The lawsuits seek the full incident report from the Michael Brown shooting and an order preventing the Ferguson, Missouri, police department from blocking citizens and the media from filming police activities.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed two lawsuits against the Ferguson, Missouri, police department Thursday, one requesting the incident report related to the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, and another challenging the police policy of demeaning and ordering members of the media to stop recording police activities.
The lawsuits followed days of protests by citizens and a violent police response in the St. Louis suburb after a police officer shot and killed 18-year old Michael Brown on Saturday, August 9, and the department refused to identify the officer responsible for the shooting for nearly a week. On Friday, Police Chief Thomas Jackson named Darren Wilson as the officer who shot and killed Brown, saying Wilson is a six-year veteran of the department with no prior disciplinary record.
The first lawsuit, seeking the Ferguson Police Department’s full report on the police shooting, claims the department’s refusal to release the officer’s name right away and other details of the event violates Missouri’s Sunshine Law, a state law designed to promote transparency and accountability in government affairs.
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The second lawsuit asks the court to block the Ferguson Police Department’s policy of demanding and ordering members of the media and the public to stop recording the police acting in their official duty on public streets and sidewalks, specifically in response to community protests following Brown’s death. According to the complaint, “[D]efendants’ response to the demonstrations has been controversial, including using force, ordering peaceful protestors to disband and evacuate the streets and sidewalks, and ordering protestors and observers to stop documenting and videotaping the demonstrations.” The complaint continues, “[T]here is widespread interest in Defendants’ tactics, which raise questions about whether a military response to the protest is consistent with the values of the United States.”
The actions by the Ferguson police have drawn national condemnation, including from President Obama. Following widespread complaints, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon stripped local police of their authority over the protests and placed state highway patrol in charge. State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, a Black man who grew up in the area, took control of the law enforcement response and, according to reports, the change in leadership and approach was met with relief and appreciation by the community. Johnson marched alongside protesters Thursday, a marked change from county police in armored tanks shooting tear gas at protesters.
The wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.
“Senseless” is our favorite adjective to describe not just mass killings but all manner of murders. To most any person, regardless of class, race, or station, there is no sense to be found in slaughter. But this depth of unreason plunges further still with some crimes. Such is the case with the mass murder of Black Americans, performed in increments measured by police shootings. No sense, logic, or order can be imposed on something so inherently chaotic, so without reason or purpose.
Yet, countless white people on social media and mass media alike try to find a reason for the murder. He wore a hoodie. She didn’t follow instructions. He didn’t drop the toy gun. He twitched his leg threateningly. They shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood. She was playing her music too loud. They should’ve fixed their taillight. This apparent desire for justification satisfies not only the racist conviction that it is somehow acceptable for a Black person to lay dead from an officer’s sidearm, but also the “just world hypothesis” that too many of us remain addicted to: the false belief in a world where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, where “everything must happen for a reason.”
To be sure, racist systems of power in the United States have methodically propagated the idea of Blackness as a threat that needs to be controlled, which is a twisted kind of logic unto itself. In this environment, however, where so many—particularly white people—have been weaned on the notion of Black criminality, the wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.
As we search for answers in the wake of atrocities—in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and countless other cities—we can begin with this senselessness.
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This attempted analytical strategy is not a new endeavor. In writing about Nazi internment and concentration camps, for example, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt strove to do the unthinkable: Find sense in a pit of murderous chaos. But it was precisely a lack of sense, she discovered, that was key to the experience the Nazis—and many totalitarians before and since—had tried to create.
There’s no small irony in my invocation of her to understand this epic, continually unfolding crime. Arendt’s contempt of Black youth movements toward the end of her life was breathtaking in its bitter and intellectually uncurious contempt; she, too, had revealed herself to be an anti-Black racist. But like so many people who indulge such prejudices, her more transcendental ideas—such as this one—endure even with her failings.
As Arendt wrote:
The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. (Emphasis mine.)
Her point was that the terror of the camp lay in its disconnect from logic. You might face punishment even if you did nothing wrong, either according to the rules of the camp, or a higher moral authority. Your labors were Sisyphean, their own punishment, and rarely serving some higher end. Even when they were practical labors, they were deliberately inefficient, meant to cause suffering rather than ensure the speedy production of some good. For Arendt, this was central to totalitarian life.
This was how you made human beings superfluous as human beings, as she put it. You removed all sense from their lives, rendered their labors fruitless, took the very thing that makes us human—meaningful activity and life through our work—and rendered it an engine of vile nonsenses. If nothing you do has any connection to your prosperity or well-being, then what really is the point of life but random thrashing?
Whether Arendt herself might have approved of this understanding of her theory or not, the “daily production of senselessness” has bled out of the camps of Europe and into the day-to-day practices of police forces around the world, especially in the United States. In police brutality, too, we see a world of unreason. Death has no connection to guilt or what one can be meaningfully said to “deserve.”
This is what makes the plaintive wailing of the “All Lives Matter” crowd so tone-deaf, especially when they veer in the direction of critiquing every breath of those who have been restrained from breathing freely. Consider Megyn Kelly’s unconscionable second-guessing of Lavish “Diamond” Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, for not rendering aid to her dying partner outside of St. Paul, even as a police officer brandished a gun in her direction. Or CNN analyst Harry Houck, who said that the very fact Reynolds filmed the atrocity is cause to doubt both the sincerity of her affection for Castile and the man’s innocence. Each of these perversities is, of course racist; neither would happen if the victims in question were not Black, period. They are also attempts to impose order on what is inherently chaotic and without sense: the summary execution of innocent people, en masse, by the people whose very job is to maintain that vaunted “law and order.”
The unspoken corollary to all these excuses is always “therefore they deserved to die.” They didn’t put their hands up fast enough, therefore they deserved to die. They ran, therefore they deserved to die. They were walking in the “wrong” neighborhood, therefore they deserved to die. They made a Facebook post where they had a “thug” selfie, therefore they deserved to die. On and on and on.
It is here where discourses about “respectability politics” come into play—the idea that we as marginalized people should not treat “acting respectable,” as defined by those in our society with the most cultural capital, as a path to acceptance and liberation. Castile did everything right. He was gainfully employed, beloved at the school where he worked as a cafeteria manager—and his long history of being stopped by the police testified more to the racism of local police departments than any wrongdoing on his part. During this final traffic stop, he politely informed the policeman about his concealed handgun, as he is obliged to do by law. For doing everything “right,” he ended up dead from several shots to the chest.
This is not to suggest that it would be “logical” or “just” or “sensible,” of course, if all Black victims of police brutality were only those people with criminal records, who resist arrest or run, or who had weapons; those people are not somehow more “deserving” of death or abuse. And even if they were the sole victims of police violence, a similar senselessness would prevail—in a world where a minor infraction or a long-ago served sentence would still lead to summary execution, where police who have been able to capture even dangerous white suspects alive can only ever seem to put bullets in Black “offenders.”
This, in the end, is the reason. Black people are killed indiscriminately, no matter their job, their level of education, their erudition, their politeness, their criminal record or lack thereof, and so on.
Black Lives Matter—for all the unjust slanders hurled its way by politicians, police union bosses, and Twitter trolls—is actually an example of a profoundly dignified attempt to restore order in the best way possible. Its tactics of peaceful but highly visible protest demand better of us all, non-Black people of color and white people alike. It summons us to our better ideals, calling for the restoration of sense, and reason: the simple recognition that Black lives matter and should be afforded the full suite of human and civil rights. That requires structural change; it is not something one law can fix. It’s beyond the scope of body cameras, certainly.
BLM’s staunchly nonviolent ethic, and its humane approach to police—which unequivocally condemns recent attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, while seeking justice for the victims of police—actually makes a better claim to being about “order” than all the defensiveness of the police, and their many paid defenders in the press. “Law and order” politics and policing have always been about irrational fear and hatred, never about order in the sense of creating a safe life of sensible and predictable outcomes connected to one’s actions. The sole “logic” to be found in all of this is being seen as a mortal threat because of the color of one’s skin, and this fact produces a special kind of terror.
All victims have been rendered superfluous as human beings, to use Arendt’s phrase. Black individuals live knowing that all of their efforts can come to nothing due to the caprice of a racist police officer’s bullet.
With such senselessness ruling the day, is it any wonder some will abandon all reason in response, as with the killings of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge? That some may feel murder is all that can meet murder? The problem is indeed a lack of order, but not for the reasons many police chiefs and white twitterpaters may think; the “order” police currently uphold is one of utter chaos with no rhyme or reason behind it, save the fundamental irrationalities of racism and fear tinged by racism. There can be no order when mothers and fathers must counsel their children in the nearly vain hope that “good behavior” might save their lives from a police officer frightened by the color of their skin, when no right action or a life well lived is any insurance against such an ignoble death.
So is it a surprise when “the law,” a term synonymous with the police themselves, is increasingly not respected for its own sake? As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in the Atlantic about Micah Xavier Johnson, the man who murdered five police officers in Dallas:
In the black community, it’s the force they deploy, and not any higher American ideal, that gives police their power. This is obviously dangerous for those who are policed. Less appreciated is the danger illegitimacy ultimately poses to those who must do the policing. For if the law represents nothing but the greatest force, then it really is indistinguishable from any other street gang. And if the law is nothing but a gang, then it is certain that someone will resort to the kind of justice typically meted out to all other powers in the street.
When you scaremonger about Johnson’s crimes, or about the need for “law and order,” this is all very much worth remembering. To many in this country, the police are simply the legal gang: vice by another name, tied to the coffers of the state, with only a gloss of virtue to separate it from the illicit variety. The murder of police officers remains criminal and tragic, both for all the obvious reasons, and because the realm of unreason and uncertainty they create is slowly consuming them as well, as Coates notes.
This is one of many reasons we must cease casting about for a just world and instead seek to create one—first by acknowledging the lack of justice in the one we have.
"There are systems in place that are attacking our communities," explained Tara Tee of Hands Up United. "A lot of the things we’re doing is just rebuilding and creating plans to sustain, so that whatever this gap is doesn’t occur again.
It’s been two years since since Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. Caught on camera, the murder sparked weeks of demonstrations and protests, to which police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. It garnered national attention and made Black Lives Matter a household hashtag.
Tara Tee is a Black woman from St. Louis. At the time, she was working as a project manager at a corporate tech job, but she knew she couldn’t sit back and watch.
“We’d be out in the streets until four or five in the morning. Then I would go home and try to sleep for a couple of hours and then get up at eight in time for work,” Tee recalls.
She said she noticed children as young as 10 were joining in on the protests, yelling and asking for answers, and she realized that though they wanted to be involved, the community lacked the resources to educate and organize them. So she and a group of other engaged community members and activists founded Hands Up United, a grassroots organization dedicated to “fulfilling the political void that remains from the historical archives of the Black Power Movement.”
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Tee currently serves as the director of the organization, where she puts a lot of her efforts into its Tech Institute, which teaches coding to 16-to-30-year-olds in the Ferguson/Greater St. Louis area. Hands Up United also hosts Freedom Flicks, a free social justice film series; Books and Breakfasts; and the People’s Pantry. After the organization’s efforts to get people voting in local elections, St. Louis elected its first Black circuit attorney. Tee says her day-to-day is always different, sometimes meeting with community leaders, or running the organization’s programs and events, but that her main objective is always to help rebuild her community, which she says has been broken by systemic racism.
Rewire: How did you get involved with activism? And how did Hands Up United get started?
Tara Tee: I don’t necessarily consider myself an activist. I just consider myself a person who understands there are systems working against Black folks in America. I decided to do something about it, which I think most people should do in some way or another.
I went outside once I heard that the police in Ferguson had murdered someone and left his body out in the street for four-and-a-half hours, and all of the horrors that followed, including his mother not being able to approach the body, dogs being called into the neighborhood, dogs being allowed to urinate on his memorial. Just beyond the murder, everything that followed stripped someone’s humanity. It stripped humanity from Mike Brown, from his parents, and from the community.
As a Black woman in St. Louis, there’s no way that I could have not gone out to see, support, talk to, and love on people, and to let the state know that this is not OK. I just felt like it was something I had to do and there were many other people who felt the same way.
The birth of Hands Up United I would say was pretty organic, and it was a situation where it was like building the car while you’re driving it. We were out and doing things and making moves but we were just out because that’s what we felt like we needed to do. It took a while but we realized we needed to create programs to bring political education to the community.
We started thinking about, what does it look like to put something behind the nighttime action and being out in the street? What does it look like to create something that is sustainable, that is going to make a greater impact? Not that being in the street doesn’t make an impact. You and I wouldn’t be talking right now if we had not taken to the streets. You would not know Mike Brown’s name if we had not taken to the street. We have multi-level problems and we need to use every tool that we have to try to dismantle these things that aren’t working for us.
Rewire: What is Hands Up United’s mission?
TT: We’re basically just striving for the liberation of Black and brown people through education, art, advocacy, andagriculture. These are all things that are very important to us because they are all the things that are tied to these systems that are harming our communities.
Everything that we do is going to have a political education component to it, and it’s going to have an art component to it. We’re just trying to build community again. There are systems in place that are attacking our communities. A lot of the things we’re doing is just rebuilding and creating plans to sustain, so that whatever this gap is doesn’t occur again. So that, for example, the next time our neighborhoods are flooded with drugs the same things don’t occur. We ask kids to support Black businesses so that we can have a Black Wall Street, but they’re not teaching that history in school. So you’re asking someone to fathom something that they’ve never seen or heard about. So it’s important for us to create spaces and share knowledge that we have about things that are going on.
Rewire: It’s clear that Hands Up United deals mainly within the community. Are you affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives, and do you think the work that’s being done nationally is helping on the ground?
TT: We support them, obviously, because our missions are similar. We’ve just picked up the fight of our ancestors. These are some of the same things that we’ve been fighting for for many, many years at this point. If you review their platform, anybody that’s for community would be for these things. It’s very similar to the ten-point platform that the Black Panthers had. These are basic rights that people shouldn’t be having to draw attention to, or be asking for. We shouldn’t have to demand basic human rights.
We are aligned with a lot of the initiatives of the Movement for Black Lives. We work with and know a lot of those folks and organizations that do very good work. We’ve worked closely with some of them, and we are in community with them for sure. If any of them call and need anything we’re coming.
But I also don’t like the whole labeling of things because it creates false narratives and problems. As far as the media is concerned, any person who is Black and has ever attended a protest is Black Lives Matter, or if they’re not they’re the Movement for Black Lives. So my stance and the stance of my organization is that we are for and with Black people, so whoever is trying to push the ball forward for Black people, that’s who we’re with.
Rewire: As we approach the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder, what, if anything, would you say has changed?
TT: I would say nationally there’s more awareness regarding situations that are plaguing us, and these situations run the gamut from police brutality, to excessive lead in water, to food deserts, to inferior education systems.
We get the information relatively quickly when something occurs. Before, people affected were like, I don’t know if I should share this. I don’t know if anyone cares. Now people don’t hesitate to share these things, and spread this information.
So awareness, both nationally and locally, is increased. But on the ground, there’s still very much racial profiling, there’s still predatory policing, there’s still ticketing and fines aggressively directed toward poor people. We’re still seeing problems with voter rights. And so when I look at what has honestly changed—not much.
Rewire: How do you think the media is doing covering what’s happened in Ferguson, and with other instances of police brutality against Black people?
TT: On a national level, I feel like it’s, for the most part, just propaganda. And then on the local level, for the most part, journalism here isn’t even journalism. There’s no investigative reporting. And so many of the stories start or end with “according to police,” or “the police said,” and it’s just like, well are you just sitting in the newsroom waiting for the police to fax over the story that you should print?
Ida B. Wells said the people committing the murders are the ones writing the reports. So it’s important to understand that the majority of the news that we are getting from the mainstream is generally not the real news.
We need nationwide media literacy. Why do [outlets] always put up a mugshot of the victim and not the cop or vigilante that shot them? It’s just not good reporting that is happening. There are some people who are doing really good work, but on the mass scale there’s just not good reporting happening.
Editor’s note: The above conversation is a lightly edited transcript of an interview between Rewire and Tara Tee ahead of the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. Hear more from Tee via SoundCloud here.