Y'all, I have been avoiding writing this. For days now, I have been unable to get out of my mind that Department of Justice report on how the community of Ferguson has been unjustly policed. It is almost midnight as I write this, so I am going to keep my comments short, but I hope they are received with openness. My hope truly is not to stir up controversy or restart conversations from the beginning. It is my desire only to express why Christians ought to care about the contents of this report. I submit to you that it is our duty not to brush it aside, but to be full of repentance and to seek correction.
Whether reading snippets of the report, listening to the Attorney General summarize the findings, or reading the entire thing- there is little good to be found in this report. The number of civil rights violations is quite appalling. Allow me to cite just a few examples:
- Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials. (source)
- Routine interactions between officers and black residents quickly escalated. In 2012, for example, an officer patted down a black man whose car appeared to violate a city code on window tinting. The man was ultimately arrested on eight offenses, including “making a false declaration” by giving his nickname instead of the name on his license. Over the course of the arrest, the officer accused him of being a pedophile, asked to search his car without cause and reportedly held a gun to his head. (source)
- Officers violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force. Officers frequently infringe on residents’ First Amendment rights, interfering with their right to record police activities and making enforcement decisions based on the content of individuals’ expression (source)
- The Ferguson Police Department used tasers and dogs in excess on black suspects. In 2013, one man was chased down and bitten by an officer’s dog even though the officer had frisked him and knew the man was unarmed. The officer’s supervisor later justified the use of force with a patently untrue statement, suggesting that the officer feared “that the subject was armed.” (source)
- Ferguson police and court officials were focused on generating revenue from municipal fines. The municipal court routinely considered more than 1,000 offenses in a single session. In 2011, the police chief reported that fines in the last month “beat our next biggest month in the last four years by over $17,000.” The city manager responded: “Wonderful!” (source)
- The Ferguson Municipal Court practices exacerbating the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices and imposing particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing (source)
- In nearly 90% of cases in which Ferguson documented the use of force, those actions were used against African Americans. A review of 161 such cases by Justice investigators found that none of the incidents resulted in disciplinary action. (source)
- Several police and court employees expressed racist views in emails and interviews. Messages between Ferguson officials compared African-Americans to chimpanzees and characterized a black woman’s abortion as an effective crime-stopping tool. (source)
- Attorney General Holders summary remarks can be seen (here)
The list of civil rights violations seems to be unending. For this alone we ought to be outraged for our fellow citizens. In fact, we should be sick to our stomachs for these normalized and institutionalized acts of dehumanization.
So often, when we talk of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's, we all want so badly to believe that we would have stood on the right side of history- that we would have marched, would have protested, would have sung freedom's songs. And yet, here the opportunity stands before us to be outraged, to be demanding, to protest this treatment of black citizens... and yet. Compared to the atrocities listed here, the nation is relatively silent. The community residents and activists of Ferguson once again lead the way in demanding equal treatment under the law.
But this is only one reason why we ought to be outraged, the other is because this level of injustice is an outrage to God. This is nothing short of an abuse of power, crushing the heads of the poor (Amos 2:7) to line the pockets of the powerful. This "justice" system is being used to steal as much money as is possible from residents, and the spoil of the poor is in their houses (Isaiah 3:14). Using minor offenses, the residents are subject to physical, mental, emotional and economic abuses. And this is done with rejoicing! They love evil and hate what is good (Micah 3:1) With pleasure and laughter, cheers for a job well done and offensive emails they reinforce the dehumanization of residents among one another.
The prophets spoke against this behavior, over and over again. We have no credibility shouting in our churches for "justice to roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever flowing stream" (Amos 5:24) if we do not wrestle with what is happening in Ferguson and far too many other cities across America. We have no credibility to wear t-shirts that read "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8)- if we dont intend to actually practice justice for all.
I'm not sure where we picked up this idea that a citizen breaking the law is the ultimate offense, rather than expecting those in power to not abuse their authority. My guess is its because there are some communities who face this treatment daily, and others who can barely fathom it. But we must. We must wrap our minds around this crooked and unjust system. We must read it and respond in righteous indignation. We must read it and hold our authorities to a higher standard. Justice systems exist because we know that residents break laws. And while this is certainly not honorable, what is far worse and far more unacceptable is for the authorities to create offenses, to over fine, to sick dogs, and to hold guns to citizens heads for his windows being tinted.
If it were your community, if it was your brother's house being raided constantly, if it was your sister's fines stacking up because there is no place for appeal, if it was your neighbor's child bitten by a dog, would that be enough to care? Because these are our brothers and sisters and neighbors. And we, as Christians, must hold ourselves responsible for seeking justice where there is a system of injustice.
The DOJ report contains "recommendations" for fixing these issues. The residents of Ferguson are seeking new leadership to establish just systems for their lives. Lets make sure we have their back by staying informed on the progress and lending our support as residents have need. And lets make sure we are staying aware of any communities near us experiencing the same.