Years After Michael Brown's Killing, The Legal Struggle To Affirm Citizens' Rights Remains

Those who thought the galvanizing ordeal would bring a tide of change are finding true police reform hard to come by.
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St Louis County police officers watch as anti-police demonstrators march in protest in Ferguson, Missouri August 10, 2015.
St Louis County police officers watch as anti-police demonstrators march in protest in Ferguson, Missouri August 10, 2015.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

I moved to St. Louis nearly eight years ago to take a position as a tenured law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. The school is one of the top in the country, ranked number five for its “hands-on” clinical education programs where students are supposed to be addressing injustices through the provision of free legal representation. I was hopeful that, particularly at such an influential institution, I would be surrounded by others committed to justice and able to do a lot of good.

But when I got to St. Louis I was shocked by what I saw ― in our courts and in the community – and I’ve lived, taught, and practiced law in quite a few places. I observed deeper poverty than I saw in the Bronx; stronger and clearer racial divides than I experienced in Texas or Tennessee; and greater disregard for due process and the rights of the accused than I’d seen in nearly any place in the United States.

Yet folks around me ― at least those with whom I worked at the university and saw practicing in the courts, who were mostly white ― stepped over and around such tragedies, year after year, without much concern.

When I spoke up and out about local injustices at faculty meetings or otherwise, I was mostly seen as annoying and difficult. When I dared to confront juvenile court officials about rampant rights violations, my students and I were denied case appointments. And when I contacted the Department of Justice to report the issues, I was quickly tagged as an overreacting upstart.

So, when Mike Brown was killed by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson and people finally took to the streets, I felt like things had finally taken a much-needed turn. Despite the horrific and unnecessary loss of Brown’s life, militarized policing that soon unfolded, and the unfortunate destruction of property that occurred in some places, people in positions of power were finally being confronted with the situation they had helped to create and perpetuate ― and been actively ignoring.

Fast-forward three years after the events in Ferguson. Very little has changed. Mostly, what has occurred officially has been window dressing, unfulfilled promises, and a whole lot more talk than action. Allow me to focus on a couple of key institutions to provide some examples:

Municipal Courts

Protests in Ferguson were not just about Mike Brown’s death ― although that clearly served as a catalyst. They reflected long-standing practices of racial oppression ― including the use of onerous fines, fees, and warrants by local municipal courts. And of course, that was not happening only in Ferguson, but also throughout the many municipal courts in our region that shamelessly used such practices to keep poor and Black people down.

After the DOJ launched its investigation into the Ferguson municipal court, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a new set of “Minimum Operating Standards” for all of the state’s municipal courts. The court asserted these new guidelines would ensure improved practices, protect rights, and prevent further overreaching on the part of local judicial bodies.

But not only do these standards lack the force of law given the way they were adopted, they are a confusing morass of provisions devoid of real procedural clarity. And even their best features remain ignored in many places. Many St. Louis-area municipal courts still fail to properly provide notice to defendants before issuing warrants or even to maintain physical court files so documents can be reviewed for accuracy.

Yet the presiding judge of the St. Louis County circuit court system – the official who oversees compliance in St. Louis County’s Municipal Court system ― recently took to two local newspapers to victoriously declare “long-overdue systemic reform of St. Louis County’s municipal court system is underway” as court reform is his “top priority.” He went on to disclaim that there was still room for improvement and the “shared goal of fair and impartial justice for everyone in our court system is a journey of 10,000 steps.” But overall, the rhetoric just does not line up with the reality for most poor and Black people who find themselves funneled through municipal courts today that still treat them with disdain, disregard, and insufficient concern for due process.

And, quite frankly, if 10,000 steps really remain, we ought to be running to the finish line after all these years of injustice ― not pausing to pat ourselves on the back about meager improvements that have been put in place.

Juvenile Courts

The same lack of progress can be reported in our juvenile court system. Here, the Missouri Supreme Court has designated its Racial and Ethnic Fairness Commission ― comprised of 50 or so of the state’s supposed leading legal lights ― to investigate and report on any existing problems in the state’s juvenile courts. Quite shockingly, however, most of the individuals involved in the commission’s juvenile justice work not only have no juvenile court experience, but many have never even stepped foot inside of a Missouri juvenile court.

This was a fact I forced its members to admit at a public listening session a few weeks ago ― two years into the commission’s work.

So, while its members, too, are spending a lot of time traveling around the state declaring change is happening, I am here to say be careful about what you believe. Change is not happening in real and material ways. Children involved with the juvenile courts are still treated with indignity, kids of color remain overrepresented, and junk cases are still filed and pushed through the system without sufficient checks on probable cause. And this is so in St. Louis County despite an agreement with DOJ to undertake meaningful reform.

The MacArthur Justice Center

I can report, however, on one thing that has definitely changed – and that is me and my role. I no longer teach at Washington University. I left that position to help launch a new office for the MacArthur Justice Center here in St. Louis, where our small staff focuses on indigent defense and civil rights litigation, where we try to use the courts to force accountability and reform, and where in just one year we have filed multiple high-impact class action and other lawsuits to challenge the status quo in Missouri ― and in St. Louis in particular.

MacArthur Center for Justice

Our work includes municipal court representation of protesters, frequently targeted by local police, who have been arrested for such things as daring to declare Black Lives Matter, marching on behalf of LGBTQIA rights, and laughing at Donald Trump. It involves a federal lawsuit to demand humane treatment for the incarcerated who need access to life-saving medications. It also includes demand for accountability when system actors abuse their authority, such as our recent work to a have a parole board member removed after surfacing his misdeeds during parole hearings.

And through this work we have come in contact with many caring people who really do want things to change, who are willing to roll up their sleeves, and who ― like me ― are new to the region, love this town, and want it to do and be better.

Do I believe that litigation is the perfect solution to all that ails us in Missouri and the St. Louis region? Absolutely not. But do I think system actors here will not change unless they know some refuse to back down, that we mean business, and that we will resist their efforts to allow us to remain stuck in our tracks. Yes, I do.

And about these developments ― the establishment of our new office, our efforts to work as a united front with allies and directed impacted persons, and the emergence of even more people committed to equal justice for all in Missouri ― I am hopeful.