-level crimes to al­legedly dis­cour­age more ser­i­ous ones—97,487 mis­de­mean­or ar­rests were made between Janu­ary and May of this year. Some 86 per­cent of those taken in­to cus­tody were black or Latino.

In much the same way that the ac­tions of jur­ies and po­lice de­part­ments around the coun­try have made plain just how little re­gard really ex­ists for so many people of col­or, so too do the dy­nam­ics in Fer­guson.

In the 2010 census, 29 per­cent of Fer­guson’s pop­u­la­tion was white and 67 per­cent Afric­an Amer­ic­an. Al­most one-quarter of Fer­guson’s total pop­u­la­tion lives be­low the poverty line, but 28 per­cent of the city’s Black pop­u­la­tion does the same. The po­lice de­part­ment in­cludes few­er than five black po­lice of­ficers, and white res­id­ents hold all the city’s ma­jor elec­ted of­fices.

The num­bers are clear. Fer­guson’s black res­id­ents have been sys­tem­ic­ally mar­gin­al­ized and dis­em­powered in a city where they com­prise the ma­jor­ity long be­fore a po­lice of­ficer shot and killed Mi­chael Brown. In that sense, the com­munity’s re­sponse to Mi­chael Brown’s death at the hands of a loc­al white po­lice of­ficer should have been pre­dict­able. Amer­ica is deeply at­tent­ive to black an­ger but only mar­gin­ally in­ter­ested in black deaths.

But the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity has be­gun to weigh in on the po­lice re­sponse to the situ­ation in Fer­guson. For this brief mo­ment, the con­tra­dic­tions between what the United States prac­tices and what it de­mands from oth­er gov­ern­ments across the world are glar­ing. This week, an Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment rep­res­ent­at­ive called on the United States to ex­er­cise re­straint to­wards Mis­souri protest­ors. Palestini­ans in Ga­za have sent mes­sages of sup­port and tips on hand­ling tear gas. U.N. Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon, has also called on called on our coun­try’s au­thor­it­ies to pro­tect of the rights of pro­test­ers in Fer­guson.

For those who can re­mem­ber, the im­ages com­ing out of Fer­guson look aw­fully sim­il­ar to those of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials sup­press­ing and con­tain­ing anti-Apartheid pro­test­ers in South Africa. Young South Afric­ans armed with stones, bottles and the like stood against a mil­it­ar­ized force equipped with ar­mored vehicles, auto­mat­ic weapons and tear gas. Like the long-op­pressed ma­jor­ity in South Africa, black people in Fer­guson simply want to live as hu­man be­ings.

What ex­actly do the protest­ors and those call­ing for justice in Fer­guson want?

The Or­gan­iz­a­tion for Black Struggle (OBS), a St. Louis-based non­profit so­cial justice or­gan­iz­a­tion and lead­ing force in Fer­guson, has set forth a num­ber of de­mands. (The fol­low­ing list has been ed­ited for clar­ity and length.)

  • A swift and im­par­tial De­part­ment of Justice in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to Mi­chael Brown’s shoot­ing death
  • The im­me­di­ate ar­rest of Of­ficer Dar­ren Wilson.
  • Ap­point an im­par­tial spe­cial pro­sec­utor who will take over the loc­al in­vest­ig­a­tion cur­rently led by St. Louis County Pro­sec­utor Robert Mc­Cul­lough.
  • The fir­ing of Fer­guson Po­lice Chief Thomas Jack­son.
  • The im­me­di­ate dees­cal­a­tion of the mil­it­ar­ized poli­cing of peace­ful protest­ors, pro­tec­tion of the rights of people to as­semble and peace­fully protest, and hold­ing law en­force­ment of­ficers ac­count­able for ex­cess­ive use of force on peace­ful protests.
  • Re­lease in­di­vidu­als who have been ar­res­ted while ex­er­cising their right to as­semble and peace­fully protest.

In a let­ter sent to the De­part­ment of Justice last week, The NAACP Leg­al De­fense and Edu­ca­tion­al Fund (LDF) also called on the na­tion’s top law en­force­ment agency to take four spe­cif­ic ac­tions.

  • Un­der­take a com­pre­hens­ive re­view of po­lice-in­volved as­saults and killings of un­armed in­di­vidu­als, with a fo­cus on the deaths of un­armed Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans;
  • Provide strong in­cent­ives for ra­cial bi­as train­ing and avoid­ing the use of force in DOJ grants made to law en­force­ment and oth­er state and loc­al agen­cies;
  • Hold po­lice of­ficers ac­count­able to the full ex­tent of the law if they vi­ol­ate it; and
  • En­cour­age the use of body-worn cam­er­as by po­lice.

Mod­els of po­lice ac­count­ab­il­ity are be­ing pushed in some parts of the coun­try. In 2013, Com­munit­ies United for Po­lice Re­form, a di­verse New York City-based po­lice re­form or­gan­iz­a­tion, co­ordin­ated a com­pre­hens­ive cam­paign. In Janu­ary, their work lead the New York City Coun­cil to over­ride a may­or­al veto and pass the Com­munity Safety Act. The Com­munity Safety Act in­cludes an en­force­able ban on dis­crim­in­at­ory pro­fil­ing by the New York Po­lice De­part­ment. New York City also now has its first ever Po­lice De­part­ment In­spect­or Gen­er­al, based in the city’s De­part­ment of In­vest­ig­a­tions.

 A de­sire to heal emo­tion­al wounds is un­der­stand­able, but it can of­ten times be a dis­trac­tion. Healthy re­la­tion­ships in this con­text are rooted in the re­spons­ible use of power, leg­al be­ha­vi­or and ac­count­ab­il­ity. If that dy­nam­ic is not present, any heal­ing con­ver­sa­tion can be mis­lead­ing and short-lived. Com­munit­ies must then rely on the in­ten­tions and sup­posed good­will of the po­lice force. An un­due fo­cus on feel­ings can make find­ing and us­ing re­spect­ful lan­guage the re­form ef­fort’s primary goal rather than real pub­lic safety.

Com­munit­ies must have the abil­ity to greatly in­flu­ence—if not de­term­ine—the policies and prac­tices of law en­force­ment agen­cies poli­cing their com­munit­ies. That is what makes any po­lice/com­munity re­la­tion­ship-build­ing ef­fort genu­ine and ef­fect­ive.

Cit­ies across the coun­try are watch­ing Fer­guson and, hope­fully, tak­ing notes on what not to do. Gov­ern­ment agen­cies at every level can re­cog­nize that vi­ol­ence and force do not foster safety, healthy av­en­ues for com­mu­nic­a­tion, or build ac­count­ab­il­ity in­to the sys­tem. And if they do not re­cog­nize these les­sons, the truth of Fulton’s words will soon be un­der­scored on the streets of an­oth­er Amer­ic­an city.

Lum­umba Ak­in­wole-Ban­dele is an or­gan­izer with the Mal­colm X Grass­roots Move­ment and serves as the Seni­or Com­munity Or­gan­izer for the NAACP Leg­al De­fense Fund (LDF).

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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