Sunday, August 09, 2015

Introduction: Deconstructing Ferguson One Year Later

Guest Blogger

Tracey L. Meares, Yale Law School
Clarissa Rile Hayward, Washington University in Saint Louis

For the Symposium: Deconstructing Ferguson One Year Later

It has now been a year since white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Last August, that shooting, together with the ensuing clashes between predominantly African-American protesters and the local, majority-white police force, captured the world’s attention. All eyes were on Ferguson again in November, when a grand jury failed to indict Wilson for Brown’s death. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division also declined to bring criminal charges against Wilson, but the Division did conduct an investigation of the Ferguson Police Department (FPD), culminating in a March 2015 report that concluded that the FPD engaged in a "pattern or practice of unlawful conduct."

Specifically, the DOJ found that the FPD routinely violated the constitutional rights of the city's residents through widespread and systematic violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteen Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as of Missouri state and federal statutory law. The DOJ report emphasized the statistically significant racial pattern to the harms the FPD inflicted, finding, for example, that in Ferguson African-Americans were more than twice as likely as others to be searched during vehicular stops, even though those searches result in officers finding contraband 26% less often than their searches of white drivers.

Public reaction to the DOJ report and to events in Ferguson over the past year has been intense, in part because “Ferguson” has come to stand for a much larger phenomenon. Just one month before Michael Brown’s shooting, police choked Eric Garner to death after he resisted arrest for selling single cigarettes on a New York City street corner. Two days before the grand jury refused to indict Darren Wilson, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland officers on a public playground. In April, white officer Michael Slager shot Black North Carolina resident Walter Scott in the back as he fled, and Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while in Baltimore police custody. Even as we write these words, Americans are grappling with the suspicious death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail and the horrific killing of Sam Dubose in his car by a University of Cincinnati police officer. 

Michael Brown’s death helped spark a national conversation about the nature of police power in the United States. Events since August 9, 2014, have also sparked conversations about the role of social movements in challenging injustice; about needed changes to laws and policies governing police power; and, more broadly, about racial inequality and hierarchy in the contemporary United States. The national conversation is taking place in many institutions and locations ranging from universities to churches and from to street corners to legislative halls.  The conversation crosses lines of race, class and ethnicity, and perhaps most poignantly is being led in large part by young people. A case in point is the recent conversation between Ferguson student Clifton Kinnie and NPR correspondent Michele Norris at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which served as a jumping off point for our guest bloggers.

At the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, this set of blog posts attempts to come to terms with this moment. They touch on a broad set of issues ranging from the relation between racial justice and civic education; the dual harms of state violence and state failure to protect citizens from violence; the ease with which the white public accepts the notion of black criminality; the problematic nature of proving racial discrimination through counterfactuals; the role of municipal elections and local politics in promoting racial (in)equality; and the coming reality(?) of the Third Reconstruction.

The authors are a subset of a larger group that met together at the opening of the summer for a conference held at Yale University titled “Deconstructing Ferguson.” Our goal is ambitious–to reframe current understandings; to pose new questions; and to begin a collaborative, interdisciplinary journey to construct new concepts, frameworks, and research agendas to foster a more rigorous, far-reaching understanding of the issues that the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and others raise. We view the current enterprise as one step in that effort.

Tracey L. Meares is
Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale Law School. You can reach her by e-mail at tracey.meares at

Clarissa Rile Hayward is Associate Professor of  Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis.  You can reach her by e-mail at chayward at

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