The Ferguson report: How protest works

The Department of Justice has released its report on policing in Ferguson.  It tells an extremely disturbing story, in which the killing of Michael Brown and the volatile protests that followed, the awful policing of those protests, and the subsequent protests when the officer who shot Brown was not indicted, are all rolled into a larger–terrible–story.

Ferguson police stopped, cited, and arrested people less to maintain public order than to finance the city and their operations.  By itself, this is troubling enough, as the phobia about paying for the services we want through taxes has translated into a push for “user fees.”  This includes holding those who are arrested, tried, and sentenced responsible for their costs to the city, even as those costs can destroy the lives of people whose financial well-being is pretty tenuous to begin with.  This, alas, is not peculiar to Ferguson.

And Black people were more attractive targets for police than White people; they are stopped, cited, and arrested more frequently, and subjected to more harsh treatment at every point in the process.  This isn’t peculiar to Ferguson either.

Whether or not this report will lead to any kind of changes in criminal justice, policing, and funding policies across American cities remains to be seen.

But the report exists because of the protests in Ferguson that began last year and spread across the country.  It was the protests and not the death of Michael Brown that pushed the Department of Justice to investigate and report, and their notoriety produced the massive coverage that attended the release of the document.  Reporters and editors are reading and summarizing the nearly 100 page report.

It’s hard to think that police chiefs and mayors aren’t reading carefully as well, looking at the Ferguson story as a cautionary tale.  Now, the lessons learned may not be the ones you’d like (immediately, it seems clear that police officers will be told not to circulate racist jokes on email), but the opportunity for reform is here.

Protest works by redirecting our attention (public and government) and providing the opportunity for advocates to make their case to a larger audience.

Social scientists may struggle to model this in convincing ways, but, at least in this story, the sequence of events tells a clear story.  Would-be police reformers should be both encouraged and enabled.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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