RJ Court Watch: Searching for Justice in Ferguson

Pamela Merritt joins us to talk about the killing of Michael Brown and police violence as a reproductive justice issue.

A makeshift memorial near where Black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri. R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

Read more of our coverage related to recent events in Ferguson here.

Related Links

The Price of Our Blood: Why Ferguson Is a Reproductive Justice Issue

Want Peace? Killing Black People Needs To Be Treated as a Crime

The Media’s Role in Attaining Justice For Black and Missing Persons


Jessica Mason Pieklo: Welcome to RJ Court Watch, a legal podcast produced by Rewire and hosted by senior legal analysts Jessica Mason Pieklo and Imani Gandy. This episode we talk about Ferguson, Missouri, and how we might be able to find some justice for Michael Brown, his family, and the community. Importantly, also, what justice in this case looks like, which, in my opinion, Imani, is one of the most difficult questions we have to answer.

Imani Gandy: What justice would look like sort of involves dismantling white supremacy and structural racism. I don’t really see that happening anytime soon. Especially given the events in Ferguson it seems to me that white supremacy is just a thing in this country, and there are white people, people who are tasked with protecting and serving citizens of this country who are invested in maintaining white supremacy, maintaining that power, so I don’t know how we go about doing that. But in the meantime, it certainly would be nice to get some more regulations on the ways in which police departments interact with the citizens that they are supposed to be protecting.

JMP: Right as the initial details of the Michael Brown shooting emerged you were, rightly, one of the firsts to say “hey, folks, this is a reproductive justice issue, police violence in our communities is absolutely something that ties into the ability to parent and parent how and where a person chooses.” And I think that this is a conversation that as the press has pulled out of Ferguson a little bit, and as we move from sustaining the immediate protests to the police action to a longer movement these kinds of policies are going to be really important. Particularly if we are going to have the ability to have any faith in a legal and justice system in this country.

IG: Yes, I mean it’s really disheartening to see Black women, women of color on Twitter saying things like “I don’t have children now, and I don’t know if I want to raise children in this country.” And so we talk a lot about abortion rights and anti-choicers and their campaign to force everyone to uphold life above everything else but then we don’t see those people crying out when Black women’s children are being gunned down in the street. And so there’s a real disconnect there when we want to talk about “pro-life” and what it is that feminist organizations and mainstream reproductive rights organizations are doing to help communities of color combat this huge problem, and that is police brutality and the ways in which authority figures, police, don’t view Black bodies as human and view them as something other than normal. So you get comments like “Mike Brown, his big scary self was a weapon. So we can’t call him an unarmed teenager because he was 6’4’’ and he was Black.” That’s just, that’s unacceptable thinking, and we need to do more about combatting that thinking. And I personally need white people to do more about talking to other white people about racism and about fear of the Black body because the only way we are going to get past this is as a community and that requires more than white folks saying “wow that’s a real damn shame.” But it actually requires action and talking to one another and talking to people in your church, talking to your family members about what it means when you see a Black person and why it is all of a sudden you feel anxious or scared and what that stems from and how that stems from racism. And how it’s not a bad thing to talk about.

JMP: It is critical for white people to talk about this with other white people because, frankly, they’re the ones who need to change. And I think one of the points that can get lost in this is the ways to which the law takes those biases and takes those defaults, that idea that Mike Brown couldn’t possible be an unarmed victim because in our minds a big Black teenager is automatically a threat, the ways in which that gets ingrained in our laws, and in particular in this case our policing so that there is an actual, real result that is tied to it, even if white folks don’t think there is.

IG: It manifests in very strange ways. So you have two weeks of protests, two weeks of protests that were started by the police. I mean, I hate to sound like a kindergartner here, but really, they started it. You know they started it by shooting him like an animal in the street. They started it by sweeping the name of the officer who was involved in the shooting under the rug, let him escape town and scrub his social media presence so we don’t know whether or not he had any biases that maybe he expressed on Facebook or on Twitter. And then it manifested itself when after two weeks of police engaging citizens as if they were military, as if they were war combatants in some sort of war zone with dogs and riot gear and tanks and rubber bullets and tear gas, then to all of a sudden have a national response where the governor calls in the national guard not to protect the community, but to protect the cops.

JMP: And I think particularly for the reproductive rights community, it’s important for us to call Gov. Jay Nixon out on this. I mean, he has been an ally in the sense that he vetoed some really ridiculous anti-choice legislation passed in the state. But we have a Democratic governor here calling out the National Guard in the state of Missouri to protect law enforcement. That is positively tone deaf if you have even the most rudimentary understanding of civil rights history in this country. And to do so in such a way and then still dodge questions about law enforcement and executive accountability in terms of any investigation, any potential indictment, I mean there’s a lot of open questions about how allies in this situation are acting, and I think it’s really important, and I’m urging all of my people in the reproductive rights to community to do this, to pressure him, to say “Our community is better than this, Governor Nixon.”

IG: I absolutely agree, and I think that it’s incumbent on us to pressure one another. For example, about a week after the events started to unfold, I checked Planned Parenthood and NARAL’s Twitter feeds and say that they hadn’t said a word about it. So I started raising hell, like, you know, where are you guys? How is it possible that this is happening and you guys are still talking about Hobby Lobby on your Twitter feeds?

JMP: Hopefully this is the wake-up call for sustained action rather than just reaction within the community. I would love to see the reproductive rights organizations as co-sponsors of legislation to improve policing tactics in the community, to really call out the racial profiling that is going on in these instances and the disproportionate impact of policing generally on the Black community. We should be leading on these issues.

IG: We really should and I would encourage anyone listening to check out a petition that Shawn King has developed. And if you just Google “Shawn King S-H-A-W-N King and Ferguson petition” it will pop up. And I just want to read off the policy solutions that he is putting forth.

The first is that “the avoidable shooting or otherwise killing or murdering of an unarmed citizen who does not have an outstanding warrant for a violent crime should be a federal offense.” Number two, “choke holds and chest compressions by police, which is what was the coroner lists as the official cause of death for Eric Garner in New York, should be federally banned.” Number three, “all police officers must wear forward facing body cameras while on duty.” Number four, “a trusted third-party business should monitor and store all videos from those forward facing body cameras.” Number five, “suspensions for any violation of the above offenses should be unpaid.” Number six, “all murders by police must be investigated, immediately, by a trusted and un-biased third party.” And number seven, “convictions of the above offenses should have their own set of mandatory minimum penalties.” So I really, really like the fact that this man sat down and tried to come up with policy solutions, legislative solutions. So far the petition has almost a quarter-million signatures, and it’s something I think we can agitate for, because regulating the police and de-militarizing the police doesn’t just benefit people of color. It benefits all people. I mean there are poor, poor white communities that suffer from the same sort of over-policing. So I think it’s time to, as you say, engage in sustained action and not just let this be another flash in the pan and in two weeks some other Black man gets slain and we’re gonna do this all over again. I really hope this is a flashpoint for action that will result in something positive.

JMP: We are joined with Pam Merritt, communications director at Progress Missouri, blogger at AngryBlackBitch.com, and a Guardian contributor. Pam is a long-time progressive activist in the State of Missouri who is here to talk with us about the shooting death of Mike Brown, the Ferguson protests, and police violence as a reproductive justice issue. Pam, thanks so much for joining us.

Pamela Merritt: Thank you for having me!

JMP: As a progressive organizer in the state I’m hoping you can help put some context on the events in Ferguson for us. Give us an explanation of some of the political dynamics there and basically how we got to the point where we had the police response that we did and the community push-back.

PM: Wow

JMP: It’s a big question, I know!

PM: So, just some history. Historically Black neighborhoods have been moved around in St. Louis County for quite some time. We had, as most American cities did, redlining, and we also had some really clever codes that made it very hard for people of color to live in certain areas. For example, my family moved to St. Louis County in 1976 or 1977, I think, and my mother had to threaten to sue to be shown a house in the neighborhood that we ultimately moved into because it was predominantly white. So this is a long-standing issue of moving certain populations and basically restricting ease of movement. And married with that is the other long-standing problem, which is completely disproportionate representation in government based on the population that is living in these areas. So there’s a lot that goes into that but that’s basically the platform.

And then the overarching issue of Missouri is that Missouri might be in the middle of the country, but this state had some of the most violent and horrific moments of the Civil War take place within our border. The Kansas-Missouri border war was a precursor to the Civil War, and we have been fighting it ever since. So when folks think about racism, when they think about how that impacts communities they often think of iconic civil rights pictures from Birmingham or from Jackson, Mississippi, but right here in St. Louis we’ve had a series, I mean not recently, but one of the worst race riots in this country took place in East St. Louis. And the reason we didn’t have those ‘60s riots is because white flight had already happened in St. Louis by the time a lot of the unrest of the ‘60s kicked into gear.

So that’s a very long-winded way of saying this is a long time coming. And we have had profiling of people of color be an issue that a lot of people like to collect data on, that a lot of people like to talk about, but not a lot of people want to do a damn thing about. So under the Missouri state legislature they legally have to collect data for racial profiling when it comes to law enforcement pulling people over. I’ve seen the attorney general release that data year after year, and it shows that people are getting profiled and then it sits there and collects dust.

This is really a watershed moment for my community and for the greater St. Louis community because this is kind of where folks drew a line and took a stand and said “enough is enough”; we’re gonna speak up. And then at the moment at which people realized this young man was unarmed and we began to hear stories of how he was just walking down the street, I think immediately as a person of color I said “oh I know what happened.” Of course we don’t have all of the details, but what we do have is this remembrance, this almost genetic memory of what it is like to be singled out and pulled over by law enforcement just because you’re Black. Of that incredible feeling of distrust and panic that hits you.

I mean it’s happened to me. I’ve been pulled over for driving Black while in St. Louis County, and I’m like a short round Black woman with an afro, but I never get a ticket. I just get pulled over, which is a very telling thing. So I think for those of us who have experienced this, and particularly for those of us who have watched the hyper-targeting of young Black men we immediately had a notion of what was going down. The response of the community in St. Louis, and I can only speak for St. Louis because I’ve experienced it a lot here, but whenever there is the loss of a young person or the loss of life the community gathers around. So I’ve driven down streets in St. Louis and seen teddy bear memorials for children who have been struck by a car or who passed away from SIDS. So I think it was natural and completely understandable for the community in Ferguson to gather at the site where Michael Brown was shot and do what was natural and to culturally try and prop up this family. His mother was on the scene, his step-father was also on the scene and I think other friends and family were there. And we’re talking about a scene that stretched on and on. It was four hours before Michael Brown’s body was removed and given the dignity of being taken off the scene. So what developed in response to that was absolutely ridiculous. It’s almost as if at a certain point for Ferguson police department we reached the minimum number of 20 Black people that they could allow on the street at one time. When that 21st person showed up all of a sudden it was like watching a revival of Birmingham. To see people respond to understandable community grief with the kind of overwhelming police force that showed up that very first day. And I think that gets lost in a lot of the coverage. But his body had just been moved away. These people were driving over the flowers. I saw a report where they allowed a dog to urinate on the memorial. That’s the day he died. And even at that point the community was just voicing its agony. And for me watching the response I thought, you know, we’re not even allowed to be in agony about this.

JMP: One of the things that you brought up that I think it is really important to talk about is just how complicated it is going to be to try and find some justice for Mike Brown and his family. I know as the protests happening and the police response escalating there were a lot of calls, including myself at times, for Gov. Nixon to bring in the National Guard, which he ultimately did. But even that as a response is problematic for Missouri. And I was wondering if you could put some context on that because it gets to the larger point I want to talk about which is, there have been, and rightly so, cries for justice here. But what does that look like when the system has failed out of the gate?

PM: I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and I haven’t quite got all the answers, or even close. But one of the things I keep circling back to, is that for this community we’re going to have to walk together, and with the broader community too, and resist at every step of the way the school of tolerance. It’s not just midwestern, it’s Southern and I’m sure other communities have it too, but we want to look good, and we have a tendency to want to frame our region and our city really well and to not wanna have the difficult conversations. So the first quest for justice is the right to be human and the right to have emotion about this whole thing, which has been denied the people of Ferguson for two weeks [at the time of this recording]. The second quest for justice is that there is obviously a legal path that I will be quite honest I don’t have really high hopes for right now. You know, it’s a challenging path to begin with, and then the same kind of systemic issues that brought about the response that we say and even brought about based on my interpretation of the situation, could have brought about the shooting of Michael Brown are the same systemic problems we will face as we try and navigate the legal system as we try and bring justice for the killing of Mike Brown. So I think the community needs to be walked and held close because there is that pain. So one of the things I think people need to start focusing on is that life is precious and it will never be the same for this family. That young man is gone and the reason we need to work really hard and stay the course is to prevent this kind of loss of life because justice is an empty, empty box when you’ve lost a loved one.

And then as a reproductive justice advocate I, of course, think that if anything good can come of this it could be that we start organizing and working to right these wrongs and cure these ills and prevent this from happening to another family, you know prevent another mother from being denied her right to parent her child in a neighborhood that is safe and free from violence, and free from this kind of response.

IG: To what extent do you think that the uprising in Ferguson has spawned a new generation of young revolutionaries, of people who would otherwise not be engaged in the political process but having undergone the sort of police brutality that was lobbed at them. How much do you think that has affected young people and how much do you think that young people are going to carry on with them for the rest of their lives, which is going to cause them to get more engaged in their community and more engaged in their activism?

PM: That’s a great question. I think I have seen young people emerge as leaders in a way that I had not seen before. And I say that very deliberately because my Gen-X self might not have seen it because I’m not a young person anymore. I’m coming to grips with that. But I think there has been activism, there has been discussions, there have been pockets that haven’t necessarily moved into a larger group for a while now, and I think what is particularly inspiring to me is that they are using the tools of their generation to do the same kind of work we saw civil rights activists do in previous generations. So it’s not different to be posting to a blog, or to be having your own web channel and to be using Twitter. It reminds me of watching “Eyes on the Prize” and seeing people making sure that those pictures got out and that the pictures of Emmett Till got out and making sure there were cameras on the ground documenting what was happening in Birmingham or Selma. So to me, it also reminds me of that kind of generational divide that happened in the civil rights movement where you had these young activists like SNCC who were taking one path and then you had more caution and a different course and a different level of comfort from folks who were in a different generation. Somebody who is 41 and is approaching this from my comfort zone and my space and my area of expertise, I am disgustingly thrilled to see young people who are the targets of this kind of oppression organizing and raising themselves up—and the best part is demanding that they have a seat at that table.

And I also see older activists and some of our elders working within their place of comfort and what they are familiar with and I don’t see those as two bad things happening at the same time. It’s okay to have a church service and to loop in and organize people who are comfortable there. It is also important to acknowledge that everybody doesn’t go to church anymore, everybody didn’t go to church back then, so that area of organizing and focusing is not the same. The Black community is very broken up along some socio-economic lines, so it’s going to look different. What I’m seeing from young college students looks very different than what I’m seeing from folks who are workers on the street. But it’s all of the same and it all needs to happen and be supported. When I think of the amazing moments and images and testimony and movement work that I saw happening—I saw it happening with young people. I saw it happening online and offline. I saw offline and work going online, and I simply can’t get passed the fact that we wouldn’t be here with the eyes of the world watching us in this national discussion, in this local discussion happening if it weren’t for the young people on the ground.

JMP: Pam, you have been absolutely amazing to talk to about all of this.

PM: Thanks so much for the coverage and for shining a spotlight on the issue.

Thank you for listening to RJ Court Watch, a legal podcast produced by Rewire. For more coverage of Ferguson and related issues, please visit us at www.rhrealitycheck.org