TIME nation

Beyond a Simple Solution for Ferguson

Why we need to address race relations in a thoughtful, provocative way

At first, it seemed a perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression: a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager multiple times. He is shot with his hands up, it is reported, at least once in the back. The young man is a “gentle giant” with no adult criminal record. He seems guilty of nothing more than walking while black, albeit down the middle of the street. This takes place in a town that appears to have been cryogenically preserved from the 1960s, before the Voting Rights Act was passed. An estimated 67% of its citizens are African American; its government is melanin-deprived. The mayor of Ferguson, Mo., is white; 50 of the 53 police officers are white. Demonstrators come out to protest the atrocity–nobody is calling it an “apparent” atrocity yet–and the police respond in gear that makes a St. Louis suburb look like Kandahar.

But the perfection of the metaphor is soon blurred by facts. The gentle giant, Michael Brown Jr.–nicknamed Bodyguard by his friends–seems pretty intimidating in a surveillance video, in which he is seen taking cigarillos from a convenience store, tossing the diminutive clerk into a snack display as if he were a bag of Doritos. The alleged robbery occurs 10 minutes before the confrontation with the cop. The inevitable Rev. Al Sharpton says the video is an attempt to “smear” the young man. Then more facts emerge, and other eyewitnesses allegedly describe a more aggressive Michael Brown–more like the fellow in the video. An autopsy, requested by Brown’s parents, shows six bullet wounds; the kill shot is into the top of the victim’s head–which raises another possibility, that the officer, Darren Wilson, fired in self-defense. And now we have a metaphor of a different, far more difficult sort: about the uncanny ability of Americans to talk past each other when it comes to race relations, and also about the struggle between facts and metaphoric truths.

Sharpton has made a living off metaphoric truths since the late 1980s, when he promoted a terrified young woman named Tawana Brawley, who claimed that she had been raped by six white men, including the local prosecutor. Her story was later shown in court to be false, but the metaphoric truth was undeniable: black women have been casually violated by white men in America for 400 years. The undercurrent was strong enough that few black leaders rose up to take on Sharpton. The fetishizing of black sexuality by white men (and women) was too close to the bone, an infuriating historic truth.

But we have developed new historic truths over the past 50 years. A great many bodega owners won’t see Michael Brown as a metaphor for anything. They see potentially threatening customers every day. Blacks represent 13% of the population but commit 50% of the murders; 90% of black victims are murdered by other blacks. The facts suggest that history is not enough to explain this social disaster.

You can’t convict a terrified, undertrained cop of murder for trying to defend himself, if that’s what the facts show–but all too often in the past, we’ve exonerated racist thugs who were clearly guilty. We can’t ignore the barbarity that got us here: lynching was a fact, too, not a metaphor. Oddly, the election of Barack Obama–poor guy–has blunted the conversation about race relations, at least on the white side. We elected a black man with a Muslim name to be President. What other country would do that? The conversation has also been blunted, honorably, by the President himself in the face of some of the most tawdry race-baiting since Selma. And it has been blunted by leaders of the black community, who don’t want to harm Obama’s presidency by criticizing him. In a recent New Republic article, Jason Zengerle makes a strong case that hatred of Obama mobilized Alabama conservatives to take over the state legislature in 2010 and strip black officials of the power they had gained since the 1960s.

Race remains an open wound. There is a new generation of black intellectuals who are raising the issue in thoughtful, provocative ways. “The Case for Reparations” by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is compelling, even if the case is not a particularly strong one. We’ve had 50 years of drastically improved political, educational and employment opportunities for blacks, which have produced a burgeoning middle class, but a debilitating culture of poverty persists among the urban underclass. Black crime rates are much higher than they were before the civil rights movement. These problems won’t be solved simply by the recognition of historic grievances. Absent a truly candid conversation about the culture that emerged from slavery and segregation, they won’t be solved at all.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

TIME Ferguson

Attorney General Holder Appeals for Calm in Message to Ferguson

Obama Meets Holder About the Situation in Ferguson
United States Attorney General Eric Holder looks on during a meeting in the Oval office of the White House with U.S. President Obama to receive an update on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. Olivier Douliery—Olivier Douliery/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

"This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson: Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for an end to the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, as he promised the Justice Department investigation into the shooting death of an unarmed teen by a police officer “will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent.”

“At a time when so much may seem uncertain, the people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learn — in a fair and thorough manner — exactly what happened,” Holder wrote in a piece published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The U.S. Attorney investigating the case told TIME Tuesday his department’s work is going smoothly, but cautioned the released of information will be a slow process.

Holder’s message comes as violent unrest continues nightly in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson after the August 9 death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old killed by a police officer there. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered National Guard troops to the area Monday after local police were heavily criticized for what many argued has been an excessive response to the unrest. However, the National Guard’s presence did little to calm tensions Monday night, as at least 78 people were arrested during violent demonstrations that continued through the evening.

Holder arrived in Ferguson Tuesday to take stock of the situation and “be briefed on the federal civil rights investigation” that’s currently underway, he wrote. Holder says the Department of Justice has committed around 40 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents to the case in addition to Civil Rights Division prosecutors investigating the shooting. Holder also urged Ferguson’s peaceful protestors to work together to calm those who have been looting and rioting during the ongoing demonstrations.

“I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord,” Holder wrote.

TIME Ferguson Riots

Paul Ryan: Don’t Rush to Judgment on Ferguson

The Wisconsin congressman cautions against jumping to conclusions

+ READ ARTICLE

Former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is not joining his Republican colleague Rand Paul in calling to demilitarize the police in light of events in Ferguson, Mo. Ryan, who’s currently on a tour promoting his new book The Way Forward, is calling instead for a note of caution.

The Wisconsin congressman said it was too early to “jump to prejudging conclusions before evidence is in.” He added that he didn’t exactly know what Sen. Paul meant when he called for a demilitarization of the police.

“I think it’s more important to be respectful of what’s happened, try to get to the truth and let the investigation take its hold,” Ryan said during an interview at Time’s offices. “Our police tactics, do they need to be reviewed? That’s something we should look at when the dust settles on all of this. But the rush to judgment with some broad brush assessment on all law enforcement tactics with respect to this particular incident, I think it’s a little premature to do that.”

Asked if he can offer any insight on the situation in Ferguson after spending time in several poor urban neighborhoods, Ryan did not miss the opportunity to make his oft-stated case against government-led solutions to the issues faced by people in poor neighborhoods in America. “I think a lot of taxpayers, a lot of people in America have been basically given the sense inadvertently from the government that the government’s going to fix this problem,” he said. “You pay your taxes, and we the government will take care of this. That’s not good enough. That’s not going to cut it. That’s actually the wrong impression.”

Instead, Ryan, echoing one of the themes of his book, called for a return to a more civil society. “People need to get involved in their communities. People need to get involved not necessarily with their money but with their time, with their talent, with their patience, with their love. And so the way I think we ought to approach this is we’d better be thinking about how to fight poverty eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul, person-to-person and reintegrate our communities instead of isolating people in our communities.”

A fuller interview with Ryan will be in the magazine’s 10 Questions page in the next issue.

TIME Crime

War Comes Home: The Militarization of U.S. Police Forces

A look at how the Pentagon's emphasis on better weapons for killing has spread to local police forces that have a much different mission

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., occurred off camera. But the reaction of local police forces, in their efforts to calm the civil unrest following his Aug. 9 shooting by a Ferguson cop, has been documented by hundreds of them. Many Americans were surprised by the martial response, which had the St. Louis suburb looking more like Baghdad or Cairo. Some veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq noted that the cops appeared better-armed and outfitted in middle America than the GIs had been in the war zones. Most of the gear has come from the Pentagon, which has ended up with enormous surpluses of guns, radios, and armored vehicles following the end of the Iraq war and the winding down of the conflict in Afghanistan. Since 1997, some $4.3 billion has been given to the nation’s police forces.

The U.S. military has long tried to reduce the number of troops it needs to send to war by giving them better and more powerful weapons than potential foes. While that logic makes sense on the battlefield, where the goal is to kill the enemy, it doesn’t translate particularly well on American streets, where the goal is to preserve order. The photographs above show how police forces have girded for battle over the past half-century.

TIME Crime

#Dontshoot Protesters Outraged by Ferguson Teen’s Death Throw Up Their Hands on Instagram

Protesters throw their hands in the air on social media

Four days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., students at Howard University gathered for this picture with their faces plaintive and their hands:

Since then, similar images of groups around the nation — from other college students, to teachers to churches — have spread across social media under the hashtag “#Dontshoot.”

TIME poverty

How Ferguson Went From Middle Class to Poor in a Generation

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man
A man with a skateboard protesting the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer walks away from tear gas released by police August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Joshua Lott—Getty Images

The same decay that sparked unrest in one Missouri town is taking place across the country

In 1990, Ferguson, Mo. was a middle class suburban enclave north of St. Louis with a population about three-quarters white. In 2000, the town’s population was roughly split between black and white with an unemployment rate of 5%. By 2010, the population was two-thirds black, unemployment had exceeded 13%, and the number of residents living in poverty had doubled in a decade.

Demographic transformation came fast and stark to Ferguson, Missouri. So what happened?

The situation there is “really not so different than the rest of St. Louis County,” said Dr. Norm White, a criminologist with the Saint Louis University School of Social Work. “The problems we saw in the urban core have become the problems of the suburban umbrella.”

The big picture trends White describes aren’t even unique to St. Louis County. Poverty in America’s suburbs has been on the increase nationwide for decades, as the suburbs themselves have grown and affordable housing options moved farther out from urban centers. Opportunities for low-skill jobs—already diminished due to the decline in American manufacturing—in sectors like retail and construction have became more concentrated in suburbs. And its not only a matter of emigration of low income people into the suburbs. Long-term residents in some places have became poorer; suburban areas were hit particularly hard by the recession and housing crisis in the 2000s.

With respect to St. Louis in particular, White points to the razing of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project — a public works project as extraordinary a failure as was the scale of its original vision — as a key factor in the flight to the suburbs. First erected in the early 1950s, the 33, 11-story towers on 57 sprawling acres in St. Louis was designed by the architect who went on to build NYC’s now-fallen World Trade Center.

The complex was intended to be a modern, vibrant community to replace the old poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the poor. In reality, the structures became crime-plagued labyrinths left unmaintained by the city and beginning in 1972 they were torn down, jumpstarting the processes that sent the poor of St. Louis, as elsewhere, out of the city and into the suburbs in search of affordable places to live.

Like most states, Missouri allows for highly fragmented municipalities, each of which retains its own tax revenues and the power to write its own zoning laws. Newer, wealthier suburbs sometimes write zoning restrictions to ban high-density housing, and thus affordable apartments. But Ferguson, an older suburb, has no such restrictions, according to Professor Clarissa Rile Hayward of Washington University in St. Louis. The result is a town where the population of the poor is not only large but also highly concentrated.

“A decade ago, none of the neighborhoods there had poverty rates above 16%,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on the rapid growth of suburban poverty in America. Now every neighborhood but one in the town has a poverty rate over 20%, the point at which typical social ills associated with poverty like poor health outcomes, high crime rates and failing schools start to appear, she says.

“Ferguson is just the place that the scab got pulled off,” White, the criminologist, tells TIME. “The reason why this is so intense is that there are a lot of these little communities that have been left almost to rot. Physically the buildings are falling down. There are no social service programs.”

As to whether or not the spotlight currently shining on the problem of suburban decay will result in a renewed commitment to address poverty in the U.S., White believes politicians and the media will move on. “You listen when the fires are burning,” he said, “but you then go away when the fires are extinguished.”

TIME Crime

California Mayor Urges Cops to Wear Body Cameras After Ferguson

A Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014.
A Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014. Damian Dovargane—AP

Few police departments in the U.S. use body-worn cameras in the field

A California mayor is calling for the city’s police officers to use body-worn cameras following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager that has sparked violent protests in Ferguson, Mo.

In a letter on Friday, Hawthorne Mayor Chris Brown announced that he would introduce an ordinance at next week’s city council meeting mandating all uniformed officers wear cameras on their uniforms.

“I am simply not willing to gamble with a single life, or the wrongful accusation of upstanding officers,” Brown wrote.

The letter comes a week after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, which has ignited riots and focused the nation’s attention on the St. Louis suburb. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon deployed the National Guard on Monday to help keep order. No recording of Brown’s shooting exists, and some have called for more police units to use body-worn cameras, which capture virtually everything an officer sees.

Only a handful of police departments in the U.S. use wearable cameras, due in part to their expense and the limited evidence showing that they increase transparency and curb police misconduct.

While some law enforcement agencies have praised their use—including officials in Rialto, Calif., who they’ve significantly reduced use of force incidents and complaints filed against its officers—there are very few independent studies demonstrating their effectiveness.

Each camera costs an estimated $800 to $1,000. The police department of Hawthorne, located in Los Angeles County with a population of about 84,000, has roughly 100 officers. Cameras for each could cost the agency upwards of $100,000.

TIME

Militarizing Ferguson Cops With Riot Gear Is a Huge Mistake

National Guard and Seattle police arrest WTO protestors , November 1999
National Guard and Seattle police arrest WTO protestors , November 1999 Tim Matsui—Getty Images

As the former chief of Seattle police, I deeply regret tear-gassing WTO protesters in 1999. But police departments should—and still can—learn from what I did wrong

I retired as Seattle’s police chief shortly after I presided over a response to the 1999 WTO protests not unlike the police reaction in Ferguson, Missouri. In time, I came to believe my authorization to send in officers in riot gear and to use tear gas on protesters was the worst decision of my 34-year career as a cop.

Today, the entire institution of policing seems hell-bent on repeating my mistakes.

Many local law enforcement agencies are now outfitted and behave like small armies. This is not good, and the federal government shares much of the blame. With the advent of the drug war and especially since 9/11, the Department of Defense has been more than generous in gifts of surplus military items to the locals: armored personnel carriers, MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles), and a wide assortment of military weaponry.

The causes of the continuing unrest in Ferguson are many: the shooting death of an unarmed teenager, of course, along with persistent racial bigotry and discrimination, crushing poverty, failing schools, high unemployment… But it was the police department’s precipitous, militarized response last weekend that transformed peaceful vigils and protests into a siege of proportions never before seen in that St. Louis suburb.

That, and an abiding, preexisting condition of deep distrust of the city’s police officers.

Throughout the nation, in neighborhoods that have been historically neglected or oppressed by their police, the military mentality has exacerbated an already dreadful relationship. And it has all but destroyed “community policing,” a promising program that seeks to create authentic problem-solving partnerships between police and community.

We should not be surprised that officers of the Ferguson Police Department responded aggressively, militarily, to the original protests. It’s what cops do. They are conditioned to believe they are in control and that they must maintain that control, at all costs. They come to “own” the streets they patrol. The cop culture produces an attitude that, “We’re the police, and you’re not. We will decide what’s best for the community.” Even if it means hitting the family home of a suspected low-level, nonviolent drug offender with maximum military might, or using dogs for crowd control, or violating the civil liberties and human rights of fellow citizens.

Of course, at times, there is no substitute for military equipment and military-like tactics. Picture armed and barricaded suspects, school shootings, and other urgent, life-and-death situations. Make no mistake, America’s cities need carefully selected, well trained, highly self-disciplined police officers to confront these dangerous situations.

The problem comes when local law enforcement embraces militaristic tactics as its default position. Especially in situations, like Ferguson, where de-escalation efforts would have made infinitely better sense.

Picture Captain Ron Johnson standing before that bank of microphones at the beginning, not the end of the week. See him walking, in his everyday uniform, with protestors, smiling, hugging, saying, as he did in church yesterday, “You are my family…I am you.” A powerful statement in a town whose African-American population is 70 percent and whose police force of 53 numbers only three black cops.

Had Ferguson police responded with openness, had they listened and listened then listened some more, had they been as prompt and as forthcoming and thorough in their explanations as circumstances would allow, I am convinced that the peace of the community could have been maintained, its residents allowed to mourn the death of another young black man, even as they insisted on answers from their local police.

American policing, almost since its inception, has operated as a closed, paramilitary-bureaucratic institution. What we’re seeing on the streets of Ferguson is nothing new. We’ve seen it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the police response to labor, antiwar, civil rights, and campus demonstrations. What’s new is just how militaristic everyday policing has become in the early years of the twenty-first century.

But all is not lost. There are many ways to make police more responsible to the communities they serve. Let’s end the drug war that encourages the targeting of poor people, young people, people of color. Let’s flatten steep police hierarchies of power that discourage open and forthright communication within the ranks, and between the people and the police. Let’s invest civilian review boards with investigative and subpoena powers that allow them real oversight. Let’s insist on meaningful community representation in all aspects of police policy-making, program development, priority setting and crisis management.

And, most important, let’s encourage good people to go into policing. They can reform things from the inside and provide living exemplars of what good policing can be.

 

Norm Stamper was Seattle police chief from 1994-2000. He is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of American Policing and is an advisory board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

TIME Crime

Supporters Raise $10K for Police Officer Who Shot Michael Brown

Money raised in only 19 hours

An online fundraising page has raised $10,000 to help support Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown earlier this month.

The GoFundMe page attached to the project reads: “We stand behind Officer Darren Wilson and his family during this trying time in their lives. All proceeds will be sent directly to Darren Wilson and his family for any financial needs they may have including legal fees.”

It took 288 people only 19 hours to raise the money, and the page has been shared more than 3,500 times on Facebook. Many of the comments on the site include love and prayers for Wilson and his family, and some statements about Wilson being innocent until proven guilty.

“I pray that our media, politicians and criminal justice system are strong enough to resist the modern day lynch mob mentality and permit reason and justice to prevail,” wrote one person who donated $100.

Wilson was identified Friday as the officer who shot Brown, whose death has led to violent protests and clashes with police in Ferguson. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon deployed the National Guard on Monday to try to restore calm.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,270 other followers