This week marked the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s death.
In the year since the teenager was slain at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., the nation has seen countless additional murders and cases of unnecessary aggression against Black citizens across the country—from Baltimore to Charleston to Waller County, Texas, to New York and in numerous cities in between.
In the wake of Brown’s death, Dr. Justin Hansford, an assistant professor of law at St. Louis University, has found himself actively engaged in the protests. He opened his home as a safe house for those who had been hit by tear gas, and he served as a legal observer to ensure the protesters’ Constitutional rights were not being violated. (They were, he found. In fact, so many rights were violated that Hansford teamed up with the Human Rights Network to testify before the United Nations in Geneva about the violations he saw.) He was also arrested while serving as a legal observer during one of the protests—one of six on the site, the only Black legal observer, and the only of the six arrested that night.
“The intersection between the academy and activism in Ferguson has been really strong,” he said. “The students here have been really dynamic in their activism, and the schools here have been really forced to respond, some of them better than others.”
In his own case, despite the fact that there is a lot of regional hostility toward the #BlackLivesMatter movement, St. Louis University officials have been pretty supportive, he said.
Admitting his arrest “caused a lot of commotion in the university setting [because] a lot of people were unhappy with my involvement,” Hansford said Dean Michael A. Wolf “has been really supportive” and even came to “bail me out when I was in jail.”
In addition to the dean, “most of the faculty has been really supportive as well,” he said. “Some don’t agree with what I’m doing, some have stayed away,” but, in general, St. Louis University School of Law’s culture is “a very good, supportive culture.”
Unfortunately, the support seems to stop at the law school’s doors. Big-time donors, he said, have threatened to stop funding the university if he remained on faculty. Students express their disdain for his involvement in the protests via student evaluations. And, perhaps most importantly, he added, the community—and the nation—is still in virtually the same place it was a year ago.
“I know that people are hoping that police and the community are seeing each other in a more sympathetic light,” said Hansford, “but there’s actually more hostility and mistrust.”
Despite the fact that the Ferguson police chief and city manager have both resigned, the culture has not improved, Hansford said.
“There’s this idea out there that, with these particular bad apples out of the way, we can hope things are going to get better,” he said. “I think a year ago, I would have looked at the relationship between police and the Black population as a dysfunctional relationship that could be improved through a more efficient use of police resources … and removal of a few bad apples, but I’ve come to realize that [the dysfunctional dynamic is] based on the desire for social control and the desire for power over certain citizens.”
“Not only has the relationship … not changed since Mike Brown’s death, arguably, it hasn’t shifted since Jim Crow,” Hansford added.
Dr. Jacqueline Rhoden-Trader, an associate professor of criminology at Coppin State University in Baltimore, agreed the roots of the racism in law enforcement run deep.
“This is a century old problem,” she said. “One need look no further than the historical data of law enforcement relative to race across the United States and its southern region in particular. Using the Reconstruction Period of 1890 to the 1960s Jim Crow laws as a springboard, the disenfranchisement of Blacks at the hands of law enforcement established a culture of distrust.
“Video footage of that period clearly illuminates the sentiment of the criminal justice [system] that, although granted civil liberties, the establishment refused to honor it, often resorting to intimidation, violence and wrongful deaths of African-Americans.”
Rhoden-Trader said “there is no real relationship” between police and those they police in urban areas.
“There is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset, which is disheartening,” she said. “Blacks in Baltimore and across the United States in large part perceive the police as the enemy charged with carrying out the ‘man’s’ work/agenda. This includes police officers of African-American descent who are considered a part of the order/brotherhood.”
Hansford said he has found in Ferguson that part of the issue is that, while the enforcement of law is, at least in theory, objective, enforcement of order is “completely subjective.”
“I’ve come to see law enforcement in a completely different light,” said the organizer-turned law professor.
“The enforcement of order is a racialized project” with police officers “much more likely to see Blacks as disorderly in their being—their presence is disorderly,” Hansford continued.
Rhoden-Trader agreed, saying that, in Baltimore, like in many other cities across the country, “police monitor certain areas/neighborhoods differently depending on social class and racial makeup.”
“Exacerbating these conditions is police officers’ lack of a sociological understanding of crime and delinquency,” she continued. “Many are untrained and themselves of aggressive personalities with emotional problems.”
Coinciding with the differences in enforcement along racial lines are differences in attitudes about police along equally racially-drawn lines. A recent survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found deep racial divisions in the American public’s views of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The survey, conducted in conjunction with the Associated Press, found that Black Americans are nearly four times as likely as Whites to describe violence against civilians by police officers as an extremely or very serious problem and more than 80 percent of Blacks say police are too quick to use deadly force and they are more likely to use it against a Black person, while two-thirds of Whites believe police use of deadly force is necessary but not racially-motivated.
Rhoden-Trader said this “phenomenon” of differing attitudes was prevalent with the rise of gangster rap in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and songs like NWA’s “F— the Police” and Public Enemy’s “911’s a Joke in Your Town.”
Coinciding with an increasingly “vocal, anti-police youth culture,” Rhoden-Trader said, “there was … an increase in the building of prison industrial complexes, some privately-operated and the public’s perception that they were constructed to house and destroy the black male. These perceived and actual inequalities fueled cities like Baltimore making them prime for social unrest today when such inequalities exist even after the election and re-election of a sitting Black president of the United States.”
To Hansford, the differences in White and Black attitudes are simple, though more malicious.
“It’s in the self-interest of Whites not to see race and so the reason the opinions are so different is because it’s helpful to White citizens,” he said. “It helps preserve their opinions of meritocracy and, in that framework of meritocracy, they’re wealthier … and safer from the police, because they should be.”
“I think that part of it is just pure racism and a hesitance to believe what Black people say,” he continued. “One of the undertones of racism [in this country] is a disbelief in the ethical and moral underpinnings of Black people.”
“That’s one of the things we’re facing here in Ferguson,” he said, adding that, despite the fact that Black citizens had been railing about the racism of police in the area for years, it was not until the recent Department of Justice report on Ferguson that anyone took notice.
“Suddenly, we were legitimized” by the report, he said. “That’s part of a deeper sentiment of racism: a hesitancy to believe what Black people are saying.”
Rhoden-Trader said a key difference is in the attitudes of the youth around the country.
“Youth are feeling empowered and police officers are themselves fed up and making bad decisions, creating anomic conditions that place us at the brink of anarchy,” she said.
As for Coppin, like, presumably, at many other institutions around the country, the incidents taking place are having an impact on the curriculum.
“There are plans underway to revamp the [criminal justice] course offerings to encompass a broad range of current [criminal justice] issues,” she said. “In the interim, at the faculty level, current events are being infused. As an applied researcher, I’ve begun to incorporate the social unrests, police involvement into my syllabi for Fall 2015 in the form of research proposal topics, discussion forums and in class discussion. In addition, a special topics course entitled ‘Criminalization and Social Inequality’ will be offered and taught by me with an emphasis on law enforcement and their relationship with the African American community in Baltimore and across the U.S.”