Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) remembers Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager whose death at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri served as the catalyst that sparked a nationwide movement against police violence in communities of color.
“Our thoughts are with the family members of Michael Brown and countless other victims of police violence, including Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Akai Gurley, and most recently Korryn Gaines,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. “Michael Brown’s death was a watershed moment for our country. His death and the subsequent outcry and federal investigations were sparks that illuminated critical flaws in our justice system, from police violence to the indignities of punitive fines and fees that functioned as little more than a tax on being Black,” Ifill continued.
Two years after Mr. Brown’s death, work remains to end racially-biased and predatory practices in Ferguson. In the months after Brown’s death and amidst consistent protests by residents who clashed with heavily armed police, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) opened a civil rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department and into the shooting death of Michael Brown. The Department found that Officer Darren Wilson did not violate federal civil rights law in his encounter with Mr. Brown. But the Department found that the practices of the Ferguson police department violated federal civil rights law. In a searing report, the DOJ documented systematic harassment of the African American population by Ferguson law enforcement and the imposition of a pyramid scheme of fines and fees by the city’s courts, which functioned as more of a collection agency than a justice system.
In March of 2016, after several months of negotiations, Ferguson and the DOJ entered into a consent decree to reform policing and municipal court practices in Ferguson. LDF partnered with local advocates to comment on the proposed consent decree and to assist community groups in assessing the selection of the team of monitors. The federal court recently approved a team of monitors, which is tasked with ensuring that the terms of the agreement are fulfilled.
“Ferguson city officials’ documented history of racially biased policing will not change overnight,” said Monique Dixon, Deputy Policy Director and Senior Counsel at LDF. “The monitoring team, Ferguson residents, and other stakeholders will have to be vigilant to ensure that the reforms required by the consent decree become part of a new regime and culture of law enforcement in Ferguson,” Dixon concluded.
Policing and court reform are not the only changes that have come to Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. Previously, voter turnout among African-American residents during local elections was shockingly low compared to turnout among their white counterparts. Prior to Brown’s death, whites were more than three times as likely to vote as African Americans. As a result, Ferguson’s elected officials did not reflect the majority of the city’s population.
This changed after Michael Brown’s death. Turnout increased dramatically among African-American voters and—for the first time ever—the Ferguson City Council was evenly split between African-American and white members. This has inspired advocates in neighboring cities to also look closely at their city council districts. In nearby Florissant, Missouri, LDF worked closely with a number of local organizations, including the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP, the Mound City Bar Association, the Black Leadership Roundtable, and Clergy Unite, to help city officials with redrawing the city council districts to make sure that all citizens, particularly African Americans, can fully participate in the electoral process.
“The anniversary of Michael Brown’s death reminds us that we must all work together to end racially biased policing practices across the country,” said Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of LDF. “We will continue to seek structural changes to achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all.”
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.