The Evidence Against Exceptionalism

A recently released Ferguson report shows America just how far from its ideals it really lives

Members of Missouri National Guard stand outside of the Ferguson Police Department and the Municipal Court in Ferguson, Mo.
Members of Missouri National Guard stand outside of the Ferguson Police Department and the Municipal Court in Ferguson, Mo. –AP

Freedom. Liberty. Racist Policing. The first two are essential to the American identity. We happily tout them. The third is woven just as deeply into our fabric. We have a responsibility to acknowledge it, just as openly.

The Justice Department has revealed that the Ferguson Police Department has routinely violated the constitutional rights of its citizens, and exhibited a clear bias against blacks within their jurisdiction.

In short, they violated the rights of black citizens.

Officers in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb in which 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson last summer, are said to have stopped drivers without reasonable suspicion, used excessive force, and made arrests without probable cause, according to the Justice Department.

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Having conducted hundreds of interviews, sifted through 35,000 pages of internal communications and documents, the Justice Department found that blacks, who make up 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, made up 93 percent of its arrests between 2012 and 2014.

According to the Justice Department, this exponentially higher rate “cannot be explained by any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law.’’ Rather, it’s because the department held a bias towards its black citizens.

This bias not only manifested itself in grossly perverted rates of arrest, it came out in other ways.

In addition to these findings, plans have been made to release more evidence, including racist emails sent between officers and municipal court employees.

One email, from 2008, asserted that Barack Obama would be President for a short time, asking “what black man holds a steady job for four years.’’

Though the news of Ferguson’s clear racial bias may prove shocking to some, we should be slow to paint the Ferguson Police Department in any negative light. This is more common than we care to admit.

According to The American System of Criminal Justice by George Cole and Christopher Smith, police are tasked with three main objectives in the communities they serve: peacekeeping, law enforcement, and service. As it pertains to black and brown citizens, statistics like the ones found in the Justice Department’s report and the constant rolling tally of death and harm shows that those who police black and brown people are struggling to meet the needs of their communities.

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Today, we have even more proof of the fraternal relationship between racism and American policing.

It is clear that not all cops fail to meet the needs of their communities, and that not all cops shoot and kill black citizens. Calling the relationship between those tasked with protecting and serving and the great scourge of racism is sure to trigger a vehement denial by many who read this. It does, after all, reduce the number, if not the impact, of good cops, to none. But consider that Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot dead in Selma much in the same way black men continue to die in America today: at the hands of police. From 1965 to 2015, there have not been enough good cops to damn the flow of extrajudicial killing. The above statement does not reduce good police to a footnote any more than bad police reduce good police to a footnote.

We can argue over theory all we want. We can argue that police who claim to be so driven by fear as to shoot people should seek new lines of work until we are blue in the face. The deflection tactic of mentioning black on black crime is a dead horse, as most American violent crime is intraracial, and most of the individuals who commit it do something violent police rarely do: go to jail. None of these paths will get us anywhere.

A look at the facts, however, will show that police don’t have a problem shooting and killing black men and women, even in circumstances that don’t warrant shooting anyone.

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∙A 12-year-old boy was shot within seconds of initial interaction with police in Cleveland. It was his fault, according to authorities.

∙A father was choked to death when he’d had enough of being hassled.

∙An unarmed man was shot, and the cop––who admitted to drinking before work––wasn’t charged.

∙A black man was shot at a traffic stop while reaching for his license. A mentally challenged man––who witnesses maintain did not struggle––was shot three times at close range by police. A totally innocent man was shot in the face by a cop who took the time to text his union representative in the moments that immediately followed.

∙Police barged into the home of a black teen and shot him in his own bathroom. Charges were thrown out on a technicality, and new charges didn’t stick.

∙A father of four was shot dead when a cop mistook a pill bottle for a gun. A young man was shot after officers claimed he came close to them wielding a knife, though surveillance footage completely disproves this.

∙A black man was shot dead––in an open carry state––for carrying a pellet gun in a Wal-Mart.

∙Police claim a black man who was brought into a Baltimore Police station on several open warrants somehow smuggled a gun in and shot himself while in custody.

∙Another black man is said to have shot himself while handcuffed in a squad car.

∙A woman was shot after opening the door to police who responded to a domestic disturbance call.

∙A black man was shot after crashing his car and seeking assistance.

∙A Hispanic man was shot while fleeing men robbing his workplace.

∙Another black man is said to have killed himself while handcuffed in the back of a squad car.

∙An older man whose Life Alert accidentally went off refused to let officers in, stating he did not need help. He was called a nigger, had his door broken down, and was eventually shot and killed.

∙An autistic man was shot after police alleged he was removing something from his waist. He was found to be without a weapon.

∙A suicidal man was walked out of his home backwards with his hands behind his head. When he did not immediately raise his arms, he was shot and killed.

∙A man riding a bike being chased by police in a squad car was tased, ran over, and may have had a gun planted on him.

∙A man with a cosplay sword, who police allege lunged toward officers, was killed by a shot in the back.

Three of the aforementioned cases resulted in prison time.

We argue that Americans share positive traits because of some common thread. The ingenuity that made us first in flight, the perseverance of the Greatest Generation, and much the technology that continues to change the world before our very eyes, are credited in part to the Americanness of the folks who brought them to the world. We celebrate the Wright Brothers, the liberation of Auschwitz, Rock N’ Roll and the Internet because they came from something that we have agreed is us, and we wish to foster a country in which that type of Americanness is self-evident. We have successfully folded the exceptional intellect of two brothers in Kitty Hawk, the grit of a black baseball player, and the dogged pursuit of excellence of a genius from San Francisco into the idea of American exceptionalism.

The fact of the matter is, racism in policing is just as American as Mark Zuckerberg, Jackie Robinson, and apple pie.

And yet we need even more proof that something innately American is to blame for the fact that a black man or woman will be shot––very possibly dead––by a member of law enforcement almost daily in any number of neighborhoods. After the years of mistrust between officers and citizens, years that span commissioners, officers, and the sartorial choices of black men, we need more evidence.

Black citizens sue officers and departments, organize rallies and protests, and openly complain about the same patterns of abuse uncovered in Ferguson. Why do we refuse to accept that this is a part of what it means to be us?

If your reflexive response is to point your finger at those staring down the barrels of police guns, consider this:

If it only took us one moon landing to show us who we were then, it should only take one good, long look at Ferguson Police to show us who we are now.

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