Tuesday, March 10, 2015

From Ferguson to Selma

 “Selma is not just about commemorating the past. Selma is now.” — President Barack Obama, March 7, 2015

IN A recent post, I shared an NBC News article about the extreme racial bias practiced by the police force, courts and city government in Ferguson, MO as documented in the US Department of Justice report released March 3, 2015. Although factual enough, I didn't feel like the NBC article quite did the subject justice (pun not intended, though appropriate).

You already know I'm a fan of Frank Bruni and Gail Collins. Charles M. Blow is another New York Times writer I often read. His March 4 column got to the heart of the matter more directly and meaningfully, I felt. I also appreciated the column he published March 8 on President Obama's speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”

They fit together well as a pair, I think, so I'm sharing both with you.

The Feds vs. Ferguson
By Charles M. Blow
March 4, 2015

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice released the utterly devastating results of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.

The report contained charges that the Police Department and the municipal courts treated citizens less like constituents and more like a revenue stream, violating citizens’ constitutional rights in the process.

And it found that this burden was disproportionately borne by the black people in a town that is two-thirds black. This disproportionate weight is exacerbated when people are poor.

As the Justice Department report pointed out:

“Court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices. They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”

According to an August Brookings report:

“Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.”

The view that emerges from the Justice Department report is that citizens were not only paying a poverty tax, but a pigment tax as the local authorities sought to balance their budgets and pad their coffers on the backs of poor black people.

Perhaps most disturbing — and damning — is actual correspondence in the report where the authorities don’t even attempt to disguise their intent.

Take this passage from the report:

“In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote to Chief [Thomas] Jackson that ‘unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.’ Similarly, in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: ‘Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.’”

Furthermore, the report made clear that “officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued.”

The report read like one about a shakedown gang rather than about city officials.

The police appear to have done what was requested of them.The report puts it this way:

“According to data the City reported to the Missouri State Courts Administrator, at the end of fiscal year 2009, the municipal court had roughly 24,000 traffic cases and 28,000 non-traffic cases pending. As of October 31, 2014, both of those figures had roughly doubled to 53,000 and 50,000 cases, respectively. In fiscal year 2009, 16,178 new cases were filed, and 8,727 were resolved. In 2014, by contrast, 24,256 new offenses were filed, and 10,975 offenses were resolved.”

For context, the population of Ferguson is around 21,000 people, according to the Census Bureau.

Some officers balked at this obscenity, particularly as it related to “imposing mounting penalties on people who will never be able to afford them” — one member repeating the adage “How can you get blood from a turnip?” But “enough officers — at all ranks — have internalized this message that a culture of reflexive enforcement action, unconcerned with whether the police action actually promotes public safety, and unconcerned with the impact the decision has on individual lives or community trust has taken hold within FPD.”

And the racial disparities as charged by the Justice Department are unconscionable.

According to the report, “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias” and “there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”

For instance:

“African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search.”


“FPD appears to bring certain offenses almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.”


“Even where FPD officers have legal grounds to stop or arrest, however, they frequently take actions that ratchet up tensions and needlessly escalate the situation to the point that they feel force is necessary.”

This all brings us full circle to the only reason there was an investigation and the only reason this information has been analyzed and presented — the killing of Michael Brown and the protests that followed.

(Darren Wilson first encountered Michael Brown and his friend walking in the street and ordered them to move to the sidewalk, and a scuffle began, and Wilson ultimately shot Brown. By the way, Wilson was also cleared of civil rights violations by the Justice Department on Wednesday.)

Whatever one thinks about the case of the killing and how it was handled in the courts, it is clear that Brown’s death will not be in vain. It is clear that the frustration that poured out onto the streets of Ferguson was not without merit.

Once again, the oppression people feel as part of their lived experiences, and can share only by way of anecdote, is bolstered by data.
When people say “Black Lives Matter,” they’re not referring only to the lives lost, but also to those stunted and controlled by a system of power that sees them as pawns.

Charles M. Blow

Race, History, a President, a Bridge
Obama and Selma: The Meaning of ‘Bloody Sunday’
By Charles M. Blow
March 8, 2015

As our van in the presidential motorcade reached the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and began the descent toward the thousands of waiting faces and waving arms of those who had come to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the gravity of that place seized me, pushing out the breath and rousing the wonder.

The mind imagines the horror of that distant day: the scrum of bodies and the cloud of gas, the coughing and trampling, the screaming and wailing, the batons colliding with bones, the opening of flesh, the running down of blood.

In that moment I understood what was necessary in President Obama’s address: to balance celebration and solemnity, to honor the heroes of the past but also to motivate the activists of the moment, to acknowledge how much work had been done but to remind the nation that that work was not complete.

(I, along with a small group of other journalists, had been invited by the White House to accompany the president to Selma and have a discussion with him during the flight there.)

About an hour north of where the president spoke was Shelby County, whose suit against the Department of Justice the Supreme Court had used to gut the same Voting Rights Act that Bloody Sunday helped to pass.

His speech also came after several shootings of unarmed black men, whose deaths caused national protests and racial soul-searching.

It came on the heels of the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, Mo., which found pervasive racial bias and an oppressive use of fines primarily against African-Americans.

It came as a CNN/ORC poll found that four out of 10 Americans thought race relations during the Obama presidency had gotten worse, while only 15 percent thought they had gotten better.

The president had to bend the past around so it pointed toward the future. To a large degree, he accomplished that goal. The speech was emotional and evocative. People cheered. Some cried.

And yet there seemed to me something else in the air: a lingering — or gathering — sense of sadness, a frustration born out of perpetual incompletion, an anger engendered by the threat of regression, a pessimism about a present and future riven by worsening racial understanding and interplay.

To truly understand the Bloody Sunday inflection point — and the civil rights movement as a whole — one must appreciate the preceding century.

After the Civil War, blacks were incredibly populous in Southern states. They were close to, or exceeded, half the population in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina.

During Reconstruction, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified, abolishing slavery, granting citizenship and equal protection to former slaves and extending the vote to black men. As a result, “some 2,000 African-Americans held public office, from the local level all the way up to the U.S. Senate,” according to the television channel History.

This was an assault on the traditional holders of power in the South, who responded aggressively. The structure of Jim Crow began to form. The Ku Klux Klan was born, whose tactics would put the current Islamic State to shame.

Then in the early 20th century came the first wave of the Great Migration, in which millions of Southern blacks would decamp for the North, East and West.

This left a smaller black population in Southern states that had developed and perfected a system to keep those who remained suppressed and separate.

Here, the civil rights movement and Bloody Sunday played out.

The movement was about justice and equality, but in a way it was also about power — the renewed fear of diminished power, the threat of expanded power, the longing for denied power.

Now, we must look at the hundred years following the movement to understand that another inflection point is coming, one that again threatens traditional power: the browning of America.

According to the Census Bureau, “The U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043,” with minorities projected to be 57 percent of the population in 2060.

In response, fear and restrictive laws are creeping back into our culture and our politics — not always explicitly or violently, but in ways whose effects are similarly racially arrayed. Structural inequities — economic, educational — are becoming more rigid, and systemic biases harder to eradicate. But this time the threat isn’t regional and racially binary but national and multifaceted.

So, we must fight our fights anew.

As the president told a crowd in South Carolina on Friday, “Selma is not just about commemorating the past.” He continued, “Selma is now.”


  1. Beautiful. We DO need to be aware of how the current situation came about and why it remains. We need to understand that without all of us getting behind equal treatment for all our citizens, the work will be much harder. Thank you for posting these - your fight for what is right and good is appreciated.

  2. YOU are appreciated, Liz!! Who knows whether I might have given up before now without encouragement. Thank you thank you — as always.