Civil Rights Probe of Ferguson Police Misses the Mark
Glen Ford: DOJ probe is not big news but big noise, distracting people to think that the current system is broken and can be fixed rather than understanding that the system is operating just as it was designed
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux, coming to you from Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Ford Report.
Now joining us is Glen Ford. He joins us from Plainfield, New Jersey. He is the cofounder and executive editor of The Black Agenda Report. And, of course, he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.
Thanks for being with us, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thank you for the invitation.
DESVARIEUX: So, Glen, big news today in terms of the Ferguson story. Attorney General Eric Holder says he’ll launch a broad civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. Just give our viewers a sort of a reminder about where things are at in terms of the investigation that the FBI is conducting, looking specifically into the shooting of the teenager Michael Brown. And what’s the significance of this new investigation that the Justice Department is putting together?
FORD: Well, I don’t know if it’s big news, but it’s certainly big noise. As you said, this is in addition to the investigation into that individual officer’s killing of Michael Brown. This new Justice Department probe will try to find out whether there’s been a pattern and practice of the abuse of black people’s civil rights in Ferguson. And they should have lots of evidence to sift through. For example, there’s the case of the black man who was beaten bloody and then was charged with destruction of public property because his blood soiled policemen’s uniforms. So they’ve got a lot of stuff to do in Ferguson.
But I think we need to look at the larger picture, and I think it’s relevant here to talk about what the NAACP Legal Defense Fund asked of the Justice Department in a letter to Eric Holder, the attorney general, last week. They want a kind of automatic triggering mechanism to be put in place, so that the Justice Department would launch a review every time an unarmed black person is shot down by police. And so I asked the official of the LDF if they understood that that would trigger literally hundreds of reviews a year, and she said, yes, they realize that, but if that’s what it takes, then that’s what should be done.
Well, what would that take? It would, if it ever happened, require the addition of literally hundreds of new lawyers to the Justice Department, with more than 1,000 supporting personnel. This would cost tens of millions of dollars, and it would take the kind of commitment that no administration has shown in modern American history. But that’s what the LDF proposes, and people should, of course, support that.
However, what are the obstacles to successfully prosecuting a police officer for using deadly force? The New York Times has a very interesting article out this week in which it notes that the state of Florida, which is not the worst, not the best, pretty indicative of Southern justice, certainly, the state of Florida has not even charged, much less tried, a single police officer in 20 years for using deadly force against a civilian. Not once in 20 years. And Florida doesn’t really stand out too far from other states. The truth of the matter is that it is so difficult for a variety of political, as well as legal, reasons–and I think one should emphasize the politics, ’cause that’s where law comes from–for political reasons, it’s so difficult to prosecute a police officer that if the Justice Department wanted to tackle a real broad spectrum of abuses of the Michael Brown variety, they would have to go up against the legal armadas and the budgets of literally every state, county, and city government in the country, all of which would be standing behind their police forces. And I don’t see any U.S. Justice Department taking on the various strata of government all around the country.
I was just talking to a friend who happens to be a human rights activist, and she just came back from Geneva, Switzerland, where she and her colleagues have been pressing a committee of the United Nations to declare that the United States systematically abuses the civil rights of its black citizens. And they’ve been making lots of progress and embarrassing, at least, the United States before the international community. And one of the members of the UN committee asked the question, whatever happened to that guy who killed Trayvon Martin? And when he asked that, a hush fell over the room. It was such a simple and straightforward question. And the answer, of course, was nothing happened to George Zimmerman.
So, in the beginning, you said this was big news and I said it was big noise. Let’s see who’s right.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And, Glen, sort of let’s turn the corner a little bit and discuss how the mainstream press is covering this. So some people are arguing that this is a step in the right direction, ’cause now, you know, you can tackle what they’re calling a broken system. What’s your take on all of that?
FORD: Yeah, I call this the MSNBC political conversation. But it applies basically to all the media and to the general discussion of criminal justice as it transpires in the United States. There is the current–the school of thought that says that the criminal justice system is flawed but it can be fixed. And those are the folks who are asking for more Justice Department probes, whether triggered by some kind of automatic mechanism or just ad hoc, as we see the situation so far. Another school of thought says that the criminal justice system is broken and needs a major overhaul. And that’s usually considered to be a radical position.
But my position is that the system works just fine. It does exactly what it was designed to do. It acts with uniformity all across the United States and delivers, like clockwork, millions of black bodies to be incarcerated in the biggest gulag in the world. It does it quite efficiently. It cost a lot of money, but the money that’s spent is made by somebody. And it’s the uniformity, again, the system that shows that it is a well-oiled machine that has been working at the highest possible speed for the last 45 years. That’s not a broken system. If we look at it as a broken system, we’re just going to tinker with it. If we understand that it is a system that is accomplishing the mission of criminalizing a whole race of people, black folks, then we have to look in a much more systemic, societal-wide way at what we do about a criminal justice system that is itself a criminal enterprise.
DESVARIEUX: But, Glen, what do you do, then? Can we speak to specifics in terms of how do you fight this well-oiled machine, as you call it?
FORD: The people who are the target of that well-oiled machine have to mobilize. That’s where the resistance comes from. Since they have declared and treat black people as if we are all criminals, then it is incumbent upon all black folks to resist that system. And that’s what scares them. Ferguson stands out, Ferguson is thought to be possibly a kind of benchmark, not because of what happened to Michael Brown, ’cause that happens every damn day of the year. Ferguson is significant because black people stood up and refused to stand down. They had curfews /wɪkt/ on them and they did not respect them. They were intimidated by a militarized force that acted like it was Israeli in Gaza, and they did not back down. And so we saw that there is the potential, finally, after all these decades, for there to be a mass kind of upswelling of resistance among the targets of this criminal justice system, which is black people as a whole.
Now is the stage in which we do discuss what do those now-energized masses of folks do about it on a tactical and strategic bases. We can’t do that today on the show.
DESVARIEUX: Alright, Glen. Well, we’ll do that next time you’re on. Hopefully we’ll get into some more specifics. Thank you so much for joining us.
FORD: [Thank you for the] opportunity.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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