One of the interesting differences between the discord following the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore is to what extent African-Americans are full participants in the police and justice system in each community.
In Ferguson, justice was certainly delayed, if not denied, because of a white power structure that did not question itself after Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. Wilson was one of 54 white officers out of a total of 57 police in Ferguson. The police chief was an old-guard white man, Tom Jackson. The mayor of Ferguson is James Knowles, III, who is also white. The Prosecuting Attorney in St. Louis County is Bob McCulloch who is white.
A clear picture of what exactly happened on that hot August afternoon in 2014 was not presented until the U.S. government, specifically the Department of Justice, became involved. It is no small coincidence that the U.S. Attorney-General was an African-American man, Eric Holder, and his boss is of course our African-American president, Barack Obama. The Justice Department issued two reports, both in March 2015. One detailed the incidents on Canfield Avenue on August 9 that led to the death of Michael Brown. The other was a critique of the police department in Ferguson and the North County Justice System.
It was not until these reports were released that we received an honest understanding of what really happened on August 9. The DOJ applied the kind of critical thinking to the testimony of Grand Jury witnesses that the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office did not. Some might have expected the DOJ under Holder to conclude that charges should have been pressed against Darren Wilson, but instead it methodically explained that there was not sufficient evidence to do so. But in the separate report, it took to task the judicial system in Ferguson and surrounding North St. Louis County communities.
In Baltimore, the judicial power structure has far more African-Americans in vital positions. The chief of police, Anthony Batts, is African-American as is the State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby. The city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is also black. Forty-three percent of the police officers are African-American compared to Ferguson’s five percent.
In Baltimore, all six of the police officers (3 white; 3 black) who were involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray were indicted by the state’s attorney with a range of criminal offenses. Five of the six are charged with second-degree assault. The indictments of these officers indicates to citizens of Baltimore that justice has the potential to be fair in their city. The same cannot be said about Ferguson.
If the police officers in Baltimore are convicted and sentenced with real penalties, it will be strong evidence that the justice system can function well in that city when it comes to use of excessive force by police officers. In another sense, it will be a tribute to the significance of black power.
But black power can only do so much in Baltimore or any other community. Even if the judicial system works to perfection, it does not automatically raise people out of poverty, provide them with affordable, comprehensive health care, humanize the schools, raise the level of the housing stock, or open up thousands of new job opportunities. Only if the judicial system could rule that the country needs a massive redistribution of wealth in America could the problems of Baltimore and other communities like it be fully addressed.
It is not advisable for any of us to sit around and wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to ultimately rule that wealth is unevenly distributed in the United States and that this situation must be remedied “with all deliberate speed.” (borrowing language from their school desegregation ruling in Brown v Topeka in 1954). Yet such a ruling, if enforced, would give society the tools to correct many of the economic injustices that currently exist in the United States.
A second way to bring comprehensive change to Baltimore, Ferguson, and any community in economic distress, is for the United States Congress to pass, and the President to sign, a massive stimulus bill that would create millions of jobs, provide adequate health care universally, modernize our housing stock, update our infrastructure, sensitize our schools, and ensure an adequate economic and social safety net for all citizens. This is a much more realistic approach than a Supreme Court ruling, because it is doubtful that the Court would find economic disparity to be unconstitutional.
As much as we can cheer the racial justice that seems to be happening in Baltimore and applaud what Eric Holder’s Justice Department has brought to Ferguson, we cannot lose sight of the reality that to bring a more complete justice to impoverished communities, the federal government must lead the way with economic redistribution. Only the federal government has the taxing and spending power to do this. To focus on local solutions to national problems is paradise to conservatives because local communities cannot enact economic justice. Neither can most states. We need more progressives at the national level who can help solve our urban problems through more economic fairness.