POLITICS
08/05/2015 07:41 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2016

The Ferguson Protests Worked

Were the riots costly and destructive? Yes. But reform never would have happened without the unrest.

Credit: Jake Reeves/The Huffington Post

FERGUSON, Mo. -- Nearly a half-century ago, a University of Missouri law professor named T.E. Lauer issued a warning. Missouri’s network of municipal courts, he wrote, were “a modern anomaly” generally “overlooked or ignored as the misshapen stepchildren of our judicial system.”

It was “disgraceful,” he argued, that poor people accused of municipal ordinance violations didn’t receive lawyers. Arresting and confining citizens for petty violations of municipal codes was unnecessary. Many municipalities, he wrote, had clearly “conceived of their municipal courts in terms of their revenue-raising ability,” and those financial incentives influenced judges' decisions. He questioned whether the term “kangaroo court” would “too often validly apply to municipal court proceedings.” 

That was 1966. The Civil Rights Act was two years old. Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, and Barack Obama had just turned 5. Dozens of young girls in St. Louis were treated for minor injuries sustained at a Beatles concert. George Wallace, who had tried to prevent black students from enrolling at a public university after promising “segregation forever,” was governor of Alabama.

In the ensuing decades, those “kangaroo courts” enabled small towns, especially in St. Louis County, to pad their budgets by extracting fines from people for extraordinarily minor violations of municipal codes -- under threat of jail. Arrest warrants were issued for thousands of people, for supposed crimes like wearing baggy pants, missing a special sticker on their car, or failing to subscribe to a designated trash service. Residents who had to endure these local courts described them as “out of control,” “inhumane,” "crazy,” “racist,” “unprofessional” and “sickening.”

The decades between Lauer's warning and 2014 brought no significant reforms to Missouri's municipal courts. Then, on Aug. 9, a Ferguson police officer's bullet that killed 18-year-old Michael Brown brought an end to the inaction. 

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Police left Brown's body in the street for hours, and a community that had felt abused by the authorities for years erupted. Vandalism broke out, along with peaceful protests, and militarized police departments aggressively cracked down. The clashes attracted international news coverage. Riots and protests injured numerous people and caused extensive property damage. The controversy surrounding Brown's killing and the police response left the community reeling.

But the protests, in many ways, worked. Those abusive municipal court practices, which many residents said had fueled widespread disrespect for authority, are being reined in. And the outcry spread far beyond the Midwest. In many ways, the Ferguson protests changed America.

  Missouri overhauled its municipal courts 


Nine months after Brown’s death, the Missouri legislature passed a bill that capped the amount of revenue that municipalities can collect from tickets. Gov. Jay Nixon signed the legislation last month, saying that when “the practices of municipal courts fail the basic tests of fairness and equality -- those failings reflect on our entire judicial system.” Sen. Eric Schmitt (R), a leading supporter, said he doesn’t believe the bill would have happened without the protests in Ferguson.

St. Louis County's municipal courts didn't kill Michael Brown. But they were a major contributor to the outrage and distrust that was on display in Ferguson following Brown’s death.

“For me, after August and being from the St. Louis area and growing up in North County, I felt the desire to try to right a wrong in how justice was playing out in our municipal courts, or the absence of it,” Schmitt said. “The long lines outside of municipal courts next to pawn shops shocked the conscious, and I think it compelled people -- regardless of their party -- to want to do something about it.” Schmitt said the attention “brought together a broad coalition.” 

Law enforcement leaders said Ferguson was a wake-up call.

“If not for the unrest, we wouldn’t have seen municipal court reform. It’s certainly a game-changer,” said Kevin Ahlbrand, president of Missouri’s Fraternal Order of Police and a member of the Ferguson Commission, created by the governor to correct economic and social conditions that fueled the unrest.  

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told The Huffington Post it was “a shame that we haven’t had the political will before 2014” to look at the municipal courts.

“If you went to a very affluent area in St. Louis County, how long do you think a program would last where speed cameras were put up on arterial roads coming into subdivisions, and people were given letters saying they were going to be arrested? It would last about five hours,” Belmar said. “You know that and I know that, and that’s part of the problem. Yet in areas that are not as affluent, and where folks really are struggling with issues of poverty and education and crime and everything else that goes along with it -- unemployment -- they don’t have the ability really to voice that opinion. They can’t leverage change. That’s a good thing that’s come out of all this.”

Ferguson’s protests spawned at least 40 state measures aimed at improving police tactics and use of force. The national conversation around race and policing has shifted so dramatically that the director of the FBI said law enforcement officials historically enforced “a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups” and discussed how unconscious racial bias affects police officers with no pushback from the law enforcement community.

“I don't think there has ever been this level of attention being paid to communities all over the country,”  Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a recent interview with The Huffington Post. “As a country, it will be shame on us for missing the opportunity ... given the kind of elevated attention that is being paid to criminal justice."

News media added nuance to coverage of police violence against black people 

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If not for the arson that destroyed the Ferguson QuikTrip convenience store near where Michael Brown was killed, national and international media would never have descended into the small suburb, spotlighting the region's systematic racial issues, said Rasheen Aldridge, who at 21 is the youngest member of the Ferguson Commission.

“Who was talking about police brutality at this level before Ferguson? It wasn’t being talked about," Aldridge said. "It took that unrest to happen for people to understand the reality of what is to be an African-American man and woman.” Predominantly black communities, like Ferguson and Baltimore, have been “targeted” and harassed for a long time, he said.

“Unrest comes from people tired of being oppressed and deprived. They’re tired of being picked at and poked at,” Aldridge said, adding that he didn’t condone the Ferguson violence. But it did make people understand how serious the situation was, he said.

“When a baby is crying and you aren’t paying attention because you’re on the phone, it’s not until he goes to knock something off the table or something breaks or the chair falls, that you start to pay attention," Aldridge continued. "That’s what the young people did. It took for burned down property to get the attention of elected officials here, the attention of the media and the attention of the United States.”

A shift in media behavior after a tragedy is not unusual, Sarah Oates, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, told The Huffington Post. Before Ferguson’s uprising, many media outlets tended to accept police accounts as fact. Now, reporters are asking why black communities are outraged with policing.

“What’s sad is it often takes a tragedy,” Oates said. “What happened in Ferguson wasn’t unusual -- which is awful, but true. The response was unusual, and the depth and breadth of the protests was unusual. And you could kind of see it coming from Trayvon Martin ... This rising awareness [about] race and unfairness, and this real question about what was really going on.”

Scott Olson/Getty Images

What made Ferguson the spark, according to Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, was St. Louis County’s history of racism, the use of social media by activists, and the simmering undercurrent of anger from the police killings of people like Eric Garner, who died in July 2014 after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold for selling loose cigarettes, and John Crawford, who was shot dead by Ohio police four days before Michael Brown's killing as he held a BB gun inside a Walmart store.

With that as the backdrop, it’s no wonder that Ferguson -- already troubled with inequality, segregation, and unfair policing -- was the town that eventually burned. Brown’s death was the final spark in a summer of violence against black Americans, exacerbated by police misconduct and the attacks on Brown’s character, meant to minimize or even excuse his death. And in turn, this explosion inaugurated a new, more urgent phase in the national argument over racism. 

Video from recent cases of police violence has forced America to look. It also has helped shape larger narratives surrounding the state of Black America. This is, as Oates put it, “outrage perpetrated by technology” -- and each case of police brutality that gains national attention shifts the narrative a bit more.

Edward Crawford -- the man in an American flag T-shirt seen throwing a tear gas canister in an iconic photo from Ferguson -- said he’s seen a difference in how the media has covered events since last summer. Videos “played a big role” in that change, he said in an interview. 

“In some parts of the world, this is unfamiliar,” Crawford said. “The police crimes are very low, police officers are respectable in a lot of places. Every police officer isn’t bad, there’s a lot of good police officers out there who protect and serve. But you also have some who seem to not. So with videos and social media, that gets the word out, so that certain situations just aren’t thrown under the bus.” 

Ferguson exposed how large the divide between the police and the community could be. John Crawford’s death in the Ohio Walmart was a reminder that black people are instantly viewed by police as a threat. The police killing  of motorist Walter Scott during an April traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina, stoked cries from the black community that cops won't admit when they’ve done something wrong. Freddie Gray’s severed spine and resulting death in April after a ride in a Baltimore police van reopened Jim Crow’s wounds. Last month's arrest of Sandra Bland, who Texas authorities said hanged herself in a jail cell three days after she was stopped for a traffic offense, showed how police officers could react to individuals who assert their rights.

“It becomes a kind of self-reinforcing cycle: the media starts talking about it more, so people become more aware of it,” Oates said. “And other incidents are then reported and talked about within the frame.” She said she wondered if white people and black people are interpreting the stories in the same way. 

Despite the shift in coverage, white Americans are still about eight times more likely to say police treat black people and white people equally, according to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll. This number has changed little since February, though Freddie Gray, Tony Robinson, Walter Scott, Samuel Dubose and at least 680 others have died in encounters with police in the meantime.  

“The media can report on these stories but, ultimately, citizens are going to decode them in different ways and they’re going to take different messages away,” Oates said. “So, we still struggle with this issue of -- you know, the stories are getting told, but is everyone really listening to the story?” She added that conversations in the African-American community and in the white community are, most likely, “really different dialogues.”

The shift isn't complete. It's still easier for the media to explore whether a person is racist than whether a system is. “If we can talk about the problems not as isolated, but as systemic; not as incidents of violence, but as a system that allows this, enables it and, in some cases, encourages this to happen -- that’s where change would happen,” Oates said.

 

Obama created a policing task force and secured $20 million for body cameras 

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The protests weren’t the only thing that grabbed America’s attention. The  heavily militarized reaction to peaceful demonstrations was disturbing to many people. So much so that President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the Task Force on 21st Century Policing in December.

The initiative’s main goal is to “strengthen the relationships between local police and the communities they are supposed to protect and serve.” It recommends police agencies improve community policing, eliminate ticket quotas, equip street cops with body cameras and use social media to foster trust with civilians.

Obama proposed spending $263 million to improve community policing in December. Of that, $75 million was designated for body cameras. Congress approved only $20 million of the president's request -- after the Baltimore uprising. In March, Obama cautioned the public against thinking body cameras would solve police violence. 

“There’s been a lot of talk about body cameras as a silver bullet or a solution,” Obama said in a report the 21st Century Task Force released in March. “I think the task force concluded that there is a role for technology to play in building additional trust and accountability, but it's not a panacea, and that it has to be embedded in a broader change in culture and a legal framework that ensures that people’s privacy is respected and that not only police officers but the community themselves feel comfortable with how technologies are being used.”

#TakeItDown showed the new speed of success

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For years, black people have viewed the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate and a reminder of their ancestors’ tortured history as slaves. But in parts of the South, the battle flag had been afforded respect -- sometimes on public property.

In South Carolina, that's over. Dylann Roof, a white man with racist beliefs who had been photographed with a Confederate flag license plate, shot nine people to death at a historically black church in Charleston in June, authorities said. Black Lives Matter activists led the outcry to take down the Confederate flag outside the statehouse. The push may not have succeeded without Ferguson.

Twitter users, along with journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chris Hayes, added fuel to the movement by ensuring #TakeItDown trended. Demonstrations formed in front of the statehouse. Social media hashtags, like #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe, became protest chants. A political push shifted public opinion of a centuries-old heritage in an incredibly short timespan, according to Huffington Post Tech reporter Alexis Sobel Fitts.

#TakeItDown has come to represent a single movement: the campaign, bred online and carried out in legislative offices, to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina's state capital. It may go down as, if not the biggest, then at least the quickest success of the loosely connected network of black Twitter users referred to as ‘Black Twitter.

Gov. Nikki Haley (R) had previously defended the flag, but bowed to the political pressure and signed the law removing the flag from outside the statehouse. The Alabama governor took similar action. Walmart, Sears, Amazon and eBay stopped sales of Confederate flags.

“In the last few years, as the violent slayings of young black men like Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have aligned the network of black Twitter users on inflammatory topics, these links have grown stronger, and the pace at which trending hashtags make it to headlines has gotten quicker,” Fitts wrote. “Trayvon Martin’s story didn't enter the national press until months after his slaying; it took just a few weeks for South Carolina's Confederate flag to fall.”

The fight for wage equality gained steam

Major retailers also felt the change. 

Black shoppers, according to Forbes, hold more than $1 trillion in spending power. But some corporations that benefit from black dollars and labor remain silent on issues affecting the community. Activists used the hashtags #NotOneDime and #BlackOutBlackFriday to coordinate Black Friday demonstrations in solidarity with Ferguson residents upset that the officer who shot Michael Brown wasn't indicted. It was a way to hit America where it hurts -- the pockets. 

“The calls to boycott Black Friday echoed the Civil Rights movement's boycotts, making a direct connection between ‘business as usual’ holiday shopping and the circumstances under which black people in the U.S. live -- ‘business as usual’ relies on the labor and the dollars of black Americans, as it always has,” Sarah Jaffe wrote for The Week.

Black Lives Matter activists frequently extend the conversation beyond police brutality to economic, academic and other forms of  inequality.

“When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity,” writes co-founder Alicia Garza on the movement’s website. “It is an acknowledgement [that] Black poverty and genocide is state violence.”

In April, Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets of New York City with fast food workers to call on companies to increase wages to $15 an hour and improve working conditions. The fight against wage inequality has incorporated “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

Black people are more likely to work low-wage jobs and, overall, have lower levels of wealth than white and Hispanic counterparts. Raising the minimum wage is just another way to improve the overall quality of black life.

“This movement cannot be divorced from economic opportunity,” the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, a Philadelphia pastor involved in the movement, told NBC News. “A $15 minimum wage is certainly a game-changer.”

The wealth gap has become a Democratic campaign issue 

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Black Lives Matter and Black Immigration Network activists shout down the first of two Democratic presidential candidates speakers at a Netroots Nation town hall meeting, Saturday, July 18, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) 

Bridging the wealth gap has been at the forefront of Democratic presidential candidates’ campaigns. An understanding of how economic inequality for black people is radically different than it is for whites, however, has not.

Black Lives Matter activists last month interrupted the Netroots Nation convention, the largest annual meeting of progressives in the U.S., demanding that Democratic candidates acknowledge that “the most important and urgent issue of our day is structural violence and systemic racism that is oppressing and killing black women, men and children,” wrote Tia Oso, the woman who took the stage during the protest, for Mic.

“Black organizers claimed our rightful place at the front of the progressive movement,” Oso wrote. “Allies from Latino, Asian, LGBT and other communities stood in solidarity with us as we called the names of black women killed in police custody, expressed our heartbreaking requests to the community should we ourselves die in police custody and looked on as respected and revered progressive leaders were woefully unable to answer our reasonable question as to how they will lead America to a brighter future.”

Instead of an answer to concerned protesters, a visibly agitated Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) evoked his history as a civil rights activist and, essentially, ignored the sentiments. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley proclaimed “all lives matter” -- a mistake that disregards the unique forces that place black lives in danger.  

O’Malley has since apologized and vowed to propose comprehensive criminal justice reform. Sanders emphasized improved community policing and criminal justice reform. Hillary Clinton, learning from her competitors' blunders, made a fresh demand for police body cameras and improved early childhood education.

A simple interruption of a progressive town hall was powerful enough to make systemic racism a conversation on the campaign trail. But talking isn’t enough. Activists want to hear concrete solutions to problems created by systemic racism before endorsing any of the candidates.

“If they want our vote, they’re going to have to speak to the death of black people at the hands of law enforcement, and create a racial justice agenda that cuts across all major issues,” Opal Tometi, a cofounder of Black Lives Matter,” told Time.

Activists are pushing candidates to broaden their focus to issues such as black voter disenfranchisement and housing discrimination. Black Lives Matter co-founders are creating a list of policy demands which, according to Time, is “designed to push Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley to embrace broad reforms to address systemic racism head-on.”

“We want to ensure that these candidates will actually deal with the issues that black people face,” Patrisse Cullors, another Black Lives Matter co-founder, told the Los Angeles Times. “The reality is that it’s still not legal to be black in this country.”

This policy outline aims to force Democratic candidates to understand that the push for middle-class economic growth, and other progressive reforms, may not benefit black Americans to the extent it would help whites.  

Obama has embraced honest conversations about race

Obama didn’t hold his tongue about the difference between white and black America during South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s (D) funeral.

Pinckney, also senior pastor at Emanuel AME Church, was one of nine people killed by Dylann Roof, police said.

“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it, so that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal,” Obama said. 

In what may be his most candid remarks on race as president, Obama addressed the black church’s role in the black freedom struggle; why the Confederacy should not be honored; how slavery and Jim Crow shape current racial inequalities; how racism is taught and learned; mass incarceration; police violence; implicit racial biases; and black voter disenfranchisement.

A few days earlier, Obama bluntly told Marc Maron of "WTF Podcast" that racism is not over.

"Racism, we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public," Obama said. "That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior."

The president also renewed his campaign for criminal justice reform -- focusing on lower sentences for nonviolent offenders, policing tactics, economic inequality and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Obama is starting to sound “a little something like the black president some white Americans across the political spectrum feared,” as reporter Janell Ross wrote in The Washington Post. Since Ferguson, Obama has stopped chiding black folks with respectability lectures and has focused on policies that address what racism has done to black Americans. It’s a far stretch from the approach he took early in his administration, when he took then-Attorney General Eric Holder to task for saying that the U.S. was "essentially a nation of cowards" on race.

It’s likely Obama's influences include Black Lives Matter activists making life uncomfortable for Americans who don’t want to talk about race.

“But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again,” Obama said. “Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual -- that’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change -- that’s how we lose our way again.”

Mariah Stewart reported from Ferguson. Ryan J. Reilly and Julia Craven reported from Washington.

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