Today we reflect on the memory of Mike Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed black youth fatally shot six times, twice in the head, by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson. The 2014 shooting prompted protests across the nation for weeks. The gripping images of a blood-covered white sheet lying over his motionless body for hours will forever be etched in our memories. As will the image of another black mother with tears streaming down her face, grieving the loss of her son to this senseless yet all too common scenario.
Three years and many more police-involved shootings later, we ask ourselves, is this what public safety looks like in our communities?
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Akiel Denkins, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray are just some of the names of unarmed black boys and men who have lost their lives since Mike Brown’s death. Over and over, we are confronted by the horrifying images of black men killed by the police.
According to The Guardian’s “The Counted" initiative, in 2016 black males aged 15-34 were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers. They were killed at four times the rate of young white men. This trend should have us all on edge given the call for more “tough on crime” responses from national and local policymakers.
Just two weeks ago, President Donald Trump encouraged a room of law enforcement authorities to not be “too nice” while transporting suspects. This quip drew laughter and cheers from officers in attendance. However, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and several local police departments quickly rebuked the statement. The Campaign For Youth Justice and 25 other organizations released a joint statement calling on police to commit to clear protocols and policies against the use of force in our communities.
Additionally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been an ardent defender of “get tough” practices from the 1990s. Sessions recently ordered federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible penalty in all cases, no matter how minor, a practice that will send more Americans to prison without good reason.
These rollbacks are occurring on the state level as well, including in Michael Brown’s home state of Missouri.
In the same week that the NAACP issued a travel advisory, warning people of color that their civil rights could be violated in the state of Missouri, Republican Gov. Eric Greitens implemented a new anti-violence plan. The plan calls on highway patrol troopers to ramp up policing to combat urban crime, reopening historical tensions.
“We are looking for anything,” a Missouri state trooper recently told a Washington Post reporter, before pulling over a motorist for an expired license plate near downtown. “I don’t see how it can be detrimental having more law enforcement in an area that really needs more policing.”
As we reflect on the anniversary of Mike Brown's death and the subsequent deaths, the current climate in our country toward crime signals that we are headed in the wrong direction. Young men of color are much more likely to be profiled — and then subsequently, prosecuted, sentenced and incarcerated as adults in their communities than their white counterparts. Federal, state and local officials are calling on the police, those entrusted to protect and serve, to lead the charge against crime.
But is policing alone what public safety looks like in our communities? Many chiefs of police are calling for evidence-based practices, which include community policing strategies, a focus on prevention and referrals to other agencies and community organizations that are experts in mental health, substance abuse and defusing crises. Our caution is against embracing law enforcement as the only solution to crime; and in adopting a more militarized police force, particularly focused on low-income communities and communities of color.
We don’t want police in schools, driving our children to the courts for typical adolescent behavior. We don’t want police threatening to deport and separate immigrant families trying to live their lives in the United States. We don’t want all our resources poured into enforcement of the law at the cost of access to quality schools, career opportunities and access to public and mental health.
We recognize that law enforcement agencies are among the largest and most powerful bureaucracies in most localities. They intersect daily with our lives, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. They may be who we call first when trouble arises, but they are also armed and evoke fear in many communities across the country. At some point, we must question whether all this law enforcement is necessary. There is a significant imbalance in our current policing model, with far too much emphasis on law enforcement and not nearly enough on crime prevention.
We remember Mike Brown because his death should serve as a daily reminder of the very real work left undone. His memory serves as our invitation to help fix a broken system.
Aprill O. Turner is communications director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
Editor’s Note: Nine national juvenile justice advocacy organizations collaborated on the statement below in response to the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown.
We stand in solidarity with Michael Brown and his family and their supporters in Ferguson, Mo., and across the nation. Michael Brown’s fate — killed by a police officer and denied justice — is yet another example that black and brown children are not always protected by our nation’s laws and that the justice system works differently for different people. We fully understand how some communities have lost faith in the system.
In both Ferguson and other communities, we have failed our youth of color in profound ways. As a society, we accept high dropout rates, high youth unemployment, substandard housing, community violence, high incarceration rates and police brutality. Our nation invests far more in law enforcement and incarceration than in communities and neighborhood-based programs that enhance opportunity for education, jobs, decent housing for young people in our poorest neighborhoods.
At the very least, one would hope that our criminal justice system would be fair and unbiased. Instead, our system has forfeited large numbers of youth of color, allowing the dehumanization of black and brown boys to determine whether and how we help youth in need and punish those who have harmed their communities. The decision in Ferguson demonstrates that in too many places, we do not value the lives of black and brown boys.
The same night that we learned Ferguson would not indict Officer Darren Wilson, 70,000 youth slept in an American youth jail or prison. More than 7,000, including a 10-year-old boy in Pennsylvania, are in adult prisons, some in solitary confinement in an effort to “protect” them. Sixty-eight percent of these youth are youth of color. Studies show that when whites and people of color engage in the same illegal activities, people of color are more likely to be arrested, found guilty and receive harsher sentences.
Our organizations are concerned with the well-being of youth and young people in the juvenile and criminal justice, child welfare, behavioral health and educational systems. We advocate for system-involved young people to be treated fairly and equitably, to get their needs met so they can lead productive lives as young adults safely and in their own communities. We advocate for their families to be respected as equal partners in helping their children achieve well-being.
We stand united for a better solution, one that respects all youth, families and communities, regardless of race or ethnicity, and that prioritizes child well-being. We are united for a solution that recognizes that our youth need stronger communities and better support for their families. We need safe and sound strategies that redirect resources from incarceration to communities. We must also encourage and support community-driven efforts to acknowledge and overcome biases and provide justice for all. We also call on the United States Department of Justice to redouble its efforts to investigate racial and ethnic disparities, civil and human rights abuses of youth by the justice system in Missouri and other states.
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
Campaign for Youth Justice
Justice for Families
Justice Policy Institute
Juvenile Law Center
National Juvenile Justice Network
Youth Advocate Programs Policy and Advocacy Center
Youth First! Initiative
W. Haywood Burns Institute
In this moment of high drama when the nation’s attention is focused on Ferguson, it is important to remember something:
The entire saga of Michael Brown’s killing is simultaneously an individual tragedy and a window into the much larger injustice of ongoing white oppression. For the latter concern the particular outcome of the jury’s deliberations are less relevant, though of course the failure of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson brings tremendous pain to those who have fought to see a trial happen.
Do any of us imagine that convicting Darren Wilson of murder would begin to address the larger injustice? The very system that we have been asking to create justice in this instance is the agent of injustice across the nation, as schools, police, courts and prisons carry out the implementation of what writer Michelle Alexander so aptly calls The New Jim Crow.
Real justice on a societal level doesn’t come from courts, it comes from struggle against the system of injustice. Because cultural systems of oppression (like our own) often become part of the government, those struggles are often labeled as illegal..
Remember that slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were all perfectly legal. In their time they were all defended by the police and courts. Legal victories came after slave revolts, the Underground Railroad, boycotts, sit-ins, marches and other forms of protest and rebellion.
Like the protesters of the civil rights era, those in Ferguson today face fear and suspicion out of proportion with their demands. They would like to see the police kill fewer of their children. What was the response? Police snipers and tear gas greeted the first protesters. Now guns are flying off the shelves as whites arm themselves against the menace of “black mobs” gathering to protest, and the KKK promises the use of lethal force against them.
Fear of African Americans by the rest of society is an old tradition in the U.S., and with good reason. It is fear based on knowing that African Americans in this country have never received their due in any way. A country directly founded on slavery and its defense has never moved to make things right.
The protesters’ concerns are real. Black men are disproportionately affected by all levels of contact with police from traffic stops to being shot and killed. This is a real and incontrovertible fact. Efforts to shift the conversation to an individual level at best arise from misguided ignorance and at worst from direct efforts to maintain the status quo of racial domination in this nation.
Killing African Americans isn't anything new in the U.S. From the beginning the greatest threat to them has been white perceptions skewed by a system of racial domination.
The real hope of justice lies in the protesters, not the courts. Their efforts, if sustained long enough, have the potential to push reality into the faces of the rest of the nation. Right now they are demonized as dangerous radicals or dismissed as simply looking for an excuse to loot. If they can keep going though, just as in the civil rights era of the ‘50s and ‘60s, perceptions and public opinion can change.
Despite what authorities would have us believe, governments (including courts) follow in the footsteps of the people. Justice for Michael Brown is important.
Justice for all African Americans is vital, not only to them but to the entire nation. This is a talk that has been put off for far too long.