It’s been a full year now since the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson brought unprecedented national attention to police misconduct.
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In that time, a pair of Justice Department reports found that Wilson’s actions were legally justified—but set in the context of massive, persistent abuse and corruption in the Ferguson Police Department. (And if even the Obama Administration’s DOJ thinks a government agency is out of control and behaving unconstitutionally, you know that’s a really screwed up situation.) Indeed, while Michael Brown’s death—rightly or wrongly—was the match that lit the fire of protest, Ferguson was a dry wood pile the police had been dousing with gasoline for years.
Meanwhile, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland—names like these have kept issues of how police ought to behave in an ostensibly free society front and center. So a year later, the concerns Ferguson raised for many Americans across the political spectrum are far from resolved.
With that in mind, here is a selection of readings I’ve found helpful on this grim anniversary:
While the bulk of those killed from August 2014 to August 2015 were white, black people per population were more than twice as likely to be killed by cops than any other race, the data showed. African Americans are also more than three times as likely to be killed by police than white people, according to the statistics.
Still, a full year after Brown’s death, the government is without a reliable system for tracking police use of force. Experts say given the nature of the phenomenon and the difficulty of measuring it accurately, it’s not likely we’ll have one any time soon.
The Rev. Renita Lamkin of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Charles, Mo., saw an image on Facebook of Brown’s body lying in the middle of the street and instantly imagined her son in his place. The next day she attended a prayer vigil at Canfield, and a few days later she decided to protest again, and did so on a regular basis.
Lamkin was teargassed and pepper-sprayed, along with other protesters. Almost two weeks after Brown’s death, on the same night Alderman Antonio French was arrested, she was hit with a rubber bullet.
She told The Root, “I did not know that militarized policing was a thing. I did not know that tanks could show up in your neighborhood.” Photos of her bloody and bruised, and details about what happened, caught the attention of media outlets, protesters and religious organizations.
As demonstrated by a grand jury’s rejection of charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a chokehold, video evidence is no guarantee of an indictment, let alone a conviction. The footage may omit important details, while others may be open to interpretation. Even the Los Angeles cops who beat Rodney King in 1991, an incident that gave us one of the best-known video records of police brutality, managed to convince a California jury that their use of force could be justified. In other cases, video evidence may unambiguously confirm an officer’s account. If that had happened in Ferguson, the shooting of Michael Brown never would have acquired the symbolic significance it did.
Still, in situations where police use excessive force, a video record can make a decisive difference by counteracting the tendency of police departments, local prosecutors, and jurors to give cops a bigger benefit of the doubt than ordinary, badgeless citizens are apt to receive.
In CNNMoney’s analysis, minor offenses dominated the dockets, representing nearly 80% of the nearly 2,000 tickets that led to arrest warrants in April and May. For example, 37 seat belt citations and 104 speeding tickets turned into arrest warrants in these two months. Meanwhile, nearly 100 tickets were for the most minor of violations: having an overgrown yard or rundown house, playing loud music, parking incorrectly, being out past curfew, displaying a license plate in the wrong way, or walking in the road inappropriately.
This last charge, officially listed as “manner of walking along roadway,” was highlighted by the DOJ in its report, which cited an example of one man who received a ticket after dancing in the street. The report said 95% of the people cited for this offense in recent years were African-American.
I am often asked what it is like to be on the “front line”. But I do not use the term “front line” to describe us, the protestors. Because everywhere in America, wherever we are, our blackness puts us in close proximity to police violence. Some of us have chosen a more immediate proximity, as we use our bodies to confront and disrupt corrupt state practices. But every black person is in closer proximity to police violence than we sometimes choose to acknowledge: in many ways, we are all on the “front line” – whether we want to be or not.
The world was shocked by this highly and dangerously militarized response by local law enforcement. Foreign leaders equated Ferguson to combat zones in Iraq and Gaza. Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars expressed horror at the reality that they had been less heavily armed while on active duty abroad. […]
If a police department wants to keep its MRAP, the local community should sign off. Additionally, anything that is now banned, like bayonets and grenade launchers, should be recalled. And Congress must pass legislation like the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act so reforms are permanent.