The Gangsters of Ferguson
Yesterday the Justice Department released the results of a long and thorough investigation into the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove a violation of federal law by Officer Wilson. The investigation concluded much more. The investigation concluded that physical evidence and witness statements corroborated Wilson's claim that Michael Brown reached into the car and struck the officer. It concluded that claims that Wilson reached out and grabbed Brown first "were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence."
The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to contradict Wilson's claim that Brown reached for his gun. The investigation concluded that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back. That he did not shoot Brown as he was running away. That Brown did stop and turn toward Wilson. That in those next moments "several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson." That claims that Brown had his hands up "in an unambiguous sign of surrender" are not supported by the "physical and forensic evidence," and are sometimes, "materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible for otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time."
Unlike the local investigators, the Justice Department did not merely toss all evidence before a grand jury and say, "you figure it out." The federal investigators did the work themselves and came to the conclusion that Officer Wilson had not committed "prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242."
Our system, ideally, neither catches every single offender, nor lightly imposes the prosecution, jailing, and fining of its citizens. A high burden of proof should attend any attempt to strip away one's liberties. The Justice Department investigation reflects a department attempting to live up to those ideals and giving Officer Wilson the due process that he, and anyone else falling under our legal system, deserves.
One cannot say the same for Officer Wilson's employers.
The Justice Department conducted two investigations—one looking into the shooting of Michael Brown, and another into the Ferguson Police Department. The first report made clear that there was no prosecutable case against one individual officer. The second report made clear that there was a damning case to be made against the system in which that officer operated:
Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities...Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue...
The "focus on revenue" was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue. Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations. The disparity in outcomes remained "even after regression analysis is used to control for non-race-based variables."
One should understand that the Justice Department did not simply find indirect evidence of unintentionally racist practices which harm black people, but "discriminatory intent”—that is to say willful racism aimed to generate cash. Justice in Ferguson is not a matter of "racism without racists," but racism with racists so secure, so proud, so brazen that they used their government emails to flaunt it.
The emails including "jokes" depicting President Obama as a chimp, mocking how black people talk ("I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment!"), depicting blacks as criminals, welfare recipients, unemployed, lazy, and having "no frigging clue who their Daddies are.” This humor—given the imprimatur of government email—resulted in neither reprimand, nor protest, nor even a polite request to refrain from reoffending. "Instead," according to the report, "the emails were usually forwarded along to others."
One should resist the urge to clutch pearls and carp about the "mean people" of Ferguson. Bigoted jokes are never really jokes at all, so much as a tool by which one sanctifies plunder. If black people in Ferguson are the 47 percent—a class of takers, of immoral reprobates, driving up crime while driving down quality of life—then why should they not be "the sources of revenue?" In this way a racist "joke" transfigures raw pillage into legal taxation. The "joke" is in fact an entire worldview that reveals that the agents of plunder, the police, are in fact not plundering anyone at all. They are just making sure the reprobates pay their fair share.
That is precisely what Ferguson's officials told federal investigators:
Several Ferguson officials told us during our investigation that it is a lack of “personal responsibility” among African-American members of the Ferguson community that causes African Americans to experience disproportionate harm under Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement. Our investigation suggests that this explanation is at odd with the facts.
On the contrary the investigation "revealed African Americans making extraordinary efforts to pay off expensive tickets for minor, often unfairly charged, violations, despite systemic obstacles to resolving those tickets." And while the investigation found no lack of "personal responsibility" among black residents of Ferguson, it did find that the very same people making the charge were often busy expunging fines for their friends:
- In August 2013, an FPD patrol supervisor wrote an email entitled “Oops” to the Prosecuting Attorney regarding a ticket his relative received in another municipality for traveling 59 miles per hour in a 40 miles-per-hour zone, noting “[h]aving it dismissed would be a blessing.” The Prosecuting Attorney responded that the prosecutor of that other municipality promised to nolle pros the ticket. The supervisor responded with appreciation, noting that the dismissal “[c]ouldn’t have come at a better time.”
- Also in August 2013, Ferguson’s Mayor emailed the Prosecuting Attorney about a parking ticket received by an employee of a non-profit day camp for which the Mayor sometimes volunteers. The Mayor wrote that the person “shouldn’t have left his car unattended there, but it was an honest mistake” and stated, “I would hate for him to have to pay for this, can you help?” The Prosecuting Attorney forwarded the email to the Court Clerk, instructing her to “NP [nolle prosequi, or not prosecute] this parking ticket.”
- In November 2011, a court clerk received a request from a friend to “fix a parking ticket” received by the friend’s coworker’s wife. After the ticket was faxed to the clerk, she replied: “It’s gone baby!”
- In March 2014, a friend of the Court Clerk’s relative emailed the Court Clerk with a scanned copy of a ticket asking if there was anything she could do to help. She responded: “Your ticket of $200 has magically disappeared!” Later, in June 2014, the same person emailed the Court Clerk regarding two tickets and asked: “Can you work your magic again? It would be deeply appreciated.” The Clerk later informed him one ticket had been dismissed and she was waiting to hear back about the second ticket.
It must noted that the rhetoric "personal responsibility" enjoys not just currency among the white officials of Ferguson, but among many black people ("black-on-black crime!") who believe that white supremacy is a force with which one can negotiate. But white supremacy—as evidenced in Ferguson—is not ultimately interested in how responsible you are, nor how respectable you look. White supremacy is neither a misunderstanding nor a failure of manners. White supremacy is the machinery of Galactus which allows for the potential devouring of everything you own. White supremacy is the technology, patented in this enlightened era, to ensure that what is yours inevitably becomes mine.
This technology has proven highly effective throughout American history. In 1860 it meant the transformation of black bodies into more wealth than all the productive capacity of this country combined. In the 1930s it meant the erection of our modern middle class. In Ferguson, it meant funding nearly a quarter of the municipal budget:
The City has not yet made public the actual revenue collected that year, although budget documents forecasted lower revenue than 10 was budgeted. Nonetheless, for fiscal year 2015, the City’s budget anticipates fine and fee revenues to account for $3.09 million of a projected $13.26 million in general fund revenues...In a February 2011 report requested by the City Council at a Financial Planning Session and drafted by Ferguson’s Finance Director with contributions from Chief Jackson, the Finance Director reported on “efforts to increase efficiencies and maximize collection” by the municipal court. The report included an extensive comparison of Ferguson’s fines to those of surrounding municipalities and noted with approval that Ferguson’s fines are “at or near the top of the list....” While the report stated that this recommendation was because of a “large volume of non-compliance,” the recommendation was in fact emphasized as one of several ways that the code enforcement system had been honed to produce more revenue.
The men and women behind this policy did not approach their effort to "produce more revenue" somberly, but lustily. As the fruits of plunder increased, Ferguson officials congratulated and backslapped each other:
In one March 2012 email, the Captain of the Patrol Division reported directly to the City Manager that court collections in February 2012 reached $235,000, and that this was the first month collections ever exceeded $200,000. The Captain noted that “[t]he [court clerk] girls have been swamped all day with a line of people paying off fines today. Since 9:30 this morning there hasn’t been less than 5 people waiting in line and for the last three hours 10 to 15 people at all times.” The City Manager enthusiastically reported the Captain’s email to the City Council and congratulated both police department and court staff on their “great work.”
It is a wonder they did not hand out bonuses. Perhaps they did. The bonus of being white in Ferguson meant nigh-immunity from plunder. The bane of being black in Ferguson meant nigh-inevitable subjugation under plunder. Plunder is neither abstract nor theoretical. Plunder injures, maims, and destroys. Indeed the very same people who were calling on protestors to remain nonviolent were, every hour, partner to brutality committed under the color of law:
We spoke with one African-American man who, in August 2014, had an argument in his apartment to which FPD officers responded, and was immediately pulled out of the apartment by force. After telling the officer, “you don’t have a reason to lock me up,” he claims the officer responded: “N*****, I can find something to lock you up on.” When the man responded, “good luck with that,” the officer slammed his face into the wall, and after the man fell to the floor, the officer said, “don’t pass out motherf****r because I’m not carrying you to my car.”
The residents of Ferguson do not have a police problem. They have a gang problem. That the gang operates under legal sanction makes no difference. It is a gang nonetheless, and there is no other word to describe an armed band of collection agents.
John Locke knew:
The injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a crown, or some petty villain. The title of the offender, and the number of his followers, make no difference in the offence, unless it be to aggravate it. The only difference is, great robbers punish little ones, to keep them in their obedience; but the great ones are rewarded with laurels and triumphs, because they are too big for the weak hands of justice in this world, and have the power in their own possession, which should punish offenders. What is my remedy against a robber, that so broke into my house?
What are the tools in Ferguson to address the robber that so regularly breaks into my house? One necessary tool is suspicion and skepticism—the denial of the sort of the credit one generally grants officers of the state. When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown there was little reason to credit his account, and several reasons to disbelieve it. The reason is not related to whether Michael Brown was "an angel" or not. The reasons are contained in a report rendered by the highest offices of the American government. Crediting the accounts of Ferguson's officers is a good way to enroll yourself in your own plunder and destruction.
Government, if its name means anything, must rise above those suspicions and that skepticism and seek out justice. And if it seeks to improve its name it must do much more—it must seek out the roots of the skepticism. The lack of faith among black people in Ferguson's governance, or in America's governance, is not something that should be bragged about. One cannot feel good about living under gangsters, and that is the reality of Ferguson right now.
The innocence of Darren Wilson does not change this fundamental fact. Indeed the focus on the deeds of alleged individual perpetrators, on perceived bad actors, obscures the broad systemic corruption which is really at the root. Darren Wilson is not the first gang member to be publicly accused of a crime he did not commit. But Darren Wilson was given the kind of due process that those of us who are often presumed to be gang members rarely enjoy. I do not favor lowering the standard of justice offered Officer Wilson. I favor raising the standard of justice offered to the rest of us.
TA-NEHISI COATES is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Follow @tanehisicoates