A Reflection on Ferguson’s ShameApr 21, 2015. Written by Sharon Jenkins
I’ve reviewed the detailed report by the U. S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that was released on March 4, 2015.
It’s not just the facts of the encounter between 18-year-old Michael Brown and 28-year-old Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson that are disturbing. As the report states, DOJ investigators found that during their 90-second encounter, Officer Wilson acted within the law to protect himself when he thought his life was endangered by Brown.
In the aftermath of their encounter, Brown’s family and those who loved him forever lost their son and friend. Despite being judged by the FBI and assorted forensic experts as having responded appropriately, Officer Wilson will always be associated with the high profile death of a young African American male who was beloved by his parents, family and friends.
I accept the DOJ’s interpretation of the evidence.
While some analysts in the African American community still refuse to believe Officer Wilson’s account, I and many others I’ve talked to or whose views I’ve read, are deeply disturbed by the pervasive racist behaviors that defined the workplace culture of the Ferguson police force. This news account in the Washington Post reports on e-mails that were circulated with taxpayer resources. One e-mail includes a perverse take on a photograph of the late President Ronald Reagan holding a baby chimpanzee. It was meant to slur President Obama. The photograph was circulated by a Ferguson court clerk to two police supervisors in 2011. That clerk has been fired.
A review of the evidence and assorted public and private communications has revealed some of the most blatant, racist acts of excessive force and abuse of power by uniformed police officers, and some of their administrative leadership, that has been documented in recent history. Most of their vitriol was focused on Ferguson’s minority community and other vulnerable populations. That community is largely comprised of African American and Latino men, women and youth.
But it’s not enough.
I say throw out the entire leadership of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department and any administrators who, in writing or in other ways, were aware of and/or condoned the racist behavior of those in uniform. It’s rogue cops of this ilk that have cast a cloud of derision over an entire police force.
Those who did this are Ferguson’s shame.
The Justice Department report cites a series of racist verbal and provocative behavior by members of the Ferguson Police Department. Attorney General Holder described an incident involving an African American woman who was given two parking tickets in 2007 that were initially assessed at $152. Over time, the woman paid $550 in fines and fees and spent six days in jail. On this incident and others, the Attorney General said that “racial bias both implicit and explicit” represents the unconstitutional execution of U.S. law.
Attorney General Eric Holder said these public officials “…consistently approached law enforcement not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way of generating revenue,”
My reaction to the report was so disturbing because I grew up in a solid, Northern California middle-class community—a predominately white middle-class community—in the early 1960s that was largely free of racial animus. My parents lived and worked in the area that came to be known as Silicon Valley. As children, we knew little about iconic leaders like the esteemed U. S. Rep. John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others who put their lives on the line during our nation’s civil rights movement. The blessing of a relatively trouble free childhood does not distance me from the emotional pain, abuse and the senseless loss of life endured by men, women and youth of color in our nation. In fact, it outrages me all the more to know that the lives of the growing majority minority in our country are still thought of, so poorly, by a large segment of those who are sworn to protect and serve all our nation’s citizens.
To date, several of the uniformed and administrative personnel of the Ferguson Police Department have already resigned or been fired. Ferguson’s Mayor, James W. Knowles, has promised to implement reforms.
Only days after the release of the report, it was inspiring to see a powerful recommitment to what most Americans still view as our ‘more perfect union’ being celebrated, in Selma, Alabama on March 7. There President Obama joined with Rep. John Lewis, former President George W. Bush and others in a recommitment to our shared values.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that our nation has not yet seen the last of these deadly encounters between African Americans and other minorities and local police.
That sad fact is America’s shame.
Photo by Eino Sierpe