St. Louisans from all political perspectives have justification for feeling more than a little whipsawed during the five years since Michael Brown Jr.’s death in Ferguson. Those who previously viewed the state of racial relations through a prism of complacency have had more than their share of upsets as protests and upheaval swept across the region. Those who thought violent protest and nonviolent expressions of mass outrage would prompt rapid, dramatic change no doubt have been frustrated at the slow pace.
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a member of the Ferguson Commission appointed in 2014 by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, perhaps said it best when she declared upon the commission’s first meeting, “I am committed to sitting in discomfort until real change comes.” That sense of discomfort, which lingers today, is good. It serves as a reminder that much work remains. The frustrations to come will tax everyone’s patience.
The mere mention of Brown’s name is enough to make some people bristle defensively, as if they are braced for yet another white-guilt lecture about a defenseless, unarmed black youth gunned down while mythically shouting, Hands up, don’t shoot. As they make clear whenever the subject arises: Brown was neither defenseless nor innocent.
But nothing he did on Aug. 9, 2014, could be deemed so lethally dangerous that it warranted the instant death sentence he received at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. Nor did Eric “I can’t breathe” Garner deserve to be choked to death a month earlier by a New York police officer attempting to arrest him for allegedly selling cigarettes on the street. Nor did 12-year-old Tamir Rice deserve his instant death sentence three months after Brown’s death while holding an air pistol in a Cleveland park.
In none of these, and countless other such cases involving black victims, did their family members and supporters receive the levels of justice they sought despite mass protests and national outcry.
But the message has been delivered, loud and clear, that new standards of discipline and self-restraint are mandatory for beat cops on America’s urban streets.
The frustrated readers who demand that this newspaper focus on something — anything — other than Michael Brown and Ferguson on this five-year anniversary appear to be missing the point. Michael Brown was not an isolated case but a symbol of the unanswered injustices against thousands of primarily young black men who were harassed, killed, arrested, convicted or possibly even executed, not because of their guilt but because of their skin color.
Brown’s death marked one of those all-too-rare moments in history when like-minded individuals from across the country, having reached the limit of their tolerance, united in a call for racial justice.
No, the brutality and blatant rights violations didn’t stop just because of mass civil disobedience and riots. But a reform process has unquestionably been unleashed in the wake of Ferguson. Police departments across the region have seen their municipal court fine collections plummet, many by 70% to 95%, as a result of reforms recommended by the Ferguson Commission and, in a few cases, mandated by bipartisan majorities in the Legislature. The use of law enforcers as revenue generators for cash-strapped municipalities has been drastically curtailed, as it should have been long ago
It is much harder now for local police officers to concoct bogus alibis that allow them to escape accountability for their actions. Officers know that cellphone videographers are everywhere to document their actions, as if to serve a Miranda warning to law enforcers: Everything you say, and do, can and will be used against you in a court of law.
Those videos have worked to devastating effect. Though they still have yielded precious few convictions of officers for egregious offenses, the exposure has cost many abusive officers their jobs.
Police forces are devoting more money to equip officers with body cameras to help provide additional accountability and substantiate their explanations when they believe the use of force was justified. Police departments also are requiring officers to undergo de-escalation training specifically to reduce the chances of confrontations ending in tragedies like Brown’s.
Add to that the presence of black undercover officers like Detective Luther Hall, whose account of being beaten “like Rodney King” during 2017 protests in downtown St. Louis was instrumental in the indictments of four St. Louis officers accused of physical assault, depriving Hall of his constitutional rights and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Hall’s willingness to disrupt his colleagues’ silent complicity and step forward in pursuit of justice marked an important turning point in the painstaking process of rooting out officers who have no business wearing the badge.
The face of local prosecution also has changed. Voters unceremoniously booted longtime St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch in 2018, making clear they had not forgotten his efforts to steer a grand jury away from indicting Wilson for Brown’s death. His replacement, former Ferguson City Council member Wesley Bell, is making slow but steady progress to reform prosecutorial procedures in his department.
Similarly, Kim Gardner has made history as the first African American to hold the St. Louis circuit attorney’s job. She has generated considerable controversy for establishing a list of 59 officers whose credibility is so strained, and record of abusive behavior is so substantial, that she will not prosecute any cases in which they are associated. Her preliminary list predated news in June that at least 22 St. Louis officers had participated in a Facebook group where racist and abusive postings were shared.
The election of black prosecutors has helped shake the region out of its lethargy and served notice that it’s time to dismantle the white-dominated, good ol’ boys’ network that has, for far too long, ruled the ranks of St. Louis law enforcement. Their house-cleaning is a work in progress, which hopefully will leave in place the vast majority of officers who behave professionally and do not allow questions of race and poverty to distract them enforcing the law equitably.
Other works in progress involve efforts to address regional poverty and unemployment figures that continue to reflect sharp racial disparities. Public schools remain segregated, with suburban and white-dominated schools offering resources and opportunities that students in black-dominated urban schools could only dream of. All of these are components in the social dynamic putting blacks at a significant historical disadvantage compared to their white counterparts.
It was at the intersection of poverty, unemployment, lack of educational opportunity and deep-rooted racial animosity where the confrontation developed that cost Michael Brown his life. None of those unacceptable conditions, or others on a long list of community grievances, are likely to diminish as rapidly as reformers demand. They must keep pushing and prodding.
For those who complain with exasperation about all the attention still being paid to one teenager’s death five years ago on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, sorry for your discomfort. May your bubble of complacency and denial soon burst as the forces of dramatic social change sweep the hard-hearted obstructionists aside.
Like Blackmon, alas, we must all commit ourselves to sitting in discomfort a while longer.