“In Concert With U.S. History”: America’s ‘Ferguson’ Confusion; Why The Problem Has Been Completely Misunderstood
Before I had a chance to peruse the Department of Justice’s long-awaited report on the killing of Michael Brown by former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, I had three predictions. The first was that the DOJ would find the city of Ferguson’s finances to be a house of cards built upon a foundation of anti-tax absolutism and white supremacy. That’s what the Washington Post’s Radley Balko found last September, and while I may not share Balko’s libertarian politics, he’s a good journalist, and that report — which described the criminal justice system in St. Louis County as one “guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment” — is an excellent piece of investigative work.
My second prediction about the DOJ report was that it would find the Ferguson Police Department to be rife with bigotry, which would manifest itself most conspicuously through emails filled with the kind of racist “jokes” that many Americans prefer to call “politically incorrect.” I guessed this not because I had any special insight into the office culture of the Ferguson PD, but because the embarrassing disclosure of racist jokes disseminated among employees by email has become a recurring media story throughout the Obama years. And if the problem is widespread enough to infect the self-styled Hollywood progressives at Sony, it’s hardly a stretch to figure it’s prevalent within a police force with as much historical baggage as Ferguson’s, too.
My third and final prediction, meanwhile, was that the media’s coverage of the DOJ report would devote much more attention to the second prediction (the racist emails) than the first (the systemic dysfunction); and that the response on the part of Ferguson’s civilian leadership would similarly concern itself more with “politically incorrect” jokes than with institutional corruption. I imagined that it would play out this way primarily because that’s how it always does. For a recent example, look no further than former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who saw a decade-spanning empire, which was always fundamentally built on an edifice of bigotry, crumble because he was caught saying what any right-minded person already assumed him to think.
Well, now that the DOJ report has finally been released, and now that I can look back with the benefit of hindsight, the verdict is in. And wouldn’t you know it, I went three-for-three. The report says the Ferguson PD is structurally driven to extort its African-American subjects to fill budget gaps. It also says the Ferguson PD’s email server was a like an online Comedy Cellar for the kind of racist jokes that middle schoolers tell one another when trying to be edgy. And the media has since devoted far more time and digital ink to cataloging jokes unworthy of even Carlos Mencia than it has explaining how a municipality could allow itself to so obviously rely on a system of race-based plunder.
What’s more, the early indications from authorities in Ferguson suggest that I was right to expect their response to focus primarily on the nasty jokes. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, last seen informing the folks at MSNBC that his city suffered from “no racial divide,” was quick to respond to the DOJ’s damning report — by firing or placing on administrative leave three officers involved with the racist emails. While he refused to answer any questions, Knowles also informed the media that the police department had recently hired three African-American women, was launching programs intended to build a stronger relationship with Ferguson’s African-American communities, and would institute mandatory diversity training for staff. Knowles also mentioned a few administrative tweaks intended to make the city’s criminal justice system less rapacious, but he also said “there is probably another side to all of [the DOJ report’s] stories.” Gotta hear both sides.
Before you start trying to make “Isquith” and “Nostradamus” rhyme, however, you should be aware of a few realities (besides that being impossible, I mean). For one thing, I’d strongly suspect my predictions were widely shared by those in the American media who focus on politics and race because, again, this story is fundamentally nothing new. For another, not everyone in the media chased the shiny red ball of racist emails, which aren’t even bad in themselves, anyway, but are simply too numerous. Lastly, while it’s very tempting to throw all of our culture’s shortcomings on these issues at the feet of the media — which, to be clear, is far from blameless — the press’s failures here are the result of larger, society-wide problems that are more deep-seated than our fondness for listicles or our penchant for calling others out.
Because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates implies in his response to the DOJ report, one of the major stumbling blocks separating the Fergusons of today from what a city in the United States is supposed to be is a level of historical ignorance and denial that makes confronting white supremacy head-on all but impossible. So long as the mainstream refuses to own up to the way race-based plunder is not contrary to but rather in concert with U.S. history, we will continue to understand racism as what happens when a bunch of mean cops sit around forwarding each other racist jokes. And until we’re willing to recognize that Ferguson is New York City is Los Angeles is Chicago and so on, fewer “politically incorrect” emails is all the change we’re going to get.
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, March 7, 2015
“Something Obscene About Civil Asset Forfeitures”: A Practice That Incentivizes Police To Steal From Law Abiding Citizens
You get pulled over by police. Maybe they claim you were seven miles over the speed limit, maybe they say you made an improper lane change. Doesn’t matter, because the traffic stop is only a pretext.
Using that pretext, they ask permission to search your car for drugs. You give permission and they search. Or you decline permission, but that doesn’t matter, either. They make you wait until a drug-sniffing canine can be brought to the scene, then tell you the dog has indicated the presence of drugs — and search anyway.
Now imagine that no drugs are turned up, but they do find a large sum of money and demand that you account for it. Maybe you’re going to a car auction out of state, maybe the money is a loan from a relative, maybe you just don’t trust banks. This is yet something else that doesn’t matter. The police insist that this is drug money. They scratch out a handwritten receipt and, without a warrant, without an arrest, maybe without even giving you a ticket for the alleged traffic violation, they drive away with your money.
You want it back? Hire a lawyer. You might be successful — in a year or two. Or you might not. Either way, it’s going to cost you and if the amount in question is too small, getting an attorney might not be practical. Would you spend $5,000 to (maybe) recover $4,000? No. So the police keep your money — your money — and you swallow the loss.
You find that scenario far-fetched? It’s not fetched nearly as far as you think.
Just since 2008, there have been over 55,000 “civil asset forfeitures” for cash and property totaling $3 billion. And for every actual drug dealer thus ensnared, there seems to be someone like Mandrel Stuart, who told the Washington Post last year that he lost his business when police seized $17,550, leaving him no operating funds. Or like Ming Tong Liu, who lost an opportunity to buy a restaurant when police took $75,000 he had raised from relatives for the purchase.
So one is heartened at last week’s announcement from Attorney General Eric Holder that the federal government is largely abandoning the practice.
The civil asset forfeiture has been a weapon in the so-called “War on Drugs” since the Nixon years. Initially conceived as a way to hit big drug cartels in the wallet, it has metastasized into a Kafkaesque nightmare for thousands of ordinary Americans. Indeed, the Post reports the seizures have more than doubled under President Obama.
Now the administration is pulling back. Not that Holder’s announcement ends the practice completely — state and local governments are free to continue it on their own. What ends, or at least is sharply curtailed, is federal involvement, i.e., a program called “equitable sharing,” under which seized property was “adopted” by the feds, meaning the case was handed off to Washington, which took 20 percent off the top, the rest going into the local treasury.
Ask your local law enforcement officials if they will be following Holder’s lead. And if not, why not? Because — and this should go without saying — in a nation with a constitutional guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures” there is something obscene about a practice that incentivizes police to, in essence, steal money from law-abiding citizens and leaves said citizens no reasonable recourse for getting it back.
Yet, this is precisely what has gone on for years without notice, much less a peep of protest, from we, the people — proving yet again that we the people will countenance great violence to our basic freedoms in the name of expedience. The insult compounding the injury? The expedience didn’t even work and has had no discernible impact on the use of illegal narcotics. To the contrary that usage has thrived under the “War on Drugs.”
Sadly, the Constitution has done less well.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist For The Miami Herald; The National Memo, January 21, 2015
“Common Victims”: Movements For Racial Justice And Economic Justice Could Converge To Form A Powerhouse For Change
What happens to a dream deferred?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
That was the poet Langston Hughes, in 1951. In that year, more than half a century ago, the most basic dreams of African Americans were deferred. Segregation was mandatory in the old South. Discrimination was legal everywhere in America, whether in housing, education, or employment. Blacks were not just separated, but isolated, marginalized, restricted to the worst jobs and most dilapidated neighborhoods, the most dismal schools.
For many, the racism just sagged, like a heavy load. It destroyed hope that hard work would be rewarded. The deferred dreams of that era seldom produced explosions, because the state had a very efficient system of terror. Blacks who resisted were likely to be lynched, jailed, or otherwise destroyed.
It is a testament to sheer grit, tenacity and courage that large numbers of blacks managed to get educations, raise families, start businesses, and enter professions at all—and demand inclusion in civic life.
The next 20 years were almost miraculous. From the small beginnings of local bus boycotts and sit-ins came the transformation of civil rights laws, finally giving African Americans full civic and legal equality, a hundred years after Lincoln.
The progress of the 1960s reflected a combination of the courage of the civil rights movements, the alliance with decent whites, and the leadership of an accidental president. Lyndon Johnson was able to prick the conscience of just enough of white America, to cajole and pressure just enough legislators, and to make a startling alliance between the White House and the radicals in the streets.
If you have never read or watched LBJ’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, you have missed a key moment in American history.
It helped that the economy was booming, so that economic progress for blacks did not equate to explicit sacrifices for whites (though whites did have to give up their role as a privileged caste). It helped that there were still liberal Republicans in that era, without whom none of the great civil rights laws could have passed.
So here we are, approaching Christmas 2014. Racism still taints the American dream. And unlike, say, in 1964 when there was a sense of a movement on the march with history on its side, it is hard to summon up optimism.
It is one thing when the government decrees that blacks can’t vote, can’t patronize restaurants, can’t apply for good jobs. That sort of racism shames everyone.
But when cops brutalize young black men, and prosecutors wink, and grand juries refuse to indict, that sort of racism is deeper in the social fabric and much harder to explicitly root out. It is encouraging to see outraged citizens on the march again, heartening that the marches includes whites as well as blacks and other groups.
Yet what sort of movement, what sort of policies, what sort of majority support in the country can we imagine that will fix what is broken?
New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose bi-racial son Dante sports an Afro, has spoken of the need to “literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.” That comment provoked outrage from the police.
Sunday, speaking on the ABC News program This Week DeBlasio threaded his way between outrage and support for law enforcement, declaring:
We have to retrain police forces in how to work with communities differently. We have to work on things like body cameras that would provide different level of transparency and accountability. This is something systemic. And we bluntly have to talk about the historic racial dynamics underlie this.
There have, in fact, been moments when thoroughly racist local police departments have been made over to discard their worst racist practices. The Los Angeles Police Department, after decades of strife and civic reform, is better than it once was. But it took a consent agreement with the Justice Department and five years of direct federal supervision.
President Obama, who did manage to summon up some outrage in the Trayvon Martin murder (“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”), has been relatively circumspect, appealing both for reform and for order. He is not close to calling for federal supervision of local police.
Obama is no LBJ. And in fairness to Obama, in the absence of stronger public demands, the federal government is not well-positioned to remake local grand juries and police departments.
We have gone utterly backwards since the 1960s, a time when the Justice Department and the courts vigorously interceded to protect the right to vote. Now, the right to vote is being taken away and rightwing courts are tying the Justice Department’s hands.
We need a broad movement once again, to force government’s hand. As Dr. King appreciated in the last year of his life, it needs to be a movement for economic justice as well as civil rights, a multi-racial movement. Only when there is common appreciation that whites and blacks are common victims of an economic system that delivers all the gains to the top do we have a prayer of mobilizing the whole nation to demand action.
By: Robert Kuttner, Co-Editor, The American Prospect, December 10, 2014
“A Culture Where Avoidable Force Becomes Inevitable”: Justice Department; Cleveland Police Use ‘Unnecessary’ Force
Cleveland police have routinely engaged in “unreasonable and unnecessary” force, including a half-hour police chase involving 100 officers that left two unarmed African-Americans dead when police mistook the car backfiring for gunshots and shot each of them more than 20 times, a Justice Department investigation revealed Thursday.
The probe, part of an ongoing series of “pattern or practice” investigations into the nation’s police departments, also found that Cleveland police often needlessly shot residents, struck them with head blows and subjected them to Taser weapons and chemical spray.
Taken together, the incidents in Ohio’s second-largest city, the Justice Department concluded, have led to a situation where “avoidable force becomes inevitable.”
Attorney General Eric Holder, in announcing the Cleveland findings a day after he opened a separate investigation into the chokehold death of an unarmed black man in New York, recommitted his office to the Obama administration’s Building Community Trust initiative.
The effort is designed to “foster strong, collaborative relationships between local police and communities they protect and serve,” the attorney general said.
In Cleveland, Holder said, the issues of police and community relationships are “complex and the problems longstanding.” But, he said, “we have seen in city after city where we have engaged that meaningful change is possible.”
Faced with the federal probe’s findings, Cleveland police and city officials have signed a statement of principles committing them to mending police-community relations. Holder said the plan will lead to a consent decree that would be “court-enforceable,” with an independent monitor to oversee improvements and ensure that reforms are made.
Similar agreements have been reached after Justice Department investigations into police departments in other communities in states including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana.
The Cleveland probe was opened after a local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, revealed in May 2011 that six officers accused of brutality had used force on 29 suspects during a two-year period.
By: Richard A. Serrano, The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, December 4, 2014
“The Scene Of The Crime”: Autopsy Results Aren’t Going To Answer The Essential Question: Why Did Michael Brown Have To Die?
In his account to investigators, Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson said Michael Brown charged him. Specifically, Wilson said Brown struggled for his gun during a scuffle in his police SUV and almost reached the trigger. After blocking his grab for the gun, Wilson fired two shots—hitting Brown in the hand—and fired again when, he says, Brown stopped running, turned around, and took another lunge.
On Wednesday, a new analysis of the official autopsy report—released by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—seemed to support this account. The newspaper asked two independent experts who aren’t involved in the investigation to review the evidence. The first, St. Louis County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Graham, says that the report “does support that there was a significant altercation at the car.” And while the report notes the lack of short-range gunpowder burns or stipple around Brown’s hands, Graham says, “Sometimes, when it’s really close, such as within an inch or so, there is no stipple, just smoke.”
One of the experts—Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist in San Francisco—was even more certain on the autopsy’s implications. It “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound,” she said. “If he had his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.” What’s more, she said that the autopsy didn’t support witnesses who claimed Brown was running away. “The wound to the top of Brown’s head would indicate he was falling forward or in a lunging position toward the shooter,” writes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a summary of her remarks.
But there’s a problem here. Melinek says she was misconstrued. “I’m not saying that Brown going for the gun is the only explanation. I’m saying the officer said he was going for the gun, and the right thumb wound supports that,” she later told MSNBC. “I have limited information. It could also be consistent with other scenarios. That’s the important thing. That’s why the witnesses need to speak to the grand jury and the grand jury needs to hear all the unbiased testimony and compare those statements to the physical evidence.”
That the autopsy is consistent with Wilson’s account is a godsend for the police officer. And to that end, there’s speculation that the autopsy was leaked as a prelude to news that Wilson would escape an indictment from the grand jury.
At the same time, it’s important to note the extent to which this autopsy agrees with one conducted in August by Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City. According to his autopsy, Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head. “This one here looks like his head was bent downward,” he said, referring to the wound at the top of Brown’s head. “It can be because he’s giving up, or because he’s charging forward at the officer.”
And both autopsies fit the opposing accounts from other witnesses. “[Wilson] reached out the window and tried to choke my friend. We were trying to get away, and he tried to pull my friend into the car,” said Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown, saw the whole encounter, and never claimed there wasn’t a fight at the police vehicle. The question, rather, is what precisely happened. Later, we learned of two witnesses who saw the shooting and filmed their near-instant reaction. “He had his f-ckin’ hands up,” said one of the men, echoing other reports.
The Justice Department is conducting its own autopsy, and it’s likely to fit the results of the previous ones. (It has also condemned this leak, calling it “irresponsible and highly troubling.”) Which is to say that—barring new evidence—we’re stuck with the facts we’ve had since August, none of which gives a conclusive answer to the key question in the case: Who started it? And even if it did—and even if Brown was at fault for the whole encounter—we’re still left with the other important question: Why did Wilson keep firing after Brown moved away?
At this point, any answer is tied tightly to your sympathies. Side with Michael Brown and the Ferguson protesters, and you’re likely to think Wilson overreacted or—at worst—actively abused his power. And if you support Darren Wilson, you’re just as likely to see an honest cop just defending himself from a dangerous aggressor.
Put another way, Ferguson is still thick with tension from Brown’s shooting, and if Wilson isn’t indicted, it could explode into a new round of protests. Indeed, it’s possible this is why Gov. Jay Nixon—who received low marks for his initial response—has announced a Ferguson Commission devoted to studying the social and economic conditions that led to the initial August protests. “The commission will be empowered to call on experts to address topics ranging from governance, poverty, education, and law enforcement,” said Nixon. “The commission will also recommend changes to make the region a ‘fairer place for everyone to live.’ ”
It’s a fine goal. But given the anger on the ground, it’s hard to believe that any commission—however well-meaning—could bring normalcy to Ferguson. For that, the people of Ferguson need accountability from the police, and on that score, all signs point to disappointment.
By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, October 23, 2014