No wonder Ferguson blew up last summer.
It was only a matter of time. The St. Louis suburb’s police force, inadequately trained, led by moral incompetents and largely ignorant of rudimentary constitutional concepts, was bound to touch off an explosion among the citizens it misrules.
That event was the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.
People can only take so much. “Oppression” is a loaded term, but I can’t think of a better word to describe the everyday relationship between the police and the population, laid out in shocking detail this week in a Justice Department report. The town’s government could be described, without exaggeration, as a strong-arm racket.
Dare to flinch in front of an officer and you’ll be arrested for resisting.
Question why you are being stopped, mouth off or display any anger and you’ll be tased.
Be the unlucky soul inside a vacant building when a crew of officers decides to pounce, and dogs may be ordered to bite and pull at your limbs. Even if you are a teenager who is just skipping school.
It’s all in the federal report on Ferguson. Its 102 pages are laden with anecdotes that conjure the bigoted policing of a bygone era — or, rather, an era we liked to think is bygone — a time when big-city cops and Southern lawmen alike enforced the law however they saw fit.
What mattered in the bad old days was preserving a social order in which white people were superior to black people. In Ferguson, money is the boss of the plantation. Police officers are on the streets less to protect and serve than to fill the city’s coffers with money collected from fines. A system of government evolved to steamroll citizens, particularly poorer African-Americans, trampling their rights in a relentless drive to fund the budget.
The police, city hall and the courts act together in a finely tuned revenue machine. Racial and class prejudice grease the wheels. If you want to know what institutional racism looks like, Ferguson is a perfect case study.
Some officers, in interviews with the Justice Department, evinced a hazy grasp of the laws they claimed to be enforcing. Bedrock principles of policing, the constitutional necessities of reasonable suspicion and probable cause, are often cast to the winds.
The pressure on patrol officers to generate revenue for the city through traffic and pedestrian stops appears to be unrelenting. Police officers are instructed — ordered even — to write citations. The report cites an example where a promotion to detective was conditioned on generating citation revenue. The report cites evidence of city officials setting targets for the police chief — and of him pledging that his officers would do their part.
It became a sport. Police had contests to who could gin up the most citations in a single stop. Whether a given stop was constitutionally justifiable wasn’t really a concern.
Much of the hullabaloo over the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing riots revolved around the merits of the case against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him. While not beside the point, those details can distract us from understanding why Ferguson erupted and why the protests spread nationwide. Elements of what troubles this small town are pervasive.
Good, conscientious people exist within bad systems. The Justice Department took pains to point out that it found police officers who had tried to complain, city workers who were dedicated and determined to be respectful of citizens.
Yet corrupt and powerful systems have a way of grinding those who challenge them into dust. The momentum is that strong. Changing the culture of Ferguson will be difficult even now that its misgovernment has been exposed. Change would be unthinkable if it hadn’t been for Brown’s death — and, more to the point, the outrage and protest that followed.
Nor would change be likely if the Justice Department hadn’t decided to shine a light on the powers that be in Ferguson.
There is a kind of American who sees angry black people on television, loudly — even rudely — recriminating against the police and concludes that they are to blame. Who thinks that black people’s problem with authority — not the authorities’ problem with them — is why we can’t find our way to a “post-racial” society.
To that person I say: Read the Justice Department report.
No one should be treated the way Ferguson’s citizens have been by their police. It’s unconstitutional, it’s inhumane and it has to stop.