On April 14, 1997 Gregory Bell, a 19 year old, was home alone when his resident’s burglar alarm went off. Police officers sent to the unit to investigate found Bell. Because Bell was retarded, he was unable to communicate to the officers—who arrived at his home in jogging pants with a dog by their side and no identification marking themselves as police officers. The police called for backup, and one of the police officers—Thomas Moran a precinct supervisor entering the scene sprayed Bell with pepper spray, and then assaulted Bell. The precinct supervisor was brought up on three charges. Because of the racial dynamics surrounding the case (Bell was black, Thomas Moran was white) the case was moved out of Saint Louis and into Jefferson County. An all-white jury found Moran not guilty of all charges. Among the calls of congratulation he received upon hearing the news, was from his cousin—the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney (Bryant 1998).
The details of the case were troubling. The prosecuting attorney’s attitude towards the beating—Bell suffered several blows to the head with batons—was remarkably blasé. Interviewed by Saint Louis columnist Sylvester Brown, she noted that Bell’s injuries “…weren’t that severe. I mean, they look horrible when that happens, but there was no long term damage”(Brown 1998). The presiding judge in this case also noted that Bell’s retardation could not be used as an element in the case. What white jurors heard was a case in which police officers faced a belligerent black male who shouted “you’re making me mad” and “I’m not going to jail!” rather than a case in which a young retarded man was in his own home, and then seemingly accosted by men who only later identified themselves as police officers (Brown 1998).
This case is not unique in American cities, but in Saint Louis during the nineties and early “oughts” there were a number of incidents in which police were absolved of brutalizing or murdering young black males.
During the Labor Day 2001 weekend, a young boy was hanging out on a street corner near his home on the Northside of the city on a warm evening. A white man pulls up to them in an unmarked vehicle quickly, telling him and his friend to stop where they are. The boy runs into an alley, and the man follows. The man yells for him to stop, and announces that he is a police officer. The man ends up shooting the boy in the back. In his report he notes that he was under fire from the boy, and he only shot the boy in defending himself. While a homemade gun (a “zip” gun) was found on the boy’s body, it had never been fired. The only casings found in the alley were those of the police officer. There were no charges filed, and the police officer faced no sanction from his department. In an email listserv devoted to discussions of Saint Louis life, culture, and politics, a fierce debate occurred not just over the incident, but over the language used to depict the boy. One poster asked why the “thug” was out so late at night anyway…implying that he was literally begging for trouble. A “zip” gun was found on the boy, but he had no police record, nor did he fire the weapon. It was a warm Labor Day evening, and when other Saint Louisans were at picnics, or at the yearly festival held downtown, this boy decided to hang outside in his own neighborhood.
This is the type of casual labeling that goes on with relative impunity, not just in Saint Louis but in elsewhere. The way in which this labeling occurs is not necessarily “natural”—though the images of young black thugs have been with us for far longer than the 24 hour news cycle has, these images are routinely constructed and reconstructed by a combination of news and now entertainment media. Yet and still the effect it has is pernicious.
The Atlantic provides some context in which we can understand what's going on in Ferguson, Missouri right now, where people are still rightly up in arms about the murder of Michael Brown. In the first piece I link Professor Terry Jones rightly notes that what happened in Ferguson isn't a Ferguson problem as much as it is a St Louis County and City problem. In the sceond piece Conor Friedersdorf uses a startling picture to call attention to the increasing militarization of the police.
I lived in St. Louis for four years, as my first gig was at Washington University in St Louis. While there I conducted a lot of the research that ended up in my first book. One of my then-undergrads (now lawyer) collected three binders full of data about the attempt to create police review boards in both the city and the county, and about police brutality incidents in and around St. Louis.
The paragraphs above are taken from an unpublished paper I wrote about rap and youth attitudes more than ten years ago.
It could've been written yesterday.