Moving Forward From Ferguson, One Year Later

By Daily Editorials

August 11, 2015 7 min read

Late last month, speaking to a National Urban League audience, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ticked off the names that have kept the issue of police brutality against African-Americans in the national consciousness for the past 365 days.

"Together we mourned Tamir Rice and Eric Garner. Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, and most recently Sam DuBose," the former secretary of state said. "These names are emblazoned on our hearts."

Yes, for much of America, black or white, that is true.

But Ms. Clinton failed to mention the name that started it all.

Michael Brown.

One year ago, the 18-year-old African-American teenager lay dead in the middle of Canfield Drive for more than four hours after being shot to death by Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white. Mr. Brown was unarmed. Within hours, the protests that would forever change the American narrative about police brutality toward people of color would begin.

So why, just days before the anniversary of his death, would Ms. Clinton not mention his name among the others that have garnered similar headlines during this amazing year of unrest and civil rights revival?

Perhaps it's because the full circumstances surrounding Mr. Brown's death were, still are, and likely forever will be, a mystery. For all the details we know, for all the reams of grand jury evidence and testimony revealed, there is no video of him being shot in the back, like Walter Scott. Americans didn't watch a police officer begin shooting at him before his car even came to a stop, as they did with Tamir Rice. A prosecutor didn't charge the people responsible for his death with felonies, as happened with those who took Freddie Gray for the ride in a police van that killed him. Darren Wilson wasn't wearing a body camera like the officer who shot Sam DuBose.

Speaking Michael Brown's name is a political risk for Ms. Clinton because public opinion is decidedly split on who is to blame for his death. But in the months since Mr. Brown died on the streets of Ferguson, Americans have seen undeniable police brutality up close. We've hit rewind and play. We've watched in slow motion.

At our worst moments in the past year, we've divided into tribal camps: cops vs. protesters, white vs. black. In St. Louis, that was especially true when a grand jury decided against indicting Wilson in November for the death of Brown. There were moments where the city was like a live performance of a split screen cable TV debate between police union representative Jeff Roorda and protest leader DeRay McKesson.

Get beyond the shouting, though, and there has been undeniable progress in a relatively short amount of time.

According to an analysis by the Associated Press, 24 states have passed 40 measures in the past year changing the dynamic between police and the communities they protect. Many of these proposals have to do with police body cameras. There is now little debate in America that the body cameras are necessary. The questions over their implementation deal with public access and cost, details that, over time, will be worked out based on data. And the data, so far, suggest the body cameras might help bring America's tribes together.

One study on body camera use in San Diego showed that they both reduced incidents of brutality and complaints against police. That's a recipe for improving trust between police and communities. It suggests a solution that both protects people of color and the police themselves.

A new poll suggests that even with racial dichotomy, common ground can be found. The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll found that a whopping 65 percent of blacks say they or somebody in their family has been treated unfairly by police. Only 8 percent of whites in the survey reported such treatment. But even with this gulf in real-life experience, 7 in 10 Americans, regardless of color, believe that requiring police to wear body cameras could reduce such incidents of alleged police brutality.

Other polls out this week, from Pew and from the Washington Post, found that a significantly higher number of whites are aware of the need to make policy changes in order to protect equal rights in this country for blacks.

This will be America's challenge going forward: Building on that common ground. In that regard, body cameras aren't a panacea but a stepping stone to something bigger.

One year after Mr. Brown died, there is widespread consensus that 90 municipalities, 81 municipal courts and 57 police departments in one county of about a million people are too many. Missouri legislators have passed a new law that will start the dominoes falling by limiting the revenue municipal courts can collect, and a Supreme Court committee is considering changes that should go a long way to protect basic civil rights of poor people who find themselves before a municipal judge.

The broken court and police systems didn't kill Michael Brown, but they helped oppress the people who live where he lived, who walked and drove North County streets, who couldn't make ends meet because municipal governments kept wanting a piece of the pie.

How far has the region come in a year?

One of the strongest recent voices pushing for consolidation of small, under-trained police departments that prey on the poor by writing traffic tickets is St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar. This is the same man who during the protests often found himself at odds with protesters over police tactics.

That's progress.

Still, tangible movement on matters of public policy can't undo decades of neglect. There is still concentrated poverty in and around the Canfield Green Apartments, where Brown was killed. The schools that graduated Michael Brown are still unaccredited. The divide in St. Louis between black and white is still among the widest in the country.

That's why one year later, the lesson of Ferguson must be one word: forward. That is the only direction we can go.

As a nation, we must embrace the spectrum of change as seen through the lives and deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sam DuBose, and, most recently, Sandra Bland.

As a people, we are called to build on whatever small slice of common ground we identified in the past year where we can stand with those who might otherwise seem so different from us.

REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

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