From Ferguson to Baltimore

Against the Current, No. 177, July/August 2015

Justin Hansford

I CAME TO THIS conference from Baltimore, and on a Saturday in the evening the police in Baltimore engaged in some of the most racially divisive policing tactics I’ve ever seen — and I’m coming from Ferguson. I am going to start off with a short rundown of my involvement in Ferguson and Baltimore, and then talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned.

I used to start my lectures by showing a picture of what brought me into this movement, which was an image I saw on Facebook of Mike Brown laying in a pool of blood on the street in Canfield.

I stopped showing that picture when Mike Brown’s mother said it was a trigger for her. The idea of her child’s body being used for widespread imagery, and really the bodies of Black people in general, dead bodies of Black people being disseminated through the press over and over again, is something that we’ve seen only pick up over the course of the last month or two.

Seeing Mike Brown’s dead body on Facebook reminded me of a lynching. This is what we’re emerging from in terms of our legacy in the United States of America when it comes to race. The use of the Black body as spectacle and the image of the Black body as a warning is something we’ve seen throughout our history. Many people in Ferguson said that day that they thought that Mike Brown’s body was left in the street for four hours to send a message to people, telling them that this could be you next time. When I saw that, like many of us, it triggered that memory in my mind. That’s one of the reasons I went out into the street.

This legacy involves a long history of racial targeting. In Miami police actually used Black faces as target practice in their training modules. We come from a legacy and a continuing practice of militarized policing. The federal government, under the 1033 program, gives military equipment to state and local police departments, sometimes for free, in an effort to counter terrorism and the potential for terrorist attacks. I suppose they were afraid of a terrorist attacking Ferguson, Missouri.

Combined with racial profiling, combined with the practice of predatory profiling and predatory policing, police departments are using parking and traffic tickets as a revenue base to increase their budget. All these bring us to a place where police violence is rampant. The more contacts you have with the police, the more possibilities you have of being subject to a violent interaction.

I can tell you stories of times where I’ve been harassed and accosted by police officers. One particular time I was with my little brother and my cousin. We’d gone to get a piece of pizza, and got back to our car. A police officer comes up and says, “Hey you! Put your hands up!” And I’m like, “all I’m doing is getting a piece of pizza. What’d I do?” And his response was “Get the F— up against the car and shut up!” and “Do it right now!” He didn’t say it as nicely as that.

And so, I was frisked and called racially derogatory names. It was particularly a painful experience for me because it happened in front of my little brother, for whom I consider myself a mentor. This is something I would never let anyone else do to me on a regular basis, but I know how quickly situations can escalate with the police. The use of predatory policing, racial profiling, and humiliation as a tactic has created a long legacy of conflict between our community and the police.

“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

In this context, we in Ferguson decided to resist. Brothers like Damon Davis, one of the top Ferguson activists who is sitting here at the conference today, and others, came out and took a symbol that was traditionally a symbol of surrender, and turned it into a symbol of resistance.

I was proud to be a part of that. Of course, we know that it was something that soon became global in its reach, and we saw the response as one that reminded us of some of the worst times in our history.

We saw the use of rubber bullets. Many people will tell you that rubber bullets are a less lethal use of force. In fact rubber bullets can kill. And rubber bullets can leave wounds. In Ferguson Pastor Ronita was hit with a rubber bullet. There is also the use of police dogs and tear gas.

Some of us engaged in nonviolent protest. I was one of five legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild, serving at a protest at Wal­mart. Damon was there too. Legal observers wear a neon green hat, issued by the NLG, so that the police can see we are official legal observers, and shouldn’t be arrested. We were three white legal observers, one Asian and me. We were all in the same Walmart. The police actually walked past all the other legal observers and arrested me for trespassing; none of the others were arrested.

Those of us arrested had a plea deal offered to us: we would have to accept two years probation and a lifetime ban from all Walmarts across the country. We’re still trying to figure out whether that’s a reward, or a punishment, or what.

Facing arrest is a risk. And people like Damon had the courage to go there and face arrest; and as someone who is an untenured law professor, it was a risk I took too. A lot of us have had to, really, in this process, look in the mirror and ask ourselves: How important is this movement? What are we willing to risk? And are we willing to say that this movement is more important in some cases than our jobs, more important in some cases than going to jail?

There are people here who have inspired me to take that risk. Damon is both an artist and an activist and his brother is a legit genius who is now an artist and an intellectual. The one thing Damon shares with me that is really special is that we’ve been to jail together for Ferguson. And once you go to jail with somebody, you’re friends for life, right? That’s real.

I didn’t risk arrest this past weekend in Baltimore, maybe I should have. You never get all these questions right every time you ask yourself this question. You don’t always get it right, but we hope to get it right at least sometimes.

We carried out a number of other activities in Ferguson. We did know-your-rights sessions in Ferguson to teach people what their legal rights were when it came to interactions with the police. We tried to change the narrative whenever we had access to the media. We went and tried to engage in advocacy on the state, local, and federal levels.

We went to the Ferguson Commission. I spoke at an academic workshop to try to get the word out in the academic community, and try to exchange ideas and figure out what solutions would look like. We tried to go to the U.S. government on the federal level; I spoke at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and also the state legislature, and we can keep going…the President’s panel on 21st century policing. And after all of this — all this advocacy, all this legal work — nothing happened.

Of course we had our unresponsive local officials. Prosecutor McCullough remains unrepentant and you saw the mayor of Ferguson make statements such as there’s “no race problem in Ferguson.” This sort of disconnected, unresponsive response — this is one of the main challenges we had to face as activists.

We did all this work — I’m sure many of you never even heard of any of it. People will tell us: Why are you guys in the streets? Why don’t you go through legal channels? Why don’t you testify? Why don’t you bring lawsuits? Why are you letting these “thugs” and “rioters” and “looters” go into the streets? Why don’t you do it the traditional way?

Well, this is what happens when you try to do it the traditional way, and this is what we had to do eventually — we had to take it all the way to the United Nations. And even that — some of you may not have heard of that move we made, but along with a number of different activists — rapper Tef Poe, Terra, Shraz, and a number of core activists in Ferguson — we went to the United Nations along with Mike Brown’s mother, and we brought our testimony there.

Now I made all the legal arguments I could think of, but at the end of the day, when Mike Brown’s mother had a chance to testify she went up there and tried to express what it felt like to stand out there for four hours in the hot sun in August, and look at her child’s dead body laying in the street.

There was no ambulance sent. She had no chance to even go to the body over the course of those four hours. And it was heartbreaking. By the time she finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. These UN officials, people from all over the world, said, “Yes, this was a human rights violation. This is a violation of your human dignity.”

They were wrong; this is something that’s happening systematically all across the country. It’s a shame we had to go all the way to Geneva, Switzerland to have our human dignity recognized. But it showed that there is some hope: we can get our dignity recognized if we fight long and hard enough.

In Baltimore, Ongoing Violence

But, of course, the problem continues. In Baltimore we have the issue not just of police violence, but the ongoing economic violence that the people in that city have had to face. Some of the things I saw in Baltimore, I’ve never seen anywhere else in the country.

There’s a foreclosure crisis, which took place in 2008, resulting in the mass boarding up of empty homes that had to be evacuated by families. Apparently in Baltimore they didn’t just board them up but some have been bulldozed. People are living on blocks where there once was a home, then it was boarded up, and now it’s just rubble. This is what you see in the Third World. I’ve been to the favelas in Brazil. The youth in Baltimore are living in similar conditions.

The Freddie Gray case came — and that was a trigger, but it wasn’t the cause. The cause was the longstanding issue of economic injustice and lack of opportunity, and you saw it explode in protest.

I was inspired when I saw people stand in front of the police and say, “Hands up don’t shoot!” They are saying the same things we said in August, and now it’s April. The youth were out there, and they were ambushed. If you haven’t heard it yet, I want to be the first person to tell you — they were ambushed on Monday in Baltimore, right as they got out of school. There’s a mall there called Mondawmin Mall. A lot of kids go there after school to get home. The police said that there’s a “credible threat of a gang attack.” They closed down all the stores, and stopped the buses from running — and so all these kids were stranded, and they couldn’t get home.

And the police converged where the kids were congregated. They started chasing the kids, terrorizing the kids. This is what happened on Monday, and the kids responded; they threw rocks. The houses had been bulldozed and reduced to rubble, so now just like the kids in Palestine they picked up the stones and threw them. You want to call these violent protests? You have a stone against a tank, or a stone against some armed force.

The police started throwing rocks back at them. We were trying to record it as legal observers. Some kids had gashes on their legs. They were afraid to give us their names, they were afraid to tell us where they lived. I still don’t know how some got home, because the whole city was shut down. Ten-year-old kids out there. It’s a lot.

One of the kids, I looked into his eyes. He had the most hardened eyes I’d ever seen in a 10-year-old; and I was trying to get my mind around what he had to have experienced, to have to steel himself emotionally to get through what he’s getting through.

Do we expect these kids to grow up and have constructive, loving, peaceful relations with police after this experience? That’s not going to happen, right? We saw youth out there and we saw them respond in what Martin Luther King called “the language of the oppressed.”

Parents came out and some disciplined the kids. There was one particular case where a mother forced one of the students to turn himself in to the police. She thought that was the right thing to do. He’s now been charged with rioting, which carries a life sentence. He is being held on half a million dollar bail. This is more bail than was required for any of the police officers who killed Freddie Gray. And he’s facing more time than any of the police officers who killed Freddie Gray.

There’s a lot there to unpack. Parents are trying to figure out how to get their kids through the situation, but the problem is respectability won’t save you. I say that as someone who is a lawyer, a law professor, a Fulbright scholar, all these things, and they still threw my behind in jail in a second.

Turn yourself in and think you’re doing the right thing, but this system doesn’t have empathy. They’ve seen that firsthand.

We have African-American public officials in Baltimore — the mayor and also a Black prosecutor. It’s different than in Ferguson, where public officials were just outright hostile on a racial basis. But at the same time, under a Black mayor, we’ve had the use of force in an unprecedented fashion.

The fact that the officials were Black hasn’t solved the problem. And I think this is a very instructive moment because we’re starting to see it is not individual bad actors. It’s not a bad prosecutor or a bad mayor. It’s the system. Black public officials — even well-meaning Black public officials in this system — can find themselves in the same situation as the officials in Ferguson.

When Is a Curfew a Curfew?

I was out there on Saturday and witness to outright racial injustice. I was at the Hampton protest at 10:08PM. We were defying a curfew. I’m a grown man; I’ve haven’t had to obey a curfew since I was 15 and I wasn’t about to do so now.

There was an action of all-white allies. They said, “Well, we’re going to defy the curfew in a rich part of town and see what happens.” The police came and gave them one warning, and then gave them a second warning. They never even raised their voice. And we have all this on tape. They said, “Please guys, please go home. The last thing we want to do is arrest anybody.” They gave five or six warnings. I was standing right there, and nobody was arrested.

We also took a picture after curfew where a group of white Baltimore residents were sitting on their lawn chairs outside, chilling. They weren’t arrested either.

But people were assaulted and arrested by the police only 10 minutes away, in the Black part of the city. There were over 50 arrests. One young man was pepper sprayed, dragged on his face across the concrete. I saw women arrested. One woman was frisked by a man. The only grounds for these arrests were the fact that these Blacks were on a street after curfew. And this is under a Black mayor. So the answer is not necessarily electoral politics or the presence of Black officials.

We have a number of short-term solutions that have been proposed. Civilian review boards, body cams, racial profiling legislation, data collection, use-of-force reform, all of these are short-term answers. I think all of them will ultimately not be what we need to get to freedom.

If you think you’re going to take the Black liberation movement and condense it into five or six reform proposals, that’s a joke, right? Ultimately, we have to change the system’s values. We can’t engage in superficial change. And what I’ve seen in all my legislative efforts is this deep desire to have superficial reform be the answer, as opposed to systematic change.

There’s some questions that we can talk about in the future, but at the end of the day we have to make hard choices. It would be my dream if everybody in this room walked out of here and considered themselves part of the Black Lives Matter movement. But then the next question would be: What does that mean for you? You’re a student, you’re a professor. You’ve got to get to class. You may have to take finals in a couple of weeks. What sort of risks are you going to take? What sort of risks can you take?

Not everybody has the ability to protest or be arrested. You may have kids to feed. You have to go to work the next day and your boss will fire you if they find out you were arrested. You may have to take a test the next day.

You have to do soul-searching and look inside your own heart, and find the answer. And I believe that if you think about pushing the proverbial rock up the mountain — we may not be able to get to the top necessarily right now, but we can at least get to a plateau here and there, and make short steps forward, and I just hope that as you look into your heart, you find something to do that helps this movement.

July-August 2015, ATC 177