In the wake of the murder of Mike Brown, an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, leaders, from the Reverend Al Sharpton to the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, have called for a federal investigation into the circumstances of Brown’s death. But will an investigation bring justice for Mike Brown, his grieving loved ones, and the citizens of Ferguson who have been under siege by their own police force?
Lisa Bloom, a civil rights lawyer who practices law in Los Angeles and is the author of Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It, believes that a federal investigation is warranted. She notes that, “the Federal government needs to take the lead, move immediately, and really aggressively investigate” the events of Brown’s death in Ferguson.
Currently, the St. Louis County Police Department, along with the FBI and civil rights attorneys from the Justice Department are conducting parallel investigations into Brown’s murder.
Nevertheless, Bloom is less than optimistic about the possible results of a federal investigation. She notes that there was a federal investigation for Oscar Grant’s murder, which has lead nowhere. Likewise, the federal government has been investigating the Zimmerman case—another instance of a stalled federal case that has brought neither justice nor closure.
Considering the history of racial discrimination in our courts, some might argue that looking for justice in our legal system is too much to ask. “There is no question that our criminal justice system is, unfortunately, filled with racial bias and is perhaps the most racist institution in America. I don’t think a lot has changed when it comes to the widespread characterization of Black men as criminals,” says Bloom.
So, in short, a federal investigation will likely not be a panacea that solves all of the complex issues that incited Mike Brown’s tragic death and the ensuing civil unrest.
If we concede that a federal investigation may do little more than a cursory look at the circumstances of Mike Brown’s death, what might be our other options? Bloom advises that “we don’t need more studies, we need more action.” She suggests that we can enact other measures to combat police brutality. She suggests that, for one, “we need more diversity in our police departments and more Black prosecutors. Only 5% of prosecutors are Black.” However, diversity is not enough, because as Bloom warns, research reveals Black and Brown officers can also behave in biased ways towards other people of color. Retraining law enforcement, even those of color, to disassociate criminality with Blackness is key, Bloom argues.
Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson bears eerie similarities to other recent instances of police and vigilante brutality against Black people, including the deaths of Travyon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Islan Nettles, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Ezell Ford, just to name a few. It is this incessant and seemingly endless stream of violence that has many recalling the violence that preceded and accompanied the civil rights movement of the 20th century. As Bloom notes, “The analogy between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till is sadly appropriate.”
Bloom also believes that the “utter lack of transparency” on the part of law enforcement has rightfully sparked distrust, as “secrecy generates suspicion.” The peaceful protests and civil unrest in Ferguson should be then no surprise. Bloom further wonders why the burden to be transparent is on the citizenry and not also on the police. She insists that while the residents of Ferguson should be peacefully protesting in the street and demanding change, it is the elected and appointed leadership that should be stepping up to address issues and being accountable to their constituents. It should be noted that some local officials, such as alderman Antonio French, who was arrested for taking part in the civil disobedience, has been on the frontlines since the unfolding of events in Ferguson.
Missouri governor Jay Nixon has canceled appearances at the local state fair to head to Ferguson and is aiming for a “different tone” in future dealings between law enforcement and residents. On Thursday in brief press conference, President Obama called for transparency and decried the “use of excessive force” against peaceful protestors and journalists. He also reiterated that the federal investigation is underway and that it will address ongoing concerns of police brutality. Nevertheless, as Bloom has noted, at this point we have seen more lip service than action and it is fair to assume that a federal response will move at a similarly glacial pace. And even as a federal investigation rolls on, it is imperative that the citizens of Ferguson are treated with respect and not as criminals in their own neighborhoods.