In August 2014, a Ferguson Missouri police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed 18 year-old Michael Brown, pumping between six and eight rounds of ammunition into the unarmed Brown while firing off twelve rounds in total.
Immediately, people angrily gathered at the shooting scene with Brown’s body lying on the pavement for four hours. Protests in Ferguson continued for several weeks after Brown’s death and out of this death emerged the call for “Black Lives Matter.”
In the heat of these protests the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated the Brown case and later concluded that Darren Wilson had been justified in his use of deadly force. Even before that time, however, national media had thoroughly demonized Brown; and the truth is that just moments before he was killed Brown had robbed a convenience store of a few packs of cigarillos and had physically intimidated the store owner. For those folks who hate “Black Lives Matter” this ended the discussion: Michael Brown, they said, was a “thug” who assaulted Wilson and Wilson responded appropriately.
But I would like to suggest to you – and I ask that you hear me out – that even in the case of this angry young man, Michael Brown, the demand that this country acknowledge that Black Lives Matter is appropriate. Put another way, Michael Brown is dead today because in the United States, in this second decade of the 21st Century, black lives continue not to matter.
We can understand this by looking at the town in which Brown lived. First, Ferguson is two-thirds black, and a very poor community. In fact, following 2008’s Great Recession the number of folks living under the government poverty level — $23,492 for a family of four – reached one in four residents of the city. Those living under twice the poverty level constituted 44 percent of the city’s population. Despite the fact that the city is predominantly black, at the time of Brown’s death, the mayor, the police chief, and five of six of the city council members were white, and fifty of the fifty-three officers in Ferguson’s police department were white.
On the other hand, despite the fact that 67 percent of Ferguson residents were black, 86 percent of those stopped in traffic stops were black, and 93 percent of those arrested during these stops were black. And it gets worse.
At the same time that the DOJ issued its report on Michael Brown’s case the DOJ issued a second report, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.” In this report the DOJ argued that Ferguson based its law enforcement practices not on “public safety needs” but on the need for revenue – for making money off of fines and court fees. The DOJ determined that the “City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved.” After the start of the 2008 Great Recession, with sales tax revenue for the city plummeting, Ferguson’s city fathers more and more heavily emphasized the need for the police to bring in additional money from fines and court fees.
As a result, from 2009 to 2014 both the number of traffic cases and non-traffic cases hauled in front of the Municipal Court doubled or nearly doubled – to 53,000 traffic cases and 50,000 non-traffic cases – and this, in a city of 21,000 people! If we figure that not all Ferguson residents are drivers, and that not all these traffic tickets were issued to Ferguson residents, still, every Ferguson driver must have received an average of three traffic citations in the year 2014. And remember, Ferguson police were encouraged to hand out these tickets not because of actual traffic violations, but because the city needed the money.
The DOJ report further insisted that Ferguson’s structuring of its police policies around the need to raise revenue shaped.
“activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing. Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors … do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
One example: a thirty-two-year-old black Ferguson resident had just finished a game of basketball and was cooling off in his car by the park. An FPD officer pulled up and accused the man of being a pedophile – children were playing in the park. After the man refused the officer’s request to search his vehicle (it is legal to refuse to allow an officer to search your car unless the officer has a legitimate reason – “probable cause” – to suspect that some kind of crime has taken place), the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, and charged him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. Among these charges, the officer cited the man for “making a false declaration” – the man said his name was “Mike” instead of the name that appeared on his driver’s license, Michael. The officer also cited “Mike” for failure to wear a seat belt – although, again, the man was seated in his car and not driving at the time the incident occurred.
The DOJ report also determined that the “municipal court does not act as neutral arbiter of the law or check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses it judicial authority as a means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests.” In 2013, for example, the Municipal Court issued over 9,000 warrants “stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations.” The Court “routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees.”
One example: police issued two parking citations to a black woman in 2007. Fines for these citations reached $151, plus fees. The woman was poor, could not immediately pay the fines and fees, missed court dates, was issued Failure to Appear citations, was arrested twice, and spent six days in jail. On several occasions the Court refused partial payments. By 2014, seven years after the initial citations, the woman had paid out $550 in fines and she still owed $541 in additional fines and fees, all stemming from a $151 fine for illegal parking. Jailed twice and having to pay out over $1000 for a couple of parking tickets!
This is the community in which Michael Brown lived. I don’t think I’m saying anything radical if I tell you that I’d be mad as hell living in that community – constantly being pulled over and disrespected by the police, being jailed for parking tickets, being jailed for protesting illegal searches of your car, being jailed for asking questions instead of simply obeying orders, and living in a community where most people are poor and very poor. Mad as hell. And I suspect you’d be pretty mad too. But mad or not, if you were black in that community, you’d still be screwed.
So, yes, Michael Brown was an angry young man. He was angry because in the community in which he lived, like black communities all up and down this land, black lives do not matter. He would not be dead today, and this country would not be in the turmoil it is in, if Black Lives Did Matter.
In my next letter I will discuss some more of the police murders of black people which have shaken this country in the last several years. And these people were killed not because they were angry but simply because they were black.