“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
—Fannie Lou Hamer, legendary civil rights activist and co-founder of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
The funeral is over. The protests have died down. The lax and listless wheels of justice in Ferguson, Mo. are beginning to turn. Last week, a St. Louis County grand jury convened to consider whether to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson for the August 9 shooting death of 18-year-old, unarmed Michael Brown. As I have said before, I have never witnessed a situation more poorly handled than this one. While we are pleased that the grand jury has begun its work, questions of fairness in the St. Louis County criminal justice system and in the culture of policing in Ferguson continue to demand answers.
The latest slap in the face of community occurred last week when Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, after initially being threatened with arrest, was finally able to deliver a petition with 70,000 signatures to the office of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. The petition calls for McCulloch to recuse himself from the Michael Brown case because of his close ties to the police and previous questions of impartiality. McCulloch’s father, brother, uncle and a cousin were all police officers.
In addition, in 2000, McCulloch refused to prosecute two White police officers for the shooting deaths of two unarmed Black men who it was later determined were not advancing towards the officers. Some wonder if McCulloch’s decision to release the video of a convenience store altercation involving Michael Brown was a blatant attempt to taint a potential jury pool. As of this writing, the prosecutor has failed to arrest or charge Officer Wilson who remains on paid administrative leave. McCulloch has vowed to stay on the case unless Governor Nixon orders him to recuse himself. Established legal procedures and the concerns of the Ferguson community continue to be ignored.
The heavy-handed, militaristic tactics employed by Ferguson and St. Louis County police in response to citizen protests following the killing of Michael Brown are also a powerful wake-up call. While there were isolated aggressive acts by a few rogue protesters, the majority of protests and protesters were peaceful. Yet, the use of tear gas, stun grenades and armored vehicles was reminiscent of ugly police confrontations with citizens during peaceful voting rights demonstrations in the south during the 1960s. It is unthinkable that we find those tactics acceptable today. That is why last week the National Urban League joined a coalition of more than a dozen national civil rights organizations in issuing “A Unified Statement to Promote Reform and Stop Police Abuse.” Our statement proposes a number of police reforms in Ferguson and elsewhere that are designed to ensure a greater reliance on community policing and that police departments are more reflective of the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the communities they serve. These reforms include:
* An independent and comprehensive federal investigation by the Department of Justice of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown
* A comprehensive federal review and reporting of excessive use of force generally against youth and people of color and the development of national use of force standards
* The universal use of dash cameras in police vehicles and police officer body-worn cameras
Concrete steps to ensure that federal military weapons do not end up in the hands of local law enforcement
Make no mistake about it – in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, the criminal justice system in America is on trial. Despite the tremendous civil rights progress we have made over the past 50 years, we will never truly “overcome” until we honestly acknowledge and address the insidious vestiges of racial segregation and dehumanization that remain in this country, and unfortunately, in law enforcement.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.