I strangely find myself hearkening back to one of my favorite adolescent movies, Pump Up the Volume. It’s a movie about a loner who – alone and disaffected in the days prior to the internet – starts a pirate radio station where he finds, much to his surprise, that he has a ready audience of disaffected, disenfranchised malcontents.
However, while the movie hits on global themes of teen alienation, you quickly learn that the problems here are not about growing up so much as they are about a corrupt high school principal.
That is what Ferguson is starting to feel like. At first, this was a story about a police officer who ended up killing a young, unarmed black man. It started a narrative on police-community relations. And, now that the officer has at least been criminally exonerated both by a Grand Jury and the US Department of Justice, we learn that the real problem in Ferguson is extreme municipal corruption.
John Shaw, who is just 39, was hired back in 2007 as city manager, and now he has resigned after the Justice Department accused city agencies of systematically discriminating against African-American residents. Resigned is probably the wrong word, as the Ferguson City Council on Tuesday voted 7-0 to approve a mutual separation agreement.
The report detailed a number of instances in which Mr. Shaw saw the revenue from court fees and fines as a positive thing.
In a way, the Justice Department report, which hammered Ferguson officials, seems like a sort of a cop out, even in light of articles that note that Ferguson tactics were neither unique nor extreme by regional standards.
Digging up a Post-Dispatch editorial, however, it is a mistake to dismiss the severity of the findings. As a March 7 editorial in the St. Louis paper notes, there is the case of Ferguson municipal court Judge Ronald Brockmeyer. While he seemed to be “one of the people who understood that things had to change,” he was actually “hiding a secret.”
“While he was busy sentencing poor, black defendants to fines they would never be able to afford, he had conspired with a racist court clerk and prosecutors in other cities to fix traffic tickets for friends, family and himself,” they write.
“Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court,” the DOJ report reads. “The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements. The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety.”
Writes the Editorial Board, “For anybody paying attention the past seven months, or for the African-Americans who have been constantly harassed for Driving (or Walking) While Black in Ferguson and surrounding communities, the report came as no surprise. The Ferguson protests, beyond the immediate anger over Mr. Brown’s death, were — and are — a manifestation of decades of anger. Anger over oppression, anger over the casual violation of civil rights, all detailed in painful precision in black and white in the DOJ report.”
If you’re white, ask yourself this:
- Have you ever received a ticket for telling an officer your name is Mike, instead of Michael?
- Ever been arrested for improper “Manner of Walking in Roadway”? That’s a charge the Ferguson police department issued frequently. In Ferguson, Walking While Black isn’t a sardonic joke. It’s an actual offense.
But here you go – you have to ask yourself, is this just Ferguson? Are they simply the bad guys here and we can forget the global lessons? That might be your temptation, but, as the editorial points out, “If you watched the protests on television, if you didn’t understand why black people in Ferguson and St. Louis and Cleveland and New York were and are upset, please read the DOJ report. It is chock-full of real-life examples of police and court harassment that should anger people of all colors and backgrounds. It is damning and it is real.”
We had a reader a few weeks ago cite a 15-year-old report from New Jersey that cited data to suggest that racial profiling doesn’t happen. There is a reason why we have terms like Driving While Black, Walking While Black, and, at least in Davis, Mowing While Black.
Ferguson made the mistake of being too blatant about it. But the reason that the anger rose from coast to coast is that it resonated.
I understand that people are going to look at the particulars of the Darren Wilson shooting of Michael Brown and argue that Darren Wilson was justified in his actions. I still largely believe that, had Darren Wilson handled the situation more adroitly, the incident could have been avoided.
But, regardless, you can’t ignore the context of that interaction – the distrust globally between police and young black man. And the distrust that had built up over the years due to local factors that have only now really come to light.
Of course, none of the rest of the country knew of any of this when the city of Ferguson exploded back in August. But knowing what we do now, can we really be surprised?
—David M. Greenwald reporting