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Michelle Alexander: Ferguson Shows Why Criminal Justice System of "Racial Control" Should Be Undone

March 04, 2015
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Michelle Alexander

civil rights advocate and the author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She is a law professor at Ohio State University.

The U.S. Justice Department has concluded that the police and city courts in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. Despite comprising about 66 percent of the local population, African Americans accounted for 93 percent of arrests, 88 percent of incidents where force was used, 90 percent of citations and 85 percent of traffic stops. The Justice Department, which launched its report after the police killing of Michael Brown, also uncovered at least three municipal Ferguson emails containing racist language or images. "The report does not give me hope. What gives me hope is that people across America are finally waking up," says Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. "There is a system of racial and social control in communities of color across America. … What we see now is that we do have the power to make things change. The question is are we going to transition from protest politics to long-term, strategic movement building?”


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The U.S. Justice Department has concluded that police and city courts in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the report—that’s being issued today—after the police shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown last August. Brown’s death sparked months of protests in Ferguson and around the country. In a separate report, the Justice Department is expected to clear the police officer, Darren Wilson, of civil rights violations in the shooting of Brown.

The Justice Department study of Ferguson’s records from 2012 to 2014 found African Americans made up 93 percent of arrests in Ferguson while accounting for only 67 percent of the population. In addition, the report found in 88 percent of the cases in which Ferguson police used force, it was against African Americans, and all 14 cases of police dog bites involved blacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Investigators also found that African Americans constituted 96 percent of people arrested in traffic stops solely for an outstanding warrant, 95 percent of jaywalking charges, 94 percent of failure-to-comply charges, 92 percent of all disturbing-the-peace charges. With traffic stops, African-American motorists are twice as likely to be searched when pulled over, even though searches of white drivers are more likely to turn up drugs or other contraband.

The Justice Department report uncovered at least three municipal Ferguson emails containing racist language or images. One email sent by a Ferguson police or municipal court official joked in 2008 Barack Obama would not remain as president for long because, quote, "what black man holds a steady job for four years." Another email suggested more abortions by African-American women would lower crime. It read, quote, "An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, 'Crimestoppers.'?" A third email uncovered in the Ferguson probe included a cartoon depicting African Americans as monkeys. It has not been revealed yet who wrote those emails.

The Justice Department report has renewed calls for police accountability from activists and those close to Michael Brown’s family. This is St. Louis City Alderman Antonio French, followed by Brown family attorney Anthony Gray.

ANTONIO FRENCH: To me, that demands a certain level of accountability, and I think the chief out there has to resign. It’s the only way that this community can move forward.

ANTHONY GRAY: No shock here at all, no surprise, as we have to take now what is publicly known to be a situation, come up with solutions, then execute whatever those solutions are, go back and measure the results, and then see if we made some progress from there.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She’s a law professor at Ohio State University. Her New York Times op-ed in November was titled "Telling My Son About Ferguson."

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I’m happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. I know you’re giving two major addresses here in New York, at Union Theological Seminary tonight and then Friday night at Columbia University. But let’s start with that op-ed. What did you tell your son about Ferguson?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, it’s difficult, you know, as a mother to have to tell your son, my 10-year-old son, that I knew that the officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t be charged. And I knew it before the grand jury came back. I knew it before the Justice Department announced that it wouldn’t be filing charges. I knew it because police officers are almost never charged for killing unarmed black men. And that’s the way it is in this country. And it was incredibly difficult to tell him that. And I found, as I began to talk to him about the realities of race and justice in America, that I was tempted to lie. I was tempted to say, "No, really, nothing like that could ever happen to you, son." And yet, unfortunately, today, in this current era, you know, a time of so-called colorblindness, the age of Obama, parents have to have conversations with their children that are eerily reminiscent of the kinds of conversations parents had to have with their kids decades ago. And so, it’s my hope—really, my prayer—that the uprising we saw in Ferguson is the beginning of a new, bold, radical, courageous movement for justice that will ensure that parents in the future don’t have to tell their children that in the eyes of their law they don’t matter.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you talk about parents having to have these conversations with their children, notably, here in New York City, the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, discussed that very issue in the midst of the Ferguson protests about having to have a conversation with his biracial son about watching out for interactions with police, and he took enormous heat and enormous attacks by the local police union over even daring to talk about that. I’m wondering your reaction when you heard about that.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, telling the truth isn’t popular today. That’s the reality. And I think, though, what we’ve seen, you know, in recent months is the necessity of telling the truth. You know, I look at what’s gone down in the last few months, and it seems clear to me that, first and foremost, change comes when people stand up, speak unpopular truths and are willing to take real risks in the name of justice. There is no way that the Justice Department would have investigated what was going on in Ferguson, you know, if the young people there hadn’t stood up and taken to the streets.

And what the Justice Department report demonstrates is that we’re not crazy. You know, the young people in Ferguson, the old people in Ferguson, who said, "We feel like we’re living in occupied territory," were telling the truth. You know, we have some sense now, based on this report, of why Michael Brown might have been so frustrated and so angry when he was being harassed by the police for jaywalking. You get some sense of what’s really going on in these communities. And so, you know, we’re not crazy. There is a system of racial and social control in communities of color across America.

And if we don’t stand up, speak unpopular truths, take to the streets and organize, things aren’t going to change. But, you know, what we see now is that we do have the power to make things change. And the question is: Are we going to transition from protest politics to long-term, strategic movement building?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mentioned jaywalking. I mean, I was struck in this report by the figures that 94 percent of all the people arrested for jaywalking, you’d think the most inconsequential of misdemeanors or violations, were African-American. And as if the—clearly, African Americans don’t jaywalk at a greater percentage than white Americans. It’s just astonishing that even in jaywalking you’d see this enormous disparity.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely, but you see that disparity right here in New York City, as well. You know, I think it’s so important that we don’t think of this as a problem in Ferguson that is somehow unique to that community. You know, thanks to "broken windows" policing here in New York City, you have statistics that rival the ones that we see in Ferguson. You know, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a report showing that here in New York City more than 80 percent of those who are issued summons for things like jaywalking, you know, are people of color. And the revenue streams that fund the criminal courts in New York City, just like those in Ferguson, come from poor people paying tickets for minor offenses that are being enforced against them but aren’t being enforced in other parts of town.

AMY GOODMAN: And we see that it’s lethal. I mean, the jaywalking, which is so minor—what exactly was Michael Brown stopped for by Darren Wilson?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Because he was walking in the middle of the road. And being there—I mean, this was not a very trafficked road; it was a back road to the main roads. And the fact that these two young men were simply walking on the street. Now, how is it—you’re an attorney, you clerked for Justice Blackmun—how is it that Darren Wilson didn’t get charged with violating civil rights, let alone indicted, but now the Ferguson police, the courts are found to be systematically discriminating against, and those figures are being cited, like stopping an African American for jaywalking?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, well, I mean, I think what we have here is a unwillingness, an unwillingness to hold individual officers accountable for the unjustified lethal force that is being used against, you know, African-American men and others. I mean, we’ve seen, you know, what’s happened with Latinos in other parts of the country. This isn’t just limited to black men. And we see also this kind of force has been used against women, black women. But, you know, I think what we see here is an unwilling to hold individual officers accountable even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the system as a whole is discriminatory.

AMY GOODMAN: Does this report give you any hope, as you talk to your son now? I mean, no, Darren Wilson was not indicted. No, he wasn’t found guilty of violating the civil rights of Michael Brown. But now this report is coming out today that says the Ferguson police and the city courts do violate the rights of African Americans.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: No, the report doesn’t give me hope. What gives me hope is that people across America are finally waking up. That’s what gives me hope. A single report, even a single indictment, isn’t going to make a difference unless people become organized and commit themselves to the hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colors. And I see that beginning, and that’s what gives me hope.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet these kinds of shootings continue. We had the—in Pasco, Washington, Antonio Zambrano-Montes shot by the police this past Sunday.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Los Angeles, a homeless man in Los Angeles shot—again, caught on video once again—by police. So, we have these continuing incidents occurring.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And they will continue. They absolutely will continue, until we move beyond the sporadic protests that occur to serious movement building. And I think that’s the challenge. And I think it’s also important that we not get too easily satisfied with minor reforms or when, you know, the Justice Department says, "Well, here’s a report," or, "We’re going to file one suit." No, the kind of change that needs to happen in our police departments and our criminal justice system as a whole is of such a scale that it is not going to happen merely by, you know, the good intentions—

AMY GOODMAN: With a consent decree?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: With—right, with a single consent decree or good intentions of some legislators tinkering around the edges. We need transformational change of our criminal justice system, not just, you know, a handful of consent decrees or policy reforms.

AMY GOODMAN: So we’re going to talk about what that transformational change would look like. We’re talking to Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She’s a law professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. Stay with us.


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