Leniency, Lawsuit, and Leveraging Change: The Department of Justice’s Decision to Sue Ferguson

By Andrea S. Boyles, author of Race, Place, and Suburban Policing

On February 10, 2016, eighteen months following the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr., the Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to sue the City of Ferguson for “violating the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution and federal civil rights laws.”[i] While this is a rather significant move to address and protect the rights of vulnerable black citizens in a now widely documented, economically driven and racially-divisive St. Louis municipality (e.g., Ferguson), contrastingly, it is a stark difference in the actions taken by the Department of Justice-Civil Rights Division, proceeding the two discriminately-charged Kirkwood tragedies documented in Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort.

In Race, Place, and Suburban Policing, I carefully tracked and documented the role of the Department of Justice as it investigated and intervened, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 Kirkwood City Hall shooting rampage. After all, it was through years of race and class induced-divisiveness, and more specifically, the local government’s persisting denial and failure to adhere to and enact immediate changes beneficial to its most destitute citizens that gave way to an inconceivable, unprecedented deadly incident. Likewise, it is somewhere between structural minimizations, justifications, city logistics, and inevitable delays that made justice for many poor black participants perceivably unattainable, and thus, conducive for what ultimately became retaliation.

Hence, in Chapter Four: “It’s the same song…,”[ii] the title echoes the sentiments of one of many perceivably victimized Meacham Park (i.e., Kirkwood) participants. As such, the resounding theme was that no matter the situation or plight of Kirkwood’s poor black citizens, the end game remained unchanged. Meaning, even on the heel of several tragedies and exposure of perceived inequities, many poor black participants believed their lives to be even more devalued. After all, discriminative practices faced by Meacham Park’s residents had been expressed, and believed by some, as only resulting in further denigration. They were then dealing with the backlash of Kevin Johnson’s and Charles “Cookie” Thornton’s murders of police and city government workers, as well as, heightened stereotypical ideas regarding black criminality amid white affluence. Meanwhile, the order of business for Kirkwood’s local government and its agenda mostly reflecting affluent white interests seemingly remained intact. This was the case despite DOJ intervention and its mandate for a mediation agreement between the neighborhood of Meacham Park and the City of Kirkwood. However, upon the expiration of the mediation agreement, federal efforts to improve race relations in this suburban community ended at the discretion of the local government—despite no substantial impact or federal censure.

It is then in this vein that we should critically examine and understand Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s decision to sue the City of Ferguson. Its discriminative practices did not occur in a vacuum, as did not the DOJ’s investigation or recent response in moving reform forward. In fact, Ferguson is one of countless St. Louis municipalities, whereby citizens—mostly poor and black—frequently encounter the strong arm of the criminal justice system due to minor infractions. Furthermore, the City of Ferguson’s routine violations of citizens’ civil rights—pre and post Brown’s death—along with civil unrest, is an effect of endemic structural inequality felt most by marginalized populations throughout the St. Louis region. Therefore, racial tension exacerbated by economic and political disenfranchisement among poor black citizens in Kirkwood (i.e., Meacham Park)—in addition to a history of lenient responses—was the antecedent to Ferguson’s uprising and a precursor for what has now become persisting waves of civil disobedience felt throughout the St. Louis region and nation.

To-date, yes, the pressure is on for the City of Ferguson, and more broadly, the nation and the Department of Justice. Relying on sociological perspective, I argue that the DOJ lawsuit against Ferguson is a cumulative act. It is symbolic to a trickle-down effect prompted by decades of failed attempts (e.g., policies, practices) at the federal, state, and local levels in addressing (or not) the substandard experiences of the poor, people of color, and other marginalized populations whose quality of life became resonant only through police misconduct, and more broadly, institutional exposure. Furthermore, I liken it to protests following Brown’s death in that the DOJ’s lawsuit serves as a historic marker. That is, a point of departure from “business as usual”[iii]—where social consciousness has uniquely awakened—and uninhibitedly all (e.g., individually, collectively) are tasked with implementing social change. Thus, more of the same is no longer possible in Ferguson, and the DOJ’s lawsuit along with persisting mobilization efforts throughout the region, are mere testaments to citizens’ resolve and predictions in the earlier weeks of uprising:

…at the first city council meeting following the Brown shooting, Ferguson residents and citizens broadly made clear to the mayor and city council….that strategies to wait them out or institutionally wear them down would ultimately lose…the meeting grew more intense by the minute, with residents disrupting the agenda of the mayor and city council by exclaiming “There will be no more business as usual” in the day-to-day operations. Refusing to stand down or compromise on numerous demands, another citizen stated, “Since we [blacks] live uncomfortable daily, so will you [decision makers]. You will not rest, until we can.”[iv]

[i] The United States Department of Justice. 2016. Justice Department Files Lawsuit to Bring Constitutional Policing to Ferguson, Missouri. Office of Public Affairs, http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-files-lawsuit-bring-constitutional-policing-ferguson-missouri (assessed February 17, 2016).

[ii] Boyles, Andrea S. 2015. “It’s the Same Song…: The Tragedies of Kevin Johnson and Charles “Cookie” Thornton.” In Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort. Oakland: University of California Press.

[iii] Ibid., 209.

[iv] Ibid., 209.