I’ve thought about writing an extended post on Ferguson - or perhaps more on Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, whose deaths sure seem a lot like murder, but will not result in justice. I’m not sure that another white male voice is needed in that discussion nearly so much as merely that white America would actually listen to African American voices and take them seriously.
However, I am a lawyer, and I do care about racial issues, so I read the entire Justice Department report on the Ferguson Police Department.
Before you read the rest of my post, PLEASE read the entire report. Yes, I know it is 105 pages, and not exactly a page turning novel, but I believe it is one of the most important - perhaps the most important document you will read this year.
When the Ferguson protests broke out, two things convinced me that, whatever would turn out to be true about the trigger event (and whoever Michael Brown turned out to be), something was, as Marcellus tells Horatio, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Those two things? First of all, the cops started confiscating video recorders and cameras and arrested journalists. This is, first of all, regardless of what many cops seem to think, illegal. Citizens, let alone journalists my record the police in their official duties without restriction.
The second thing was the officer screaming on camera at the protesters,
"Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!"
These two incidents revealed that first, the Ferguson PD was deeply racist at its absolute core, as such a statement says in public what is common in private; and second, that the PD knew deep down that if their actions were broadcast, they would be seen as unacceptable.
So, with that, read the report. Please. All of it.
I think the report largely speaks for itself, but I want to comment on a few things, particularly from the perspective of a lawyer.
- While the other issues may resonate more with whites, I believe the ingrained racism in the Ferguson PD colored everything else that went on.
My conservative friends tend to loathe the use of statistics to show unequal outcomes, but I think that the statistics by race show that the inner beliefs (as expressed in racist communications that went unchallenged) gave rise to racist actions. While the Ferguson PD actually gave voice to their racist attitudes, not all departments are as, um, imprudent. Still, the statistics show a pattern of unequal treatment of equal actions that is unlikely to happen by chance. Inner racism led to outward racist actions.
I might even go one further here: in an environment where an officer could scream - on camera - "Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!" and know that his fellow officers wouldn’t shun him, is an environment which will result in dead young black men sooner rather than later.
One of the frustrations I have in talking with my conservative friends about the other two major flashpoints in race relations during my lifetime is that flagrantly racist statements are brushed aside. The focus keeps being brought to what awful persons Rodney King and O.J. Simpson were. You can agree or disagree on that, but the problem is that these two were flashpoints for deeper issues, and you can’t just dismiss the deeper issues. It was painful enough to watch King get beaten nearly to death by four officers. But what I believe fanned the flames is that Lawrence Powell, who delivered most of the blows, was on tape referring to a domestic violence call at an African American household as “gorillas in the mist.”
Likewise, I believe O.J. is a murderer who got off, but the real reason he did was Mark Fuhrman. Did Furhman plant a glove? Most whites would say no, I suppose. However, I can very much see why it would be easy - particularly as an African American - to believe he did.
Well, um, this quote on tape:
"Yeah we work with niggers and gangs. You can take one of these niggers, drag 'em into the alley and beat the shit out of them and kick them. You can see them twitch. It really relieves your tension...we had them begging that they'd never be gang members again, begging us. [I’d tell them, ‘You do what you're told, understand, nigger?’"
I’m afraid that this attitude is endemic throughout many - perhaps most - law enforcement agencies in our country. Certainly it isn’t just limited to Ferguson and Los Angeles. And it isn’t limited to law enforcement, but is rather widespread throughout our American culture, if you just listen a bit.
It isn’t the specifics of Michael Brown or Rodney King.
It is the routine and casual dehumanization.
As Shylock said in one of Shakespeare’s most uncomfortable plays:
I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that.
[BTW, Fuhrman, far from becoming a pariah, even after his conviction for perjury, has made quite the career in talk radio claiming a conspiracy against white Christians. Isn’t that nice?]
2. The Ferguson PD routinely violated the law and the Constitution. Not accidentally, but as a matter of department policy.
It seems as if the Ferguson PD never even tried to meet the “reasonable suspicion” standard for a detention and the “probable cause” standard for searches and arrests.
Again, this is not limited to Ferguson. Witness, as a flagrant example, the “stop and frisk” law in New York City, which in practice resulted in a targeting of minorities. (This Atlantic article is good place to start.)
I find it particularly interesting that the Justice Department didn’t get its information on violations of the law from alleged victims.
It got the evidence from the written reports of the officers themselves, in which they documented their own violations of the law as if there was nothing wrong with them.
This speaks to a culture in which the law is not known, not respected, and not observed. So when you think of the protests (and/or riots - take your pick) in Ferguson, understand that they were the result of years of illegal actions by the police - crimes against citizens, to be more blunt.
Again, I am rather afraid that Ferguson is hardly alone or unusual when it comes to this attitude. I know I am treading on some dangerous ground with my friends and relatives in law enforcement, but I really should mention that a person I know on the LAPD, when the protests hit that city, posted on Facebook that once someone threw a bottle at the cops, the entire protest should be shut down.
I hate to have to break it to all you cops, but that isn’t the law. You can’t terminate everyone’s right to assembly and speech as soon as one or a few bad actors throws a bottle. This was also the problem in Ferguson, where protesters were met by military weapons, tear gas (illegal under chemical weapons treaties - like the one we used as justification to invade Iraq…) and arrests of journalists. Flagrant ignorance, disregard, and violation of the law.
3. The report highlights a change in the mission of law enforcement from public safety to revenue generation.
This is something my younger libertarian and conservative friends have been worried about for a while. Somehow, in the last generation or two, politicians have started using law enforcement to balance budgets and generate revenue. Libertarians are particularly concerned about asset forfeiture, but there is also a serious problem in the use of infractions as a revenue generator. (see note below) And thus, decisions about enforcement are made with an eye toward money rather than safety.
If anything, the Ferguson PD was essentially a tax collection agency targeting the poor, rather than an agency to “protect and serve” the residents of Ferguson. If you want to know why nobody in Ferguson seems to trust the cops, look no further than this report.
Again, this isn’t just about Ferguson. Here in California, we had a HUGE spike in the number of traffic tickets during our budget crisis a few years ago. They jacked the cost of a ticket way up, and the number of cases filed went sky high. (Since this coincided with serious and real budget cuts to our local courts, it created a good backlog of cases.)
On a more personal level, a local municipality supported its large police force (1 for every 23 citizens) by confiscating the cars of unlicensed drivers and splitting the impound fees with a local business. (At least this, unlike the shenanigans in Ferguson, was clearly illegal.) I myself got ticketed for a bogus (and unverifiable offense) and a colleage was cuffed in the back of a squad car for license tags expired by one day.
But see, this was a minor inconvenience to me. Pay the $200 bucks and go to traffic school. Sucks, but it didn’t mean the difference between paying the rent or the grocery bill.
If you read the report, what was going on was a clear targeting of the poor - largely African Americans - to generate revenue. And the “offenses” were pretty bogus. Really, $200 bucks for a freaking parking ticket? Jaywalking?
And my favorite: talking back to the cops.
Yep, not obeying the cops, even when they gave illegal orders, got you arrested and fined. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the Ferguson PD really believed that a badge and a gun was permission to order citizens to do whatever the hell the cops wanted.
Everything became a way to generate revenue. And there seems to be this surprise that there were protests. And that they spread across the nation.
These things don’t happen by accident. Our nation was founded - in large part - as a protest against arbitrary brutality and the use of the colonists as a source of revenue. Is this really that different?
It’s hard to capture this in talking about the report. The best thing is to read the report. It really does speak for itself.
Note: Oppression of the poor
I admit I am a bit appalled that the Evangelical church seems so unconcerned about cases like this. Ferguson seems like a rather direct parallel with the oppression of the poor that the Old Testament prophets railed against. (See, for example, Divine Vintage, reviewed here.) This was also the sort of thing which made Feudalism such a burden on the poor: the never ending levy of taxes and fees to support the lifestyles of the wealthy.
Woe to those who enact evil statutes And to those who constantly record unjust decisions, So as to deprive the needy of justice And rob the poor of My people of their rights, So that widows may be their spoil And that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, And in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth? (Isaiah 10:1-3)
Do not rob the poor because he is poor, Or crush the afflicted at the gate; For the LORD will plead their case And take the life of those who rob them. (Proverbs 22:22-23)
Indeed, so much of the Bible is concerned with injustice - particularly against the poor - and yet it seems to be absent from the Evangelical response to racial tension. I find that distressing.
(It’s beyond the scope of this post, but I think Evangelicals would rather moralize about the supposed oversexualization of the poor - particularly African Americans. It’s much more fun than talking about systemic oppression…)
So no, we are going to talk about thugs and welfare queens and turn a blind eye to the plunder of the poor.
(Oh yeah, the judge who features prominently in the report owes $172,000 in taxes. How nice to imprison the poor for unpaid parking tickets while collecting $1500 per hour and cheating on one's taxes...)
Disclosure about my experience:
I lived about 4 miles from where the Rodney King beating occurred. We lived there until the year of the riots, after which we moved north. I remember hearing the gunshots at the Rampart division of the LAPD, and I had relatives working for LAPD at the time. It was a bit scary, and we, like many white families, feared that we would be victimized as a result of our race.
I do remember, though, that even though I didn’t agree with the riots, I did feel somehow, down deep, that something was wrong when a man would be beaten half to death even when unarmed and outnumbered. It’s something that, even during my most conservative period, still made me uncomfortable. It is interesting that a decade after the riots, the Rampart scandal hit the LAPD, and it was discovered that there was a whole culture of corruption, criminal behavior by officers, and falsification of evidence. Like in the case of Ferguson, the Justice Department investigated, a bunch of people resigned or were fired, and a “consent decree” was entered forcing a bunch of reforms on the department. That is probably what will happen with Ferguson - although the city may choose to disband the department like Maricopa, which might be the best option at this point.
So I think I understand a bit of white fear. But also, I am human enough to recognize that there is a problem. Something is rotten in Denmark - I mean the United States.
I am not anti-cop:
I am not anti-cop. If anything, I have been supportive of law enforcement throughout my life. I understand that it is a hard job, and that it is sometimes easy to second guess.
My point about this is that once a city and a police department have lost the populace this way, everything becomes so much harder for them. That is why I think that it is so important to hold bad officers accountable. If you look at the Tamir Rice situation, the shooter had been washed out of another department for “inability to follow regulations,” dangerous lack of composure, and emotional problems, for example. He should never have been allowed to handle a gun, let alone carry a badge. These guys are a small percentage, but they are a problem, and they are hardly ever actually held accountable. (True story: one of the guys on our local Maricopa force was finally dismissed, not for all his abuse of authority, but because of his possession of child porn…)
This tendency to circle the wagons rather than get rid of bad cops - particularly those with personalities unsuited to the task of de-escalation - is really due to the bad culture within law enforcement. A disregard of the law and the constitution, a view of poor, minority, citizens as a population to be controlled, rather than protected, and the increasing use of law enforcement as a source of revenue.
As I am noticing among my younger, libertarian and conservative friends, law enforcement is losing support with its core constituency for these reasons. This should be a wakeup call that the calling to “protect and serve” is being lost somehow. In a free country, law enforcement exists to keep order, protect the innocent, and work collaboratively with the citizens to secure a free and safe existence. If the trust of the citizens is lost, the results tend to be anarchy (or revolution) or a police state where vast resources are necessary to keep the population in check by brute force. (See, World, History of the for examples…)
By failing to (ahem) police yourselves, you are making your job exponentially harder. If you are losing the trust of people like me, you are doing something wrong, and a correction is in order. Just saying.
There is a reason I don’t bleep or soften the quote by the Ferguson officer. In fact, I’ll repeat it here:
“Bring it, all you fucking animals. Bring it!”
It needs to be heard in all its insulting and dehumanizing awfulness. A good use of profanity can intensify and heighten communication.
It can also reveal the rotten, putrid heart of those who use it to dehumanize others.
A great historical case of this was that of Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon. When asked why the Republicans failed to attract black votes, he replied with one of the most insulting and racist quotes of all time: one that even cost him his job in the 1970s.
"I'll tell you what the coloreds want. It's three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit."
The quote reveals the heart.