The Troubling Link Between Ferguson and Charleston


Since August 2014, when an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot dead by Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, the use of force by police—particularly against minorities—has become the focus of national attention. Similar incidents in places ranging from Cleveland, Ohio to New York City—and last month's church shootings in Charleston SC—have reinforced a national movement, #blacklivesmatter, as well as a spurred a debate that has drawn in every sector of American life.

But Ferguson continues to serve as the watchword for an ongoing national examination of policing strategies as well as the lingering racism in American society. A Department of Justice (DOJ) review confirmed a grand jury's conclusion that Officer Wilson was not culpable in the killing, but a subsequent analysis released month reportedly found fault with police actions to control protests in Ferguson following the incident, suggesting citizens' rights to free assembly were violated.

This month, the review of the incident by the DOJ Civil Rights Division of the Ferguson shootings was published as a book by the New Press, a not-for-profit publishing company, along with a searing introduction by famed civil rights attorney Theodore M. Shaw. The former president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has worked for decades to bring about police reform, spoke with The Crime Report's Managing Editor, Cara Tabachnick, about what is important in the Ferguson report, the role of young people in bringing the issue to national attention, and why America is still a long way from achieving a “post-racial” society.

The Crime Report: Why does the Ferguson report need to be released as a book?

Theodore Shaw: Like most Americans, I was deeply troubled not only by the events in Ferguson but by the long train of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement. Over my career, I've seen so many instances of police misconduct within black communities.

I was in Illinois (recently) at a large auditorium for [a meeting to discuss] these issues, and I asked how many people had read the Ferguson report. Out of about 150 people, not a single hand went up. I know our attention span in the age of Twitter is pretty short. But this report documents racism in an age which people deny racism. We have racism without racists. Nobody takes responsibility.

TCR: What are some of the key elements of the report that readers should focus on?

TS: I hope people read about the ways the Ferguson police department used the African-American community as a cash cow for funding municipal obligations. I hope people read and understand how they zeroed in on black citizens even when they treated them in a disparate way.

I hope people read about the racist jokes. I use that term loosely, but [the report documents] the racist emails the Ferguson police department and city officials circulated. I hope they understand the role of the Ferguson judiciary and the municipal judges in running a racist form of government. I hope they understand the context in which the law enforcement and government in general interacted with the African-American community and used them in ways that echoed the old South.

TCR: How can trust between police and the African-American community be restored?

TS: We all need law enforcement to do what they are supposed to do. Black folks want policing in their communities. We want to be safe. We want to be protected from people within our community who go astray and commit crimes; we want to be protected from people outside the community who view the community with hostility.

What we don't want is law enforcement that is animated by racist beliefs, that thinks it's fighting a war in which anybody in the black community is a target. We desperately want to trust law enforcement. I think most black folk understand that many police officers are not racist or abusive. I think what we are disappointed in sometimes is that thin blue wall of silence.

TCR: Has the reaction to these incidents changed the climate of public opinion?

TS: The movement is initiated and driven by younger people, which I applaud. They realize that the U.S. has not reached post- racialism. A lot of people talk about it, and wish for it, but they realize their generation for better or for worse has to pick up the baton and run their leg of the race. These types of interactions between police and unarmed black men have been going on a long time, and more often than not people have turned a deaf ear.

One can't deny what we saw on video in North Charleston, or in Staten Island with Eric Garner. So that's a change and an important one; now white Americans are at least as aware of this issue as those who are protesting in Ferguson and Baltimore.

TCR: What role do young people play?

TS: Many people thought this generation would escape being burdened by these issues, that maybe we had reached a racial nirvana with a black president, attorney general and others. But tragically, Dylann Roof (the alleged shooter who killed nine black people in a South Carolina church) is 21. I think we can't assume everyone in the young generation gets it or has turned away from racism.

TCR: What can white communities learn from reading the Ferguson report?

FS: The Ferguson report teaches all Americans what we should have known for a long time. These issues are not black issuesThese are issues that all Americans must own. White Americans should be deeply concerned about racism if there is going to be change in this country. If we are willing to step away from the views that animated Ferguson and North Charleston and Charleston itself, it's going to be because white people exercise some ownership on this issue.

This is not a guilt trip. We are not responsible for what earlier generations did, but we are responsible for what we do in our time, we do have to face what we inherited. That's what we are responsible for. I hope people all come together and know we have unfinished work to do on subjects of race.

TCR: Are you hopeful about the future?

TS: I hope (people) reflect upon what's done in our names collectively, and that we raise these issues in social and political discourse, (including) showing up at the appropriate places and time when people are advocating for change in police practices. When tragedies happen, when people loose their lives without justification, when we have personal tragedies, it's so important to be there. Even though we can't change what happened, it's important to show up, to bear witness.

When we are talking about issues of death as a consequence of policing, there inevitably follows a conversation of responsibility and accountability. Change happens from ongoing conversations in your church, temple or mosque, and in political discourse. People know how to do this. It's just a question of will.

Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.

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