A Response to Ferguson: Systemic Problems Require Systemic Solutions

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A Response to Ferguson: Systemic Problems Require Systemic Solutions

Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them Howard University students, march down the middle of U Street Northwest after a grand jury did not intict the white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in Missouri November 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. A St. Louis County grand jury has decided to not indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown that sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri in August. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last night, like many across the world who were watching, we experienced deep disappointment in the decision by the St. Louis County grand jury not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenage boy, on August 9. Our thoughts are first with the family of Michael Brown and the community of Ferguson.

It’s important to note that this case has never been about just one police officer. The spotlight on Ferguson has revealed with a renewed, sharper focus a deep divide in our society highlighting persistent systemic inequalities. Even as we awaited the decision in this case there have been too many additions to the killing of young black men and boys at the hand of those who have sworn to protect us. But who will protect the black and brown community from the police?

What we are witnessing is a reflection of a systematic failure in our society that is revealed wherever we are willing to look—schools, health care, employment, housing, life expectancy, poverty, and the list goes on. The problem is persistent, cumulative, and deeply debilitating. The arrest rate or murder rate between African Americans and whites, as evidenced by a recent set of studies, cannot be explained by the “behavior of blacks,” as some will quickly suggest. Nor can it only be explained by explicit racism in the police department or other systems that fail to serve the black community. What we are seeing is the consequence of a systematic failure at every level, and a political response that ranges from hostility to neglect. But many people in Ferguson and around the country of different races and from different perspectives are saying no, and demanding: enough.

The attention to those killed remind us that these deaths are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pattern. Decades of segregation and inequality in Ferguson, as well as most American metropolitan areas, have fostered a racial inequality exacerbated by the criminalization of not just poverty, but the criminalization of black and brown bodies. Too many whites, including those in uniform–with guns and the authority of the state–are too willing to believe that a black body poses a threat.

As President Obama acknowledged in his address last night following the grand jury announcement, this case highlights the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. More effective training for police officers in de-escalation and working in coordination with communities, especially communities of color, is a necessary step.

But we also have to acknowledge the deep racial anxiety that leads to escalated violence against communities of color. Recent evidence from neuroscience reveals that many Americans, even those who embrace egalitarian norms, harbor unconscious negative associations with black bodies. These anxieties and biases are fed to us by the frequent negative association with blacks – words and images that strengthen these unconscious but impactful associations. It is on account of these pervasive, culturally embedded associations that so many black people in this country are not only viewed with suspicion, but also as criminals, regardless of who they are.

We need to address the pervasiveness of unconscious biases, first by acknowledging them, and secondly by working to reduce them. Police academies and law enforcement agencies not only need more diverse staff, they need implicit bias training for officers. They need to measure, track, and address implicit bias, enhance officer supervision, and create accountability measures. Efforts like these can repair and strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color that will ultimately prevent the senseless deaths of boys like Michael Brown.

From a legal perspective, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson does not mean the end of the road for those who seek justice for the death of Michael Brown. A refusal to indict does not indicate that Wilson has been exonerated. A decision not to indict does not mean that Wilson’s story has been credited. The prosecutor’s office reserves the right to re-open the case if new or additional information is presented, and the state attorney general and the US attorney general may still file charges. Lastly, the grand jury’s decision does not foreclose Michael Brown’s family from filing a civil suit, which has a lower evidentiary standard.

We believe a necessary next step is to invite international observers to witness what is taking place in Ferguson, and record events and potential violations, determined by a globally agreed-upon set of rules. A rigorous international lens focused on Ferguson that is beyond the media dialogue and outside of the regional criminal justice process could invite a more intense level of scrutiny and validation. A recent report concluded by Amnesty International has advocated for police training and activities that conform to international standards.

Any international effort needs to coordinate directly with efforts already in place from local community organizations and activists who have been on the ground since August, who have been bearing witness and providing a critical record of activities. It is also important that if a police force is to have a serving relationship with a community, the community should have the power to review the policy.

We hope that the newly formed Ferguson Commission will live up to its stated cause of providing a comprehensive study of the underlying issues highlighted by the events in Ferguson, leading to something similar as the famous “Kerner Commission” Report on Civil Disorders that was established to investigate the causes leading to the late 1960s protests. The report from that commission provided not only an analysis of the specific incidents at issue, but also the more general conditions that led to the combustible environment.

Ferguson is emblematic of much larger problem. We must be willing to face and address this larger problem. At the Haas Institute, we will continue to work on research, policy, and communications that work to reveal, analyze, and provide solutions to remove the structural barriers that prevent our society from being just and inclusive – and towards one that cares about and provides justice for the lives of all people, including Michael Brown.

john a. powell

john a. powell is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties and a wide range of issues including race, structural racism, ethnicity, housing, poverty, and democracy. He is the Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, which supports research to generate specific prescriptions for changes in policy and practice that address disparities related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and socioeconomics in California and nationwide.

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