The Department of Justice Findings Were Not ‘Shocking’ to People in Ferguson

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Commentary Race

The Department of Justice Findings Were Not ‘Shocking’ to People in Ferguson

Pamela Merritt

The law enforcement system has been constructed to treat us like sub-human suspects. For some people this comes as a surprise. For others, it is simply reality.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released two scathing reports based on its investigations related to the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. I spent the past 48 hours digesting the details of the reports—the first examined discriminatory practices in the Ferguson Police Department, and the second looked at why the federal department declined to bring criminal charges against Wilson. After reading through the reports’ findings, which included racist emails sent by city employees and horrific violations of individuals’ constitutional rights by the police and the Ferguson Municipal Court, I’m left wondering how there can be a finding of widespread racism and oppression but no real consequences for those who ran the departments or perpetrated these wrongs. I’m also at a loss as to how a law enforcement agency or city government can protect and serve a population they neither respect nor view as human beings. Beyond that, I’m struggling to process how so many people seem surprised by the findings, despite the fact that people of color have been speaking this truth—that Ferguson doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that Michael Brown’s death is a reflection of far-reaching racial bias—loudly for the past seven months.

My Twitter feed has been flooded with articles claiming to have found the ten most awful details from the report on the police department, or the 12 most racist incidents involving city employees and officers. What must not be lost in the exploration of those details is that the reports highlight a system-wide denial of reproductive justice. People in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis metropolitan area have been denied our right to raise our families in communities free of fear and violence. Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and his father, Michael Brown Sr., have forever been denied the right to parent their child in a community free of the oppression that has generated untold think pieces and op-eds since his death. And all of us who call the St. Louis metro region our home have been denied communities where people are empowered with the human right to make personal decisions about our lives. We have been kept deliberately segregated from the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions of our community are suitable for implementing those decisionsthe law enforcement system has been constructed to treat us like sub-human suspects, the court system has been designed like a predatory loan outfit to treat us like money machines, and the political system has absolutely no motivation to fix any of this because its existence is dependent on the hustling of people of color. For some people this comes as a surprise. For others, it is simply reality.

The details of the report on the police department are disturbing: the fact that the city of Ferguson used the ticketing and arrest of African Americans as a revenue source, that it often targeted people of color for ticketing and/or arrest based on racial bias, that it used arrest warrants as threats to get payments, and that in every incident of a police dog biting a person, that person was Black. Then there are the racist emails sent by city officials and law enforcement. The one that most struck me was from May 2011. It stated:

An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, “Crimestoppers.”

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As upsetting as these details are, they are not surprising to too many of us. I’ve heard stories like those listed in that report from people who live all over the St. Louis metropolitan area. The oppression documented by the DOJ is reality for many Ferguson and St. Louis area residents, yet local and national news outlets are reporting the findings as “shocking” and “stunning.” There’s something to that: Not only are people of color not taken at our word when we call out injustice, we are all too often not heard at all. People all over the St. Louis metro area and across the nation have been marching and demonstrating almost non-stop since August 2014, so I find it shocking and stunning that anyone could be shocked or stunned by these findings.

Ferguson residents have been saying the same things for months. Many of us who live in St. Louis County, and frankly any Black person who lives in one of the many racially segregated communities in the United States with a primarily white police force, have been fighting these injustices for years. (Anyone who tries to tell you Ferguson is an isolated situation is flat out lying.) So I was more than a little disgusted to see so many news reports presenting the findings and evidence cited in the report as if no one has ever mentioned these abuses before. But that’s par for the course when people of color call out injustice.

It feels as if we are shouting in a soundproof room, because our word isn’t judged worthy to be taken as fact. Now that the DOJ has been kind enough to back up what Ferguson residents have been saying with a detailed and fully sourced report, all of the sudden the same local officials who couldn’t give protesters the time of day are seeking out the media to talk reform.

That leads me the another challenge I’ve faced since the DOJ report came out. Ferguson’s mayor and police chief and many of its judges and court staff are still in power and getting paid. (Although one municipal court employee was fired and two other police department employees were put on leave for their irresponsible actions, those in leadership positions have yet to be held accountable for their role.) We’re supposed to expect the same officials who presided over the blatant violations of constitutional rights cited in the DOJ report to fix a system they gleefully managed even as it devastated the lives of countless residents? That dog don’t hunt.

Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer seven months ago. Residents of Ferguson and the broader St. Louis metropolitan area have spent these months demanding justice and reform through direct action, lobbying at the local and state level and at community forums. From the beginning, activists and concerned community members have tried to call attention to the fact that the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest that followed in Ferguson could have happened in any number of municipalities across Missouri and this nation because of the country’s centuries-old racial bias directed at people of color. The shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer, the over-the-top use of force in response to non-violent protests, and even the flawed grand jury process could have happened anywhere and to any one of us. Now, with the DOJ’s report in hand, some feel validated. Others are newly disturbed. I remain sick and tired of being sick and tired. But they call it a struggle for a reason. Onward.