The March 4 report by the Justice Department on policing in Ferguson, Missouri came with mixed messages about the national dialogue on race in America. While the DOJ decided not to charge Darren Wilson with civil rights violations in the shooting and death of Mike Brown, they found that the department as a whole had violated the rights of African-American residents in the city.
The report details unconstitutional policing that deeply impacted the city’s residents. It exposes racially discriminatory emails that blatantly enforce stereotypes of black people. Perhaps, one of the most damning details is the fact that officers routinely deployed canines on black residents, even when it was clear that they were unarmed.
While these facts are indeed shocking, there’s a lack of surprise with the idea that these same kinds of incidents take place every day in cities and counties across the country. The DOJ report represents a bigger issue with American law enforcement and stands as a reminder that American justice isn’t at all what it should be. It’s all part of a greater debate about power and privilege happening across the country.
In New York City, the case of Eric Garner being choked to death by a group of police officers created similar tensions. The New York Police Department was persistent in saying that officers were just doing their job and that Garner simply shouldn’t have resisted. Although Garner was for a fact illegally selling cigarettes, his actions weren’t worthy of a death sentence. Meanwhile, none of the officers involved were indicted and a climate of fear grows as protests give way to more confrontations between people and police.
Over the past several months, waves of demonstrations have occurred in reaction to a system that uses underprivileged and low-income people as a source of revenue by way of citations and court fees instead of protecting them, as it was reported in the DOJ report on Ferguson. Some have made calls for police reform in response to these events while others have gone so far as to suggest revolution to break away from an incompetent system.
Reacting to the protests, Pat Lynch, spokesperson for the Patrolmen’s Benevolence Association, which is the largest police union in New York City, said, “There is an attitude on our streets that it is acceptable to resist arrest. That attitude is a direct result of a lack of respect for law enforcement.”
Of course there is an attitude. That attitude is a response to the culture of oppression that has existed for years. Not to mention Lynch’s remarks are a condemnation of the civil disobedience, which has been a tactic for activists for generations. Lynch’s words overlooks the basic rights of people under an excessive rule of law.
The repercussions of bad policing especially impacts communities here in Texas. Mothers Against Police Brutality, a local activist group reported that there have been over 68 reported deaths of unarmed African-American and Latino men in Dallas since 2003. Yet, these cases, albeit each one its own individual event with various complexities, are being treated the same in the grander scheme of injustice for the lives of people of color.
It seems like the decisions by police and courts are even encouraging a rampant culture of bigotry and victim blaming that is a toxic deterrent to progress. Intolerant hate-groups such as the Klu Klux Klan are even seeing resurgence in attention and support over the past few months in counter-protest.
This past weekend, just as president Obama visited Selma, Alabama to commemorate the march led by Martin Luther King Jr. across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, “The New York Daily News” reported that a billboard ad to visit “War Between The States” historic sites within sight of the bridge. The ad showed thinly veiled support for the ideals of the KKK. This just shows that such groups still hold sway in a supposedly post-racial society.
Still, not everything is black and white. Just like the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, the public’s responses to these events are varied. To break down these events into two sides, of good and bad – of heroes and villains – is to ignore the greater historical meaning of our current era.
In my view, the real problem isn’t the police, the courts, or even a person of any race or background. The problem is fear sprouted from ignorance. Staying informed and speaking up is one way to fight it. Unless the right steps are made to bring justice to a failing system, the country may be falling into a dark era of conflict that could destroy the fabric of everyone’s unalienable human rights.