The Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson
by Travis Atria
On March 4, the Department of Justice released the results of a wide-ranging study on the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, a city that needs no introduction. The report is harrowing. What it says about America today is more harrowing, and we will deal with that in a moment.
First, to the report. In short, it “revealed a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law.”
But there is so much more. The mind reels trying to catalog it. Take, for example, the finding that Ferguson law enforcement is essentially a moneymaking scheme, with the cops and courts in a sort of reverse Robin Hood role, stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. As the report has it, “The court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements. The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals. ”
It should come as no surprise that African Americans, especially poor ones, bear the brunt of this unlawful policing, since it was ever thus in America. Take, for example, one African American woman with a case from 2007 that is still pending. According to the report, “on a single occasion, she parked her car illegally. She received two citations and a $151 fine, plus fees. The woman, who experienced financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years, was charged with seven Failure to Appear offenses for missing court dates or fine payments on her parking tickets between 2007 and 2010. For each Failure to Appear, the court issued an arrest warrant and imposed new fines and fees. From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking. Court records show that she twice attempted to make partial payments of $25 and $50, but the court returned those payments, refusing to accept anything less than payment in full . . . As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.”
Think about that the next time some talking head vilifies people on welfare. Think of that reverse welfare, a robbery that has roots that extend back to Jamestown and the beginning of America.
Think also about these numbers, which again come from the government report: “African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers . . . African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search. African Americans are more likely to be cited and arrested following a stop regardless of why the stop was initiated . . . FPD appears to bring certain offenses almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.”
It is a rare thing when simply quoting large chunks of a government report is more damning than any original writing could be, but these are rare times indeed. In fact, the report condemns the Ferguson PD so dispassionately and so completely, almost nothing else needs to be said.
For instance, you could say that Ferguson police officers are a cancer on their community, acting like an invading army with no respect for the Constitution or even basic humanity. Or, you can just quote this passage from the report: “Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
The entire report, which can be read here, is almost impossible to get through because it is chock full of stories like this: “In the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African-American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a Ferguson public park. An officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification. Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer also asked to search the man’s car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver’s license. Another charge was for not wearing a seatbelt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in his possession. The man told us that, because of these charges, he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years.”
Now think of all the people who donated money to help the cops pay their court fees in the Michael Brown case, or all the people on social media who immediately gave them the most full-throated defense. Think of the levels of delusion in this country that would cause so many to not know and not care that their own countrymen are being menaced and killed by the very people who are supposed to protect them. Think of how many people scolded the rioters, again not knowing or not caring that this state-sanctioned brutality has raged for more than a century (and before that was slavery). Then read this, from the report: “Nearly 90% of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans. In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American.”
And this: “Our investigation indicates that this disproportionate burden on African Americans cannot be explained by any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law . . . We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson . . . including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”
There is much, much more in the report that deserves to be read and understood, but for now, take two more examples to heart. First, the report’s finding that, “Police and other City officials, as well as some Ferguson residents, have insisted to us that the public outcry is attributable to ‘outside agitators’ who do not reflect the opinions of ‘real Ferguson residents.’ ”
Note that this is the exact same language used by slave masters after slave rebellions, as well as by racist Southern governors during the Civil Rights protests. That the language has not changed shows that the mindset and reasoning has also not changed. In other words, if Bull Connor was still alive, he’d feel right at home in America today.
Second, and finally, take this argument, which has been made so many times by those who refuse to admit or understand the true depth of injustice that has always been a part of American race relations: “City officials have frequently asserted that the harsh and disparate results of Ferguson’s law enforcement system do not indicate problems with police or court practices, but instead reflect a pervasive lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among ‘certain segments’ of the community.”
“Personal responsibility” is a favorite rallying cry for many who side with the police in these matters. It is telling, however, that even a government report can’t help but call these people on their bullshit. The report reads, “Even as Ferguson City officials maintain the harmful stereotype that black individuals lack personal responsibility—and continue to cite this lack of personal responsibility as the cause of the disparate impact of Ferguson’s practices—white City officials condone a striking lack of personal responsibility among themselves and their friends. Court records and emails show City officials, including the Municipal Judge, the Court Clerk, and FPD supervisors assisting friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and themselves in eliminating citations, fines, and fees.”
Now we get to the truly hard part where we turn our eyes from Ferguson to the mirror. It is shameful, or at least too easy, to dismiss these as being simply Ferguson’s problems. Ferguson is an emblem. There is scarcely a city in America where racial injustice hasn’t happened or isn’t still happening. Ferguson is a symptom of a much larger American disease—the disease of white supremacy, under which delusion this country was founded. That statement, of course, is bound to provoke heated reactions, but it is a matter of historical record, and until we can admit it, we will never move on. It is the same disease that extinguished nearly all indigenous people in North America, the same one that brutalized and annexed Hawaii, the same one that drove Europe to murder and rape its way through Africa and the Caribbean. It is the same disease that led the highest court in this land to say Black people had no rights which the White man was bound to respect. It is an ancient disease, and attempts to cure it have, as yet, been half hearted.
Even as I write that, I realize how boring those claims sound. The arguments against Western civilization have been repeated ad nauseum for decades. The problem is, the arguments have done nothing to change the power, and until the power is changed, the arguments must be made again and again.
What the DOJ outlines in Ferguson could have happened in 1914 just as easily as 2014. That uncomfortable and undeniable fact should set us all on edge, because it contains within it an even more uncomfortable and undeniable fact: America has never treated African Americans like citizens or even like individuals. Despite the federal government’s grudging attempts to protect them with the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act (policies that were enacted but rarely enforced), a bloody gulf has always separated America’s stated beliefs and our actions. The hostility our country has flooded upon its Black citizens defies logic. The hostility that still floods forth defies humanity.
As a White man, I cannot truly understand what it feels like to be on the short end of that stick, but I have a duty to educate myself and fight it. We all do. Not for Black people—they can fight their own battles—but for ourselves. As many thinkers have noted, to deny someone else’s humanity is to deny one’s own humanity. I am fighting for my humanity. I am fighting for the promise of America, which has been spoken more than honored.
I am fighting for my very soul.
Travis Atria has written many features for Wax Poetics, including Smokey Robinson, KRS-One, Erykah Badu, Bobby Womack, Lamont Dozier, Solomon Burke, Billy Cox, Nas, Janelle Monae, Swamp Dogg, and the upcoming Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions cover story.
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