This letter was written by Tim DeChristopher, seminary intern for UUCSJ.
Dear President Obama,
First, I would like to thank you for meeting with the six young Ferguson activists yesterday. That action alone sends an important message that their voices matter. I’d also like to express my support for the steps you announced regarding body cams, community oriented policing, and rethinking the militarization of police (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/12/01/building-trust-between-communities-and-local-police). This is a decent start toward avoiding future police violence, but there is much more to be done to hold police accountable to the rule of law.
Please pay attention to the six main demands of the activists you met with yesterday:
- The federal government using its power to prosecute police officers that kill or abuse people.
- Removing local district attorneys from the job of holding police accountable, and instead having independent prosecutors at the local level charged with prosecuting officers.
- The establishment of community review boards that can make recommendations for police misconduct, instead of allowing police departments to police themselves.
- Defunding local police departments that use excessive force or racially profile. Instead of having the Department of Justice (DOJ) wholesale giving more than $250 million to local police departments annually, DOJ should only fund departments that agree to adopt DOJ best practices for training and meaningful community input.
- The demilitarization of local police departments.
- Investing in programs that provide alternatives to incarceration, such as community-led restorative justice programs and community groups that educate people about their rights. (http://fergusonaction.com/white-house-meeting)
The main difference between these demands and your current steps is accountability. Rule of law is an idea that originated by holding rulers accountable to the same laws as everyone else. Police are no longer accountable to this system. The Ferguson grand jury was conducted in such a radically different manner from the grand jury process to which normal Americans are subjected that it can reasonably be described as a different legal system. If the millions of poor people and people of color who fill our prisons faced the same kind of grand jury process that Darren Wilson received, this country would not have mass incarceration.
The problem is not a lack of information for juries, which could be solved by body cameras. The problem is that juries are instructed by prosecutors that a different set of laws and accountability applies to police officers. After all, we have clear video footage of police killing John Crawford III while he was on the phone with the mother of his children, yet there was no trial.
The fundamental problem is that our legal system assumes the criminality of young men of color while assuming the infallibility of police. Your public comments telling protestors to respect property rights without telling police to respect constitutional rights simply exacerbate this problem. If we are going to be a nation that respects the rule of law, there must be an effort to start at the top with a serious signal that police are not above the law. That, Mr. President, is the job before you.
Holding police to the rule of law is a critical piece of moving this country to the point where, in the words of Ella Baker, “the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important to the rest of the country as the killing of white mothers’ sons.” The protests of the past week, those that have continued in Ferguson since August, and those that repeatedly arise in the face of police violence everywhere, should be seen as evidence that millions of us who believe in freedom will not rest until this happens.