Racism after dark: Violence in the ‘sundown town’ of Ferguson

By Zac Bears

(James Desjardin/Daily Collegian)
(James Desjardin/Daily Collegian)

A white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager in a suburban black community, a too common occurrence in the United States. The same black community rises up to protest the discriminatory treatment they face from their police force on a daily basis, from too frequent traffic stops to a son shot dead on the street by the people sworn to protect him.

What happens? Reporters are arrested, protesters are injured and shootings continue. All while the officer who killed the boy without due process sits in his home on administrative leave. And yet the conversation in the media does not focus on Officer Darren Wilson’s actions. The media focuses on the actions of the protesters, calling them rioters, looters and violent criminals using Michael Brown’s murder as an excuse to wreak havoc. Some people took advantage of peaceful, necessary protests to commit crimes. Surprise, surprise. In fact, recent research from the University of California Berkeley shows that during clashes in 192 cities during the Occupy Wall Street protests, police, not protestors, were almost always the violent agitators.

Victim blaming is the last resort of a desperate criminal accomplice.

Racism lives in American institutions. In black communities, local police departments often have few or no black officers and city councils and school committees have far lower rates of black membership than the population warrants. Police and political diversity and representation only represent implicit racism; there is strong evidence that Ferguson is a “sundown town.”

A “sundown town” is a largely Northern phenomenon, where black people are unwelcome after dark. James Loewen, an American sociologist, tracks the “sundown town” to the 1890s, when only 119 U.S. counties (out of thousands) had no black residents. This number skyrocketed to over 700 by the 1930s, a function of the great migration of blacks out of the South after the institution of Jim Crow. To keep the newly-Northern black populations oppressed, white leaders ghettoized the North, segregating blacks into separate communities, often in unhealthy or undesirable locales. At night, the Ku Klux Klan harassed, attacked and killed blacks who ‘trespassed’ in whites-only areas.

In his documentary “Sundown Towns,” Keith Beauchamp focuses on communities in Indiana and Illinois, and at the beginning says, “[He] was really hoping to prove Loewen wrong…[because] we got a black president in office [and] I wonder if I can live anywhere I want.”

Rather, Beauchamp found that, “It was really just a huge awakening.”

During the protests, the local, state and county police departments have shown their true colors. After arresting two reporters in a local McDonald’s and never filing charges or reports, officers fired at non-violent protestors with tear gas, limiting access to cars, neighborhoods and homes.

Officers similarly accosted two Al-Jazeera America reporters and regularly approached residents and protestors with raised assault rifles. The Governor imposed a two-night curfew.

But these actions barely scratch the surface of the true police misconduct. Since the year 2000, after Missouri passed a law requiring race, age and gender records of all traffic stops, 93 percent of the drivers arrested by the Ferguson police have been black, while they only represent 67 percent of the local population.

Ferguson PD arrested Henry Davis in 2009 on an outstanding warrant, but he was the wrong Henry Davis. According to the Daily Mail, he recounts his beating at the hands of three officers, subsequent documentation of his injuries and, after returning from the hospital, being held longer. He was released on $1,500 bail, and the Ferguson PD sent him a bill for four counts of property damage –for bleeding on the officers’ uniforms. The officers were found to have perjured themselves by filing false reports –he didn’t bleed on two of their uniforms –but Davis has yet to win an appeal after excessive force charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence (the station’s video cameras happened to be running at 32 times normal speed during the events).

Ferguson police filed an 18-page report on his alleged theft of cigars from the convenience store but didn’t file a report on the shooting of Brown. In fact, the corruption of the criminal justice system and exploitation of the black community in Ferguson goes even deeper. A report from Arch City Defenders – a legal defense organization – shows that “fines and court fees” are the already-impoverished city’s second largest revenue source, and that, on average, Ferguson courts dispense $321 in fines and three warrants per household, according to Marginal Revolution.

The report cites that the high rates are due to “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines and the threat of jail for failure to pay.” It also cites that, because 37 percent of courts surveyed by a local judge closed hearings to non-defendants, parents were often faced with the choice of not going to court or leaving children unsupervised in the car –both crimes.

The racism is not contained in Ferguson. An outpouring of racist support has flooded a GoFundMe account, run by associates of Ferguson PD, created to support Wilson. Online racists from 4chan.com (whose racism speaks for itself) have vowed to “intensify the hate.”

University of Massachusetts political scientists Brian Schaffner, Wouter van Erve and Ray La Raja say that Ferguson exposes the larger problem of racial bias in local elections. By holding municipal elections in odd-numbered years, a Progressive-era reform meant to shield local politics from partisanship, turnout in Ferguson is drastically reduced. For the 2012 presidential election, 71 percent of the electorate was black, which was 55 percent of the city’s black population. For the 2013 spring city elections, only 47 percent of the electorate was black, and they only accounted for 6 percent of the total black population. The non-partisan ballot, also a Progressive-era idea, limits uneducated voters’ knowledge of candidates and further reduces their chances of voting.

What are the consequences of these institutions? Five of Ferguson’s six city councilors and the mayor are white (in a town where 67 percent of the population is black).

A justice system is not just if it only provides justice to paragons of virtue. Real justice means that Brown gets the same legal protections as Jared Loughner or Timothy McVeigh. Brown didn’t shoot up a movie theater or blow up a federal office building. According to the law, Brown had not committed any crime. Yet Loughner lives. McVeigh, responsible for the deaths of over 500 people, died six years after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. And only because he dropped all of his death penalty appeals.

Brown allegedly takes a box of cigarillos from a convenience store. Dead on the street. Eric Garner responds to repeated police harassment. Dead on the street. McVeigh blows up a federal building, killing hundreds. He dies six years later, after a last meal and statement in a federal prison.

Our country is broken. We cannot fix it by taking away military toys from the domestic police, as pundits suggest. We can only fix it through a deep and uncomfortable national conversation about the institutions of racial oppression that continue to cause unimaginable pain, tear communities apart and kill unarmed teenagers on the street.

Zac Bears is the Opinion & Editorial Editor and can be reached at [email protected].