Memories of those days are etched in our minds. The raw emotions of anger and righteousness, the constant noise and chants, and the sting of teargas are unforgettable. As the nights got dangerous, our feet ached and voices grew hoarse, but the people believed. On the second anniversary of the police shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr., the nation—and especially Ferguson, Missouri—reflected upon violence, policing, and race. During the past two years, many journalists, filmmakers, commentators, and observers have opined about the uprisings that occurred. There soon will be a veritable library of books, studies, and films fashioned mostly by those who do not live in the region or who were not actually here to experience the everyday tension of state-citizen interactions, the turmoil and outrage sparked by the police killing of an unarmed teenager, or the triumphs that resulted from constant agitation. With that in mind, Ferguson’s Fault Lines is a welcome addition to the bourgeoning Ferguson canon. The edited volume’s great strength is its utility, and the book will be used as a point of reference in the future.
Washington University in St. Louis Law School professor Kimberly J. Norwood made the call to fifteen colleagues and scholars in the region and around the nation to cover the various aspects of the Michael Brown, Jr. legal case and the campaigns that ensued after his death. As the American Bar Association published the book, the focus is heavily on legal matters; however, the contributors did address other issues in the realm of history, sociology, and psychology. Refreshingly, the editor and most of the contributors wrote from the perspective of local observers and participants in the events that have catalyzed the Movement for Black Lives. To be clear, the majority of authors were not street-activists. After Brown’s death, hundreds of Ferguson residents from the Canfield Green and Northwinds Estates complexes, thousands of generally concerned citizens from the region and nation, and dozens of organizational members of traditional civil rights groups and those that came to life as a result of the tragedy battled police over public space.
Although most of the volume’s contributors did not take up that struggle on the street, they played vital roles in the local movement. Their writing and work has assisted in enhancing the narrative surrounding the tragic events of the period. This book is, therefore, not an activist rendering of the story but rather an analysis of an American tragedy. So far, the catalogue of Ferguson-related books includes works by long-time activist Jamala Rogers, faith leaders like Leah Gunning Francis, former politicians, and even real estate developers. Most recently, Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, published a touching book covering her son’s life up until its violent end. Amidst the dozens of forthcoming books, Ferguson’s Fault Lines will stand out from most because of the breadth in the multi-disciplinary scholarly approach it takes.
As I stared down Canfield Drive on August 9, 2016, I could almost smell the smoke, hear the helicopter blades thumping, and see the confrontations between rebellious residents and, what many viewed as, encroaching law enforcement. The scene was nearly unfathomable then, and it stirs great anxiety now.
The volume features thirteen chapters and multiple maps. The chapters delve into topics ranging from court procedures, to the psychology of police reactions, to media representations of the crisis. The contributors shed light on the decision-making of figures such as Officer Darren Wilson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, former Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. In an attempt to provide some theoretical framework for the book, George Washington Law School Professor Christopher Bracey discusses the concept of “dignity expropriation”: the removal or challenge to basic human dignity because of race. His chapter lightly treats the events of Ferguson, and instead reaches back in history to the periods of black enslavement, Jim Crow, and civil rights agitation. The tendency to analyze general experiences but not the specific issues black residents of St. Louis and Ferguson face is characteristic of some but not all chapters. In instances when contributors like University of California Irvine Law Professor L. Song Richardson and John Jay College Social Psychology Professor Phillip Goff discuss concepts such as stereotype threat, masculinity threat, and implicit racial bias, the wider scope is necessary to bolster the assertions about the reactions of local police officers, jurors, and members of the media. For example, Richardson and Goff cite a study conducted in San Jose that found police officers who were concerned with appearing racist were more likely to use force against black suspects than any other race. The authors explain why the results of the study may seem counterintuitive but are actually reasonable when analyzed psychologically.
The book takes care to highlight the violation of the amendment rights of citizens. In their thorough chapter, St. Louis Attorney Thomas Harvey and Saint Louis University Law Professor/Activist Brendan Roediger included information about the efforts of organizations like the Arch City Defenders, a non-profit St. Louis-based civil rights law firm, and the Saint Louis University Law Clinic. Saint Louis University Law Professor Chad Flanders and Florida International College of Law Professor Howard Wasserman discussed the St. Louis Branch of the ACLU, led by St. Louis organizer Mustafa Abdullah. Members of these advocacy groups (especially Roediger, Harvey, and Abdullah) admirably engaged in legal action on behalf of protesters whose rights had been blatantly violated on the street. In addition to defending activists (and many others) in court, these attorneys and organizers acted as legal observers to ensure that the police acted constitutionally. That was a mighty task. After witnessing violations, the attorneys and justice advocates victoriously brought suits against and municipal and state police departments for overzealous law enforcement that included rights infringements such as the “five-second” rule and deploying teargas on non-threatening demonstrators.
Undoubtedly, the information in those chapters will invoke a sense of anxiety in the readers who witnessed and experienced the haphazard way that law enforcement conducted itself in the days after the Brown shooting. From the initial announcements about the Brown shooting, to the withholding of Wilson’s name, to the release of the convenience store video of Brown taking cigarillos, to the way that officers brandished their firearms, it seemed as though fear drove police reactions behind the scenes and on the ground. The introduction of officers in riot gear aboard armored personnel vehicles, wielding military-grade rifles and other weapons greatly ratcheted up the tension between protesting citizens and the authorities. In addition to explaining the unconstitutionality of some police officers’ actions, the volume goes into great detail about the extremely flawed and unjust fining system that plagued residents in North St. Louis County. Those who have not been exposed to the “municipality shuffle” will be shocked by statistics regarding the astonishingly high number of citations issued to mostly poor black people in Ferguson and the adjacent municipalities. The ability of the tiny courts to insidiously create pauper prisons with the systems of warrants and the shortage of public defenders will (and should) anger readers.
Other chapters describe the development of Ferguson and the daily threats to life that residents faced. In his chapter, University of Iowa History and Public Policy Professor Colin Gordon illustrates the historical effects of white flight on St. Louis City and then on North St. Louis County, where Brown lived. In St. Louis and elsewhere, American University graduate student in the Department of International Media (and daughter of the editor) Candace Norwood explains, the television and print media portrayed Brown partly as a gentle giant but mostly as a threat to society. The portrayal as a threat had implications and potentially resulted from the work of other systems, the author argues. As Professor Kimberly Norwood shows, the educational opportunities available to Brown and his peers were (and are) bleak. Before the uprisings occurred in August 2014, there was already a crisis regarding an unaccredited district and the ability of mostly black North County students to transfer to much better resourced predominantly white districts in West County. Then, with the black male youth unemployment rate at 47 percent in Ferguson at the time of Brown’s death, poverty had essentially engulfed a large percentage of the black population in ways that many citizens cannot understand . The poverty and unemployment, along with the poor health indicators that Washington University George Warren Brown School of Social Work Professor Jason Purnell’s groundbreaking study “For the Sake of All” exposed, dictated severely decreased life chances for black people. These everyday circumstances were enough to induce trauma in the toughest of Americans, but, as Saint Louis University Professor of Psychology/Activist Kira Hudson Banks and Washington University George Warren Brown School Professor Vetta Sanders Thompson point out, the psychic pain of residents spiked when the battle over public space pushed into black neighborhoods during the uprisings. The scholars predict that the stress of protesting, policing, and merely living in the area will have long-term psychological effects on a great variety of social demographics. Those nerve-racking and life threatening circumstances are not unique to St. Louis County; they are prevalent in urban areas throughout the nation. That is partly why the Movement for Black Lives has gained steam nationally and internationally.
As I stared down Canfield Drive on August 9, 2016, I could almost smell the smoke, hear the helicopter blades thumping, and see the confrontations between rebellious residents and, what many viewed as, encroaching law enforcement. The scene was nearly unfathomable then, and it stirs great anxiety now. The blood stains in the street are not still visible; they were replaced with symbols of love for Brown and the movement he sparked.
Ferguson’s Fault Lines is, admittedly, difficult to read. To be sure, the prose is fine, and the organization is mostly sound. It does not employ much legal jargon or toil in overly complicated theories. Simply put, the book is hard to finish because it invokes memories of a low time in America. It does not (and perhaps cannot) relay the incomprehensible sense of loss that parents in the area felt and the sense of dread that young people experienced in those days and now. Nor does it tease out the travails of particular participants and activists. It does, however, indict the policies and laws that led to the explosion of the Ferguson Crisis. That is worth the pain.
On a more hopeful note, the book points out the local movement’s successes in the way of electoral politics and policy revisions concerning fines and warrants. Since the book’s publication, citizens have brought more suits against local municipalities and activists have turned to the polls to improve their communities. Aside from the creation of the Ferguson Commission that submitted an indicting list of suggestions for progress, there were other proposals for reform. The Missouri Supreme Court clarified that a person could not face incarceration for nonpayment of a traffic fine unless the municipality could prove that the person was willfully not paying. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed into law Senate Bill 5, which capped the amount that could be charged for traffic fines and eradicates jail time for minor offenses. Most importantly, Senate Bill 5 and subsequent legislation, limited the percentage of revenue that municipalities could receive from traffic infractions. The City of St. Louis recalled 200,000 warrants and adjusted fines to the defendants’ actual ability to pay. Ferguson followed suit, ceased warrant recall fees, and cancelled 10,000 warrants issued before December 2014. As many of the smaller municipalities in North County generated a large bulk of their revenue from fines, some have had to combine civil services to make up for the loss of funds. The City of Ferguson has hired a new city manager, traffic court judge, and police chief as a result of the uprisings. Also, some Ferguson and St. Louis street-activists like Rasheen Aldridge, Cori Bush, and Bruce Franks, admirably, have even run for political offices themselves. Franks recently won a contested election for the Missouri State Congress.
Unfortunately, police use-of-force deaths of unarmed and legally armed black people continue, as do civil uprisings around the nation. In 2016 alone, cities like Baltimore, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Los Angeles, Tulsa, and Charlotte have experienced tragedies similar to that which occurred in Ferguson in 2014. This portends the need for more contributions and analyses of state-citizen relationships as they concern violence, race, class, and gender. Notwithstanding some minor problems with organization and a few inconsequential errors of accuracy, Norwood’s work will be a model.
To those who live outside the St. Louis metropolitan area or who were observers of the uprisings, this volume will be incredibly revelatory. To those in the region who participated in the moment, the book will be a thought provoking reminder of the period. Members of the law and education communities will especially appreciate the book. Ferguson’s Fault Lines should be placed among those that successfully illustrate how a sleepy suburb of St. Louis became “Ground Zero” for a movement.