Ferguson Part Two: What Now?

Last week, I posted some thoughts on the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.

Reading the document made me feel sick, disgusted, and generally led me to a state of disbelief. It needed some time to sink into my bones for me to really understand, deep down, the level of horror that those many pages contained. The biggest question that cycled through my brain was, “How is this happening in America in 2015?”

Last week was also the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Thousands of people, including President Obama, came out to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama to remember the violence that state troopers inflicted on peaceful protestors fifty years ago.

Fifty years.

Again: “How is this happening in America in 2015?”

So what now? How can we work towards change, both as a nation and individually?

As a start, the changes outlined in the Dept. of Justice report need to be made, not only in Ferguson where they have already begun to reform the city, but nationwide. I won’t pretend to be an expert on police departments or training, but it is increasingly obvious that the tension between minority populations and police officers are not unique to Ferguson. In his speech last month, F. B. I. Director Comey spoke about the inherent biases we all have but stated that police departments specifically need “to design systems and processes” to keep stereotyping out of law enforcement.

Racial bias has been shown to exist across the country–it reveals itself in the job market, housing opportunities, and even in the doctor’s office. However, as people in positions of authority, it should be a requirement for police officers to actively fight against stereotyping and biases to ensure that they treat all people equally as they enforce the law.

So what would these “systems and processes” look like? As the Justice Dept. suggests–explicit officer training focused on the negative effects of stereotypes and bias, more oversight from trained supervisors who are equipped to recognize and respond to discriminatory practices, increased community partnership, hiring a more diverse force, etc. Essentially, common sense practices that will make a difference and shift the focus of policing from producing a profit back to protecting and serving. I hope that these suggestions are taken to improve policing across the nation. But we, as a people, need to use our freedom of speech to hold departments accountable when acts of injustice occur.

But what about the widespread racial bias? Is there anything we can do?

Eradicating racial bias starts on an individual level, which is why it is so hard to root it out of society as a whole. But that personal journey is where we must all begin. I can’t write anyone else’s journey, but here are five things I know that I want to change about my own approach to racial bias after reading the investigation report.

  1. need to do better to understand systems of privilege. After spending years studying my white privilege, it is clear that I am still on the journey to understanding all of its ramifications. I need to continue to read about it, challenge my assumptions, and examine the systems of privilege at work in everyday life.
  2. I need to diversify my media. I need to seek out alternate perspectives from people who have different experiences, (like this insightful article) so that I can change that instinct in us all to otherize and instead seek to relate.
  3. need to know more. Sure, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on history. I took AP classes in high school. I’ll read the occasional biography. I enjoy historical movies. I know how to lose a couple hours perusing wikipedia. But is that “pretty good grasp” good enough? Hell no. This is in part because the aspects of history that address racial discrimination are not the most prevalent special on the History channel. War dramas where we are the heroes? You can probably find that on some channel 24/7. But documentaries about the slave trade? The brutal road toward civil rights? The violence that erupted when schools were desegregated? You have to dig deeper to learn about the things that many people would like to pretend never happened. I need to dig deeper.
  4. need to reserve my judgment for when I know the facts. Supported by a media that is more concerned in getting news out fast and less concerned about true reporting, I can jump to conclusions before the full story is clear. Just this past week, a shooting occurred in Ferguson. Initial reports identified the shooter as a protestor who was targeting police officers, but as more and more information has become available, conflicting accounts have risen. The man claims that he was never involved in the protests and that he was not aiming for the officers. In cases like this, I need to be patient and wait and hear all sides of the story.
  5. need to keep parading. This means lots of things to me–pointing out discriminatory remarks and sharing my discomfort with them when I hear them from friends or family, sharing resources about privilege that I find helpful with others, analyzing and working against racial biases that come up in my job, supporting community service efforts by volunteering more, and feeling empowered enough to write letters to both media sources and government officials when I see bias occurring.

Look forward fifty years. What do you want to see? Now what can you do to make it happen?

10 Quotes from Female Authors to Celebrate International Women’s Day

When I look back on the authors that changed my life, I can honestly say that most of them have been women.

Mary Shelley. Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf. Emily Dickinson. Zora Neale Hurston. Anne Frank. Margaret Atwood. The list goes on.

There are so many women whose words I have held close to my heart. From thoughts about compassion and empathy to encouragements of strength and action against injustice, the following quotes are just a few gems that I continue to return to for inspiration and hope.IMG_1366 - Version 2

1. “Wear your heart on your skin in this life.” Sylvia Plath

2. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt

3. “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.” Maya Angelou

4. “Why shall I wait for someone else? Why shall I be looking to the government, to the army, that they would help us … for them to help me. Why don’t I raise my voice? Why don’t we speak up for our rights?” Malala Yousafzai

shadow5. “I am a person who believes in asking questions, in not conforming for the sake of conforming. I am deeply dissatisfied – about so many things, about injustice, about the way the world works – and in some ways, my dissatisfaction drives my storytelling.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

6. “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison

7. “Let me listen to me and not to them.” Gertrude Stein

8. “Where we come from in America no longer signifies. It’s where we go, and what we do when we get there, that tells us who we are.” Joyce Carol Oates

9. “What keeps you going isn’t some fine destination but just the road you’re on, and the fact that you know how to drive.” Barbara Kingsolver

10. “We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already.” J.K. Rowling

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Have another quote from a female author that you find meaningful? Share the love in the comments!

Justice Department Finds FPD Practices Racially Biased AND Unconstitutional

[DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING POST IS SOLELY ABOUT THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT’S FINDINGS IN THEIR INVESTIGATIONS IN FERGUSON, MO., AND ALL COMMENTARY ADDRESSES THE SITUATION IN FERGUSON ALONE.]

To everyone who said Ferguson wasn’t about race, the Justice Department begs to differ. Yesterday, the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division just released their investigation into the Ferguson Police Department–and it is worse than we imagined.

Only a few months ago, city streets across America and the avenues of the internet alike ignited in protest over the death of Michael Brown, a teenager killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. As we all know, Wilson was not indicted for the teen’s death, leading much of the nation to rise into an uproar.blacklivesmatter

But had justice been served? Was Brown profiled and his civil rights violated? Or, as the court found, were Darren Wilson’s actions justified, excused by self-defense? The opinions were many and almost everyone with a social media account took to their preferred platform to speak their minds. We were a whole nation involved in a heated conversation and even captured the attention of the world at large. Many international news stations covered the story constantly, using it as evidence of America’s inherent racism and inability to police itself.

I saw a lot of negativity, hate, and blatant racism on my Facebook newsfeed in those days. It made me furious. I acknowledge that I am one tiny person in the large sea that this event has affected, but I can honestly say that the conversation around Ferguson changed my life. One particularly upsetting comment I read targeting black children struck a nerve, fueling my fire to return my career to the world of educational nonprofit work (I now manage education services for at-risk students). It also inspired me to start this blog.

Meanwhile, the case took on a meaning larger than itself–it grew to represent the reality of race relations in America and shed light on police brutality. Through it all, the citizens of Ferguson protested, and more stories came out about how the police had treated minority community members unfairly for years.

Now, we have the final word. Yesterday, March 4th, the Justice Department released two reports, one on the Michael Brown shooting and one investigating the general practices of the FPD.

Again, the investigation into the shooting did not find enough evidence to indict Officer Wilson with criminal charges.

“Even if Wilson was mistaken in his interpretation of Brown’s conduct, the fact that others interpreted that conduct the same way as Wilson precludes a determination that he acted with a bad purpose to disobey the law. The same is true even if Wilson could be said to have acted with poor judgement in the manner in which he first interacted with Brown, or in pursuing Brown after the incident at the SUV. These are matters of policy and procedure that do not rise to the level of a Constitutional violation and thus cannot support a criminal prosecution.”

Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson

Though we all must accept the investigation’s findings, the overall story doesn’t really stop there.

Ferguson Day 6, Picture 53

In the second report, the Justice Department reveals the ugly innards of the FPD and explores the racially-biased policies of the city’s officials at large. I spent last night reviewing the report because I do think it is important to get the information straight from the source and avoid media bias. You can read this post and commentary to find the answers to the five most burning questions I had or read the full report for yourself. I have included page numbers on all quotes so that if you have doubts about my usage, you can check out the context firsthand.

1. What negative practices, if any, were at work within the FPD?

“FPD’s approach to law enforcement, shaped by the City’s pressure to raise revenue, resulted in a pattern and practice of constitutional violations” (p.15).

Aha–from “Protect and Serve” to “Fine and Collect.” The resounding message was that the FPD valued money over public safety. Further proof? “Officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single [traffic] stop” (p.14). Sigh. But–it wasn’t all on individual police officers. Following the example of the City Manager and the Police Chief, this culture was also encouraged by their immediate supervisors, who imposed disciplinary measures for those who did not issue enough citations, and their job performance evaluations, which included a large emphasis on meeting a high citation benchmark each month.

This makes me wonder–when cops are explicitly pressured by city officials to make money rather than protect citizens, can we still consider them public servants?

When they regularly violate the constitutional rights they are supposed to be defending, I’d have to say no.

“Officers violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force. Officers frequently infringe on residents’ First Amendments rights, interfering with their right to record police activities and making enforcement decisions based on the content of individuals’ expression” (p. 15).

Even scarier? The Justice Department also found the FPD’s use of force to be unconstitutional, discovering a pattern of frequent taser and canine use over less harmful force practices. They also revealed that these unnecessary measures disproportionately affected African-American citizens (90% of all use of force was for this demographic group) and were even employed on people with disabilities and young students (p.28).

2. How did the officers view the citizens of the communities they served?

“Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue” (p. 2).

So, in their minds, it’s not like they were taking money from regular citizens, but potential offenders and criminals.

Like, for example, the gentleman who was sitting in his car one day. He couldn’t have been an innocent man getting some cool AC after a basketball game on a public court (which he was); instead, he must have been a pedophile looking for trouble. True story: an officer approached the man, accused him of being a child predator, commanded him to get out of the car to perform a pat down, then wanted to search the man’s car. The man objected–A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT–and was then arrested at gunpoint and held on eight charges. The most unbelievable one? ‘Making a False Declaration’–because he initially identified himself as his nickname instead of his full name, like “Ben” for “Benjamin.” The man lost his job because of the charges.

The findings are simple yet harsh: To most officers, people stopped being citizens worthy of respect and instead turned into dollar signs or potential threats.

3. What evidence is there of racial bias?

There is so much a single quote doesn’t cover it. From blatantly racist emails that were circulated throughout the police department (find a more readable summary of them here) to the overwhelmingly disproportionate arrests of African American residents, the bias of stereotyping ran rampant in the FPD.

This evidence of bias and stereotyping, together with evidence that Ferguson has long recognized but failed to correct the consistent racial disparities caused by its police and court practices, demonstrates that the discriminatory effects of Ferguson’s conduct are driven at least in part by discriminatory intent in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment” (p.5)

The statistics included in the report are outrageous. You can find them listed here, or, of course, in the report itself.

And before anyone has the chance to use the racist attitude of “but black people commit more crime,” that I heard so much of a few months ago:

“The race-based disparities created by Ferguson’s law enforcement practices cannot be explained by chance or by any difference in the rates at which people of different races adhere to the law. The disparities occur, at least in part, because Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias” (p.70).

4. Where did all the tension between citizens and police officers come from?

“Our investigation has shown that distrust of the Ferguson Police Department is longstanding and largely attributable  to Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement. This approach results in patterns of unnecessarily aggressive and at times unlawful policing; reinforces the harm of discriminatory stereotypes; discourages a culture of accountability; and neglects community engagement” (p.6).

Explicit verbal harassment. Threats and intimidation. Complaints ignored by administration. No positive community engagement. Is there even a wonder why citizens did not trust the police?

There are even disgusting and frequent instances of the officers using true moments to provide help and protection as opportunities to fine and arrest those who called them in the first place. Imagine going through a car wreck that severely injured your girlfriend, dialing 911, and then being arrested and hit with 5 violations for trying to stay by her side until ambulances arrive. Or calling 911 to report domestic abuse, then being arrested yourself for a minor housing violation the officers noticed while they were supposed to be interviewing you and providing protection. These are only two stories of many outlined in the report. If I went through either of those scenarios, I would probably never dial 911 again, even if I was in a true emergency.

Why have police when their first interest is no longer protection?

5. What does all this have to do with the courts?

In Ferguson, most cases are cited as violations of the city’s municipal code, rather than under state laws, leading them to the municipal court, which, for all intents and purposes, is considered part of the police department–the Chief of Police is even the supervisor. Naturally, this complicates things. Remember that “Fine and Collect” mentality? Yeah. . . same story here.

“The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by the FPD, and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue (p.45).

“The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety” (p.3).

A court without justice is not a court. Reading this reminded me of the trial in Alice in Wonderland, with its non-sensical “sentence first, verdict afterwards” refrain. Except that was REAL life for Ferguson residents with pending court cases.

In a nutshell–Ferguson courts went against common practice by imposing extremely strict punishments on minor violations like failing to pay parking and speeding tickets. While state law mandates a temporary license suspension for these issues, Ferguson piled on even more fees and routinely issued arrest warrants for these offenses, creating a cycle that abused the community’s most vulnerable population. Those already combating poverty were fined into debt, stripped of their license, and made to serve jail time, losing their employment or housing along the way. This isn’t just inhumane–it’s bad business. How can a city thrive when its people are treated in this way?

Ferguson Day 6, Picture 13

In summary: The report provided proof that the protestors were right–a greater systemic cycle of oppression towards African Americans in particular was undoubtedly at work in Ferguson. I think it is fair to say that these systems most certainly played their part the day of the shooting as the atmosphere itself  was one of hostility, fueled by the ongoing unconstitutional practices and procedures of the FPD. And though the Justice Department ultimately agreed with the decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson–the FPD, city officials, and courts are far from innocent.

I plan to follow up this post with Ferguson Part Two: What Now? Check back for that post later this week. It will discuss some takeaways from the situation, the changes being made, and some of the positive repercussions that will hopefully be inspired by the investigation. The first step to parading is understanding the systems of injustice so we can work against them. Thanks for reading.