Jermell Hasson was one of the first people I interviewed in Ferguson. Before he would answer my first question, he schooled me on the matrix that is St. Louis County.
“You see, I live in Ferguson, but I’m originally from St. Louis city,” he said. “Ferguson is just a municipality. I mean we have our own police and mayor, but it is all part of St. Louis. There is the city and then there is Ferguson and all the other little counties. But it is all part of St. Louis; it’s just the county. North County to be exact. You understand?”
I didn’t. “Kind of like the boroughs in New York City,” he added, hoping to clear up my confusion.
While I didn’t quite have the geography down, what was universally understood were his accounts of horrendous and demeaning encounters he had with local police. I asked which county was he referring to?
He replied, “All of them.”
Hasson recalled being by police on numerous occasions. The most memorable incident, he alleged, involved police arresting him and taking him back to the station, where they placed soaking wet phone books on his head and hit his head with nightsticks. He speculated that the phone books were meant to keep bruises from forming.
I asked if he filed a complaint? “Come on now? What is a complaint going to do?,” he asked, shaking his head. “There’s no evidence; and it’s my word against theirs. Law enforcement gets away with lots of things all of the time. They get away with crime all the time. In [the case of Michael Brown] I felt that this is one they did not deserve to get away with.”
Hasson’s story wasn’t unusual. In fact, most of the young men I spoke with could easily recall negative encounters they had with police. Some of the stories were as equally horrifying as the one Hasson told. And like him, none of the men bothered to file an official complaint. The consensus was “What For?
As I walked around the apartment complex and passed the impromptu memorials which had been set up along the spot where Michael Brown’s murder happened, I met Julian Johnson, pastor of Bethesda Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith in Normandy, Missouri, who was in the neighborhood passing out flyers for the church’s upcoming Know Your Rights clinic. He told me the one-day workshop will bring together young men and women with representatives from law enforcement agencies who will instruct them on their rights, what to do when pulled over by police, and identify common stereotypes young people might want to avoid.
“We have to be aware at all times how some of the law enforcement officers see us,” Johnson said. “I’m not saying it’s right but we need to know that they don’t understand. I think that we can diffuse some of the situations which are happening if we respond to them the right way. Knowing how to respond is important.”
Getting a handle on the antagonistic relationship between police and joe-citizen is going to take a lot more than young people changing their attitudes argued Derek Laney, organizing member of M.O.R.E, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, a local advocacy organization that’s been championing a campaign to transform the way in which St. Louis County deals with minor non-violent offenses before the police shooting of Michael Brown.
“Addressing racial profiling is key here,” he said.
In fact, according to a report by the Missouri Attorney General’s office, African Americans only make up 10.9 percent of the state’s population, yet were searched and arrested by police at a rate almost double that of whites – even as whites had a higher contraband hit rate — in 2013. More local to Ferguson, a new report by non-profit law group ArchCity Defenders has revealed local courts processed 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants from Ferguson residents in 2013. According to the The Daily Beast, which reported on this matter, this averages to about 1.5 cases and three warrants per Ferguson household. It has also brought in a total of $2,635,400 in fines and fees to city in just that one year alone.
Laney added that in St. Louis alone, there are nearly 300,000 outstanding bench warrants, which he said rivals the entire population. Those bench warrants, he said, many of which are from traffic violations, have become the entry point into the criminal justice system for low income individuals and people of color, especially African Americans,.
“What we are seeing here is people who have no history of violence or criminal activity are being stopped for minor traffic and petty crime offenses and get a court date, which they might miss, and/or a fine which they can’t pay and then they end up with a bench warrant. It turns into a whole saga for them. And that’s why we are working to reform the entire system.”
There are other troubles locally for the department as well. While Ferguson’s population is 67 percent black, only 7 percent of its police force represents this demographic. Furthermore, the department is one of the 23 law enforcement agencies in the state to have its crime statistics rejected for “major errors in data” by Missouri’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, according to the International Business Times.
And if that’s not disturbing enough, a recent Washington Post article revealed Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Brown, once worked with another department in Missouri which was so corrupt, the city disbanded the entire department and fired all of the officers including Wilson.
“When you start to pull back the layers, you see that [Brown] was stopped because he was a young black man walking down the street,” Laney said. “It was racial profiling and it escalated like so many encounters between the police and young black men do with little to no provocation. We’re connecting that process of criminalizing blackness from the profiling to the locking up for minor offenses to targeting my community for drug enforcement We’re connecting all of that together. [Brown] was profiles and that led to him being murdered. People are profiled and that leads to them getting bench warrants and their lives being destabilized. It’s all interconnected.”
Among its many efforts, Laney said M.O.R.E, has sent letters to local municipal court judges in Ferguson and beyond, requesting meetings in hopes of coming up with a plan to make a fair and more equitable system. He also said the group is in the process of organizing community members for more direct actions, including making more forceful demands regarding a change to the system. M.O.R.E also supports a demonstration project by local artists called #ChalkedUnarmed, which draws chalk outlines of people on public spaces along with the names of unarmed people, who have been murdered by the police.
“To sustain this, there needs to be a coordinated effort for long-term transformative justice in St. Louis that’s linked to national causes,” Laney said. “We need distributive action. We need to take it out of just that front line because it’s a proactive struggle for justice. Justice for Mike Brown is huge and something that we are committed to. But it is connected to a larger social injustice that we also want to address.”