Two years since unarmed, 18 year old African American Mike Brown was killed by a white police officer and his death still polarizes a nation. Fueled by new media like Twitter, thousands listened in or contributed their thoughts in real-time. Many African Americans decried Mike Brown’s death as an unjust murder—just one in an ever-growing line of extra-judicial slayings of black people by white police officers. Others, mostly white, said he deserved his fate. He was a criminal who, according to the officer’s testimony, instigated a physical confrontation and brought on his own death. Different interpretations. Different Americas.
The Mike Brown Autopsy Report
“While credible witnesses gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands as he moved toward Wilson – i.e., balling them, holding them out, or pulling up his pants up…they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him.”
The report goes on to say,
“Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up at shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe Brown then dropping his hands and “charging” at Wilson.”
Although the early story said that Mike Brown had his hands up in a gesture of surrender, conflicting witness reports and the autopsy discredit this story. Allies of Mike Brown do themselves no good to perpetuate the #handsupdontshoot narrative.
The Report on the Ferguson Police Department
But there were two reports! The second report on the Ferguson Police Department proved damning to the entire system. This report found,
“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs…Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.”
Specific violations included in the report show a pattern racial bias and disproportionate policing of African Americans. The city finance director wrote to the local police chief, unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year.” Police department leaders put pressure on officers to issue more citations which resulted in a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probably cause.
The courts were involved, too. “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.” Most damaging, the courts issue arrest warrants for missed court dates. In 2013, 9,000 arrest warrants were issues, mostly for minor violations. People who don’t show up to court can then be arrested putting them out of work, further in debt, and embroiled in an unfair legal system.
The cumulative effect of policing for revenue and racial bias that demonstrates intentional bias against African Americans resulted in a culture of distrust between law enforcement and the residents of Ferguson.
Which Report Do You Emphasize?
People who emphasize only the first DoJ report—the autopsy—show that they interpret racial injustice in mostly personal and individual terms. They look at this isolated case and determine whether justice has been served. If it has, then it’s time to move on. Oftentimes this emphasis on personal responsibility includes a lesson on how black people ought to act in order to be considered respectable citizens.
People who emphasize only the second DoJ report—the investigation of Ferguson PD—understand that racism plays out in systemic and institutional ways. The way to combat injustice is to change the laws, policies, and practices that unfairly impact the poor and minorities. They tend to overlook Brown’s own behavior in the incident that led to his death and focus on the over-arching relationship between law enforcement and local residents.
Emphasizing either Department of Justice report to the exclusion of the other is a mistake. Racial justice will not come about merely by “pulling up your pants” and saying “Yes sir!” The problems transcend a person’s particular actions in specific circumstances. Policing in America is part of a larger pattern that has often unfairly targeted minorities. Neither will racial progress come about without paying attention to the individual actions of people. Everyone has the responsibility to make wise choices.
Even though there were two reports, I think more emphasis needs to be placed on the systemic and institutional causes of racism. Whites (for now) form the largest racial demographic in the United States. People in the majority are used to being treated as individuals which makes it harder for them to see their circumstances as part of a system of beliefs and practices.
While the lines don’t neatly fall along racial boundaries, in general, this perspective puts a wall between black and white citizens. Whites see highlighting the racial aspects of a case as “race-baiting” and ignoring personal responsibility. Black people perceive the emphasis on individual behavior as blaming the victim and as fundamentally removed from America’s racist past and present.
If white people genuinely desire racial reconciliation, they’ll have to put in the work to understand the systemic and institutional causes of racism (several resources are included below). This isn’t saying that only white people are responsible for working for racial justice, but amid the “he deserved it” or “why celebrate a criminal” sentiments on the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death, it’s important to remember that context matters.