Where is Ferguson? This was the number one question asked of me by hundreds of people around the United States in the days immediately following August 9, 2014. Although I lived only 12 miles away, even I could not answer the question initially. Ferguson is a small city of about 21,000 people. I have driven near, around, and past Ferguson thousands of times during my 25 years in the St. Louis metropolitan area. But even I did not know Ferguson.
According to a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation in the shooting death of Michael Brown,1 on Saturday, August 9, 2014, at approximately 11:50 a.m., Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson were walking eastbound down the middle of the street in the Canfield Green Apartments, located in Ferguson, Missouri A convenience store video recording shows Michael Brown and his friend stealing a package of cigarillos and leaving the store a few minutes before. As captured on the store’s surveillance video, when the store clerk tried to stop Brown, who towered over the clerk, Brown forcefully shoved him away. On-duty police officer Darren Wilson, who was driving westbound down Canfield around this same time, encountered Brown and Johnson a few minutes later walking down the middle of the street, a municipal ordinance violation known as “manner of walking.” He ordered them out of the street. There are conflicting accounts of what happened. It is undisputed that Brown and Wilson exchanged words and that Wilson discharged his gun while still sitting in his car, injuring Brown’s hand.
Brown then ran away from Wilson, heading eastbound on Canfield Drive. Wilson gave chase. Brown ran at least 180 feet away from Wilson, turned around, and took approximately 21 steps back in Wilson’s direction. Wilson fired several shots at Brown. Within two minutes of their initial encounter, Michael Brown lied dead on the pavement. And lie he did For over four hours, on a small residential street, a mere 24 feet wide, on hot summer day. Crowds gathered, pictures were taken, children cried, residents were shocked and angered. The “Ferguson” we know today was born.
Over the next few days, protesters gathered in the streets of Ferguson near the Canfield Green Apartments. Crowds swelled. Tension and anger were strong. People demanded the officer’s name. Police were dispatched to the area in riot gear. Fully armed with shields, K-9 units, and rifles, police patrolled the area in military-grade armored vehicles. Loaded rifles were pointed at protesters. Rubber bullets and tear gas were used against protesters and news media alike. Some officers were recorded calling protesters animals. Vandalism of some businesses occurred; a QuikTrip convenience store was burned to the ground. Hundreds of people, including news reporters, were arrested. People from around the nation, and the world, descended on Ferguson. Even drones were spotted circling the area. This “revolution” was televised. And many watched their televisions asking: Is this America?
In the early days after the shooting, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that he would present evidence to a grand jury for it to decide whether an indictment of Officer Wilson was warranted. This announcement caused tremendous consternation. The prosecutor came from a family of police officers; his father, also a police officer, was killed by a Black man. But for an amputation to his leg as a child, he would have become a police officer himself. He was not trusted by many in the Black community because of his unwillingness to pursue charges against police officers who had killed and seriously injured Black people.2 Although stepping aside was an option, he refused to take that path. This fueled more resentment.
A week after Brown’s killing, Darren Wilson was finally identified as the officer who shot Brown That disclosure was released simultaneously as two images broadcast around the world: one of Officer Wilson receiving an award from the Ferguson City Council and the second of video surveillance from the convenience store showing Michael Brown “strong arming” the convenience store owner. Outrage was renewed.
Two years before Ferguson erupted, a scathing document on municipal court abuses in the St. Louis area was published.3 The Arch City Defenders’ Municipal Courts White Paper reported on dozens of the 90 municipalities in the St. Louis area, some a square mile wide with only a few hundred residents, and many predominately Black, predominately poor, that used their police officers to generate revenue. The Washington Post did additional follow-up on this blockbuster report after Michael Brown’s killing and the story of overly aggressive policing, known in the St. Louis community for years,4 became a national story.5
All of the data in these reports was subsequently confirmed by another DOJ report, this one focused on the practices of the Ferguson Police Department (FPD). This report found excessive targeting of Black drivers (stopped for speeding, for failure to have special stickers, for nonfunctioning brake lights, for sitting in their parked cars looking suspicious, and more); once stopped their cars were disproportionately searched for contraband (unlike Whites, who, the report found, were neither stopped as often nor searched with the same regularity despite their much higher likelihood of possessing contraband); and then disproportionately arrested. People were even ticketed for baggy pants, “manner of walking,” and other “quality of life” violations. There was a pattern of excessive fines and warrants issued. People who could not make bail or pay fines had their drivers’ licenses taken and were fined or jailed for inability to pay their fines. Some courts operated out of what looked like homes, many operated once a month (a problem, then, for a person arrested who could not make bail in time to secure release before the next court date) and were open for 3–4 hours. Images of long lines of people, all Black, snaking outside the courthouses patiently waiting to enter in the heat, in the cold, in the rain, and in the snow were common There was no court-provided day care, as some other court districts have done, and children were not allowed in court. This created another burden when parents had to choose between missing hearings because they could not find babysitters or risking charges of neglect leveled against them if they came to court and left their child in the car while they went into the court to address the fines. The DOJ report on the FPD found a pattern of unconstitutional stops and arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment, violations of the First Amendment, and a pattern of excessive force.6
The DOJ report also found “substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. Police supervisors, including Darren Wilson’s supervisor, and court staff circulated e-mails stereotyping racial minorities as criminals. One e-mail joked about an abortion by an African American woman as being a method of crime control.”7
All of this occurred in a largely Black city that was politically dominated by a White power structure. At the time of the Brown killing, Ferguson was approximately 70 percent Black. The mayor of Ferguson was White, five of its six City Council members were White, and 50 of its 54 police officers were White. The prosecutor, the municipal court judge, and virtually all of the court’s administrative staff were White.
The mayor of Ferguson denied that there were any racial differences in his city.8 He was wrong. There were in fact two Fergusons: one mostly Black with the highest percentage of Section 8 low-income renters in the state and the other White, affluent, and living in well-maintained homes.9 And, as the DOJ reports revealed, these two populations lived completely different experiences.
Almost four months after Brown’s killing, the grand jury reached its decision. At around 8:30 p.m. on November 24, 2014, the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. As the decision reverberated throughout the area, violence erupted and looting broke out and spread. Despite the governor having declared a state of emergency, activating the National Guard in anticipation of the announcement, and famously vowing that “violence will not be tolerated,”10 Ferguson burned. Neither police nor the National Guard protected the businesses or the people in Ferguson that night. By daybreak, smoke filled the area and property worth millions of dollars was destroyed.
From August 9 through November 24, 2014, people of all races, ethnicities, and walks of life, from all over the country, descended on Ferguson to join what had become a movement. I protested alongside young, old, White, Black, Asian, disabled, and many other people. I watched, in disbelief, as the media portrayed protesters as violent, thugs, criminals, and Black. This was inaccurate and unfair. A movement was taking place, and it was not just about Black people and it did not involve only Black people. On one level the protests were absolutely about Michael Brown’s death, triggered by the simple act of jaywalking; but on a larger level, the protests were about much more. They were also about police use of force against Black people; they were about the excessive tickets for traffic, quality of life and housing code violations that preyed on the most vulnerable; they were about unemployment and underemployment; they were about inadequate health care and public health concerns; they were about inadequate housing; and they were about substandard schools.
For decades Black people have complained of these ills to no avail. They simply were not believed. It took a killing, it took outrage, it took property destruction, it took social media, to open the collective eyes of the world to see the “cancer” of injustice that had been spreading in the community for years. Throughout the nation (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.) and throughout the world (Britain, France, India, and Palestine, including Palestinians in the Gaza strip), people had heard of Ferguson, knew where it was, and understood what it represented. The word “Ferguson” became synonymous with the struggles for equal justice and equal treatment throughout the world. Yes, property was destroyed. Yet, but for the protests, the violence, and the destruction, we likely would not know the name Michael Brown today. And without that name, we would not know Ferguson. Property destruction cannot be excused but it should be put into perspective. Property can be replaced; lives and futures cannot.
Ferguson is a microcosm of thousands of communities throughout America. We often talk about urban areas: Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore. Few Americans realized, until Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, that the issues of police brutality, the targeting of Blacks for driving while black and the many other structural forms of discrimination as reflected in housing, employment, wealth, health, and education, are not limited to major urban areas They exist in suburbia as well.
This book examines the various laws, social conditions, and economic and political policies that disproportionately impact Black and Brown people in America, that contributed to the frustrations of many residents in Ferguson, Missouri, and that ultimately sparked a global movement. The movement started in Ferguson demanded acknowledgment that “Black Lives Matter,” a phrase created after Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida. And while that phrase was often rebuffed with the retort “All Lives Matter,” this book demonstrates that there is a different treatment of people in our society based on the color of their skin and their socioeconomic status. There are two Fergusons as there are two Americas. We cannot change this reality unless we first acknowledge it. . . .
We cannot learn the lessons of Ferguson if we bury our heads in the sand. But we must learn from Ferguson. If we do not, the fissures that divide this country by race, color, and class will only widen. And this means that they will not just go away with time. Exposure is the first step to consciousness. Consciousness is the first step to correction. Correction is the first step to justice. And justice is the first step toward healing. This book is an effort on the journey to correction, justice, and healing.
1. See Civil Rights Div., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation to the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson (2015), http://www.justice.Gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/doj_report_on_shooting_of_michael_ brown_1.pdf.
2. Pema Levy, Ferguson Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch’s Long History of Siding with the Police, Newsweek (Aug. 29, 2014), http://www.newsweek com/2014/09/12/ferguson-prosecutor-robert-p-mccullochs-long-history-siding-police-267357 html.
3. Koran Addo, ArchCity Defenders Saw Problems with Municipal Courts before Ferguson Turmoil, Apr. 15, 2015, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/archcity-defenders-saw-problems-with-municipal-courts-before-ferguson-turmoil/article_f1493907-7c8c-55af-a68b-6e36df0c2cae html.
4. Julia Craven, Ryan J. Reilly & Mariah Stewart, The Ferguson Protests Worked, Huffington Post, Aug 5, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ferguson-protests-municipal-court-reform_55a90e 4be4b0c5f0322d0cf1?kvcommref=mostpopular.
5. Radley Balko, How Municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., Profit from Poverty, Wash. Post, Sept. 4, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/09/03/how-st-louis-county-missouri-profits-from-poverty/.
6. Civil Rights Div., U.S. De p’t of Justice, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department (Mar. 4, 2015), http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf (finding, inter alia, that “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias, including stereotyping[,]” that this “disproportionately [harms] African Americans, and [that] there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race,” id. at 4).
7. See id. Evidence of this sort is certainly not limited to police and court personnel in Ferguson. See, e.g., Willard Shepard et al., Miami Beach Police Officers Exchanged Racist Emails: State Attorney, NBC Miami (May 14, 2015), http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Miami-Beach-Police-State-Attorney-Holding-News-Conference-303777561.html; see also Florida, California Police Forces Scrutinized for Racist, Sexist Communications, RT Network ( May 15, 2015), http://www.rt.com/usa/259069-miami-sanfrancisco-police-racist/.
8. Ferguson Mayor Addresses Racial Tensions, Number of Black Officers in City, CBS St. Louis (Aug. 13, 2014), http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2014/08/13/ferguson-mayor-the-african-american-community-has-something-against-law-enforcement-in-many-ways/ (Mayor James Knowles III stating “[t]his is not representative of our community”); NewsNation with Tamron Hall, MSNBC (Aug. 19, 2014), http://www.msnbc.com/newsnation/watch/ferguson-mayor--theres-no-racial-divide-here-319506499946.
9. John Eligon, An Indelible Black-and-White Line: A Year after Ferguson, Housing Segregation Defies Tools to Erase It, N.Y. Times, Aug. 9, 2015, http://www nytimes com/2015/08/09/us/an-indelible-black-and-white-line html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0.
10. Wesley Lowery et al., Governor Activates Missouri National Guard in Advance of Ferguson Grand Jury Decision as FBI Issues Warning, Wash. Post, Nov 17, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/11/17/gov-jay-nixon-activates-missouri-national-guard-in-advance-of-ferguson- grand-jury-decision/.