The Ethical Society was founded to affirm the equal worth and dignity of all people. The undeniable racial elements of the shooting in Ferguson – and of the US criminal justice system in general – demonstrate that we do not live in a society that respects the equal dignity of all. Simply put, some lives seem to matter more than others. It is hard to imagine that a white teenager in Michael Brown’s position would have been stopped for walking in the street, and it is unacceptable that such an altercation should have ended with the death of an unarmed teenager.
Prejudice against people of color is real, systemic, and too often deadly, and it is our responsibility, as individuals and as a society, to confront that fact with honesty and courage. We must face the racism in our culture, our institutions, and ourselves if we are to ensure that no more human beings are killed needlessly.
Police officers are public servants and carry with them a heavy weight of responsibility. They are granted powers other citizens do not enjoy, solely for the purpose of protecting the public and keeping the peace. They rely on the trust and cooperation of the public to keep us all safe. When police departments systemically abuse that trust through racial profiling and the excessive use of force, they harm not only the individuals directly involved but also the whole of society, undermining the relationship between the public and the police, which is essential if the rule of law is to be maintained. Police officers who act responsibly and heroically also suffer, their already difficult and often thankless job made harder when the actions of other officers undermine relationships between their force and the communities they serve.
While everyone has the responsibility to regulate their own conduct, and while rioting, violence, and destruction of property is an unacceptable response, it is primarily the police, who have special training and equipment that other citizens do not, who bear the responsibility for managing volatile situations with care. On several occasions, the police response–including armored vehicles, camouflage gear, covered faces and badges, sniper rifles, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition–made a bad situation much worse. While it is heartening to see that two officers who acted particularly egregiously were fired, we recognize that the improvement of relationships between the police and the people of Ferguson will require time and sustained effort: especially valuable would be the recruitment of more people of color to the Ferguson police force.
The media also deserves a share of the blame for focusing its reporting on the limited amount of violence, to the exclusion of the tireless work of activists who have organized their community in peaceful and creative ways. Pursuing sensationalism at the expense of accurate representation of the situation does the people of Ferguson a disservice.
We deplore the shooting of Michael Brown and view it in the context of a criminal justice system poisoned by racism. At the same time, we recognize that the full facts of the case are unknown and assert that everyone, regardless of their actions, deserves to be treated with the respect due to every person merely by virtue of their humanity. Threats against Officer Darren Wilson and his family and supporters are unacceptable, and he deserves the full protection of the law – yes, the protection that was denied Michael Brown. We cannot achieve justice by becoming unjust ourselves.
The Ethical Society stands with the people of Ferguson, with the greater St. Louis community, and with people around the world who have been stirred to action by this case. We believe systemic change will only come about through the concerted effort of many people. We call for a reappraisal of the use of weaponry, armor, and equipment in the response to unrest in our communities. We call for the use of video body cameras by all police on patrol, for the mutual protection of the public and the police. We call for transparency and openness on the part of the police, demanding that the police release all relevant information on shootings to the public as soon as possible (except when identities of police involved in shootings must be withheld until they are able to reach a safe and secure location that will prevent attacks by any angry citizens seeking revenge).
As the media spotlight moves to other matters we pledge to keep our attention fixed on the long-term goal of creating a more equal, peaceful, and just society, and a more ethical culture.
Kate Lovelady, Leader; James Croft, Leader Intern; Board of Trustees of the Ethical Society of St. Louis