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Role of Ferguson police chief and mayor must be examined

The Justice Department’s scathing Ferguson report shows that the government is paying attention, Harvard law scholar Charles Ogletree told DW. He says Ferguson is not an isolated case and suggests what to do about it.

Charles Ogletree is a law professor at Harvard University and the founder and director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice. Among his students at Harvard were both Barack and Michelle Obama.

DW: Seven months after the shooting of Michael Brown, the US Justice Department released a report detailing racial bias in the Ferguson police department. What is the most important thing you have learned from that report?

Charles Ogletree: The most important thing is that the Justice Department is paying attention and realizes that there is a problem. The second thing is that I was very surprised when I learned after the death of Michael Brown that even though African-Americans were in the majority in the community in Ferguson, they weren't when it came to the police force, the city council or when it came to getting involved in the community. That was a shocking piece of evidence for me to find. Since then I have been saying that Ferguson has to be a classic 21st century city that is going to turn around and where people are going to get involved. I think that is going to make a big difference in Ferguson and St. Louis and other parts of Missouri as well.

There appear to be many incidents detailed in the report that seem to violate the US Constitution, but apparently the Justice Department does not think it can file a civil rights suit. Do you agree with that assessment?

Prof. Charles Ogletree

Charles Ogletree

I do agree with that. And I am glad that Eric Holder before he leaves is moving to think about that. This report talks about the disparity in Ferguson in particular as it applies to people of African-American descent.

And that tells me that you have to change things and make sure that people are going to school, make sure they are not being arrested for bogus civil matters by the police who use that as a way to make money, make sure that they have a responsibility to vote.

Only 1 out of 5 people in Ferguson vote. And that is really against the trend, particularly when President Obama, my former student and a mentee of mine, was running in 2008 and 2012 we saw enormous numbers of African-Americans come out to vote because there was a black candidate that they liked. But it didn't happen in significant numbers in Ferguson. So there is a lot of change that needs to happen.

I know this is a little controversial, but I think there needs to be an examination of the mayor and the police chief to decide whether they are the right people to lead Ferguson forward. They have spoken here and we have had people listen to them. We had people protest the fact that we even invited them. But I think this means that this city should be one of the top cities in America in the 21st century. That is what I hope will happen with these changes in the process of how people get involved in politics and in the survival of the folks in Ferguson.

If you agree that the Justice Department can't bring a civil rights suit, do you think the Justice Department should file a criminal suit?

That's the harder one. They are limited in what they can do criminally. They tried to do something in the Rodney King case [beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991, ed.] here in the United States. They are trying to be effective in one way or another. I think it is very hard because all they can focus on is civil rights violations – and I think there are civil rights violations – but it's very hard to prove them. I would be very surprised if the Department of Justice brought a suit that could stick and that would have some impact on what's happening in Ferguson. I don't think that they can. I doubt that they will.

A striking detail in the report is the fact that traffic fines were the second-biggest source of income for the city of Ferguson and that city officials urged law enforcement to drum up even more revenue that way. What does that tell you?

It tells me that race matters and it matters in the wrong direction that people are being falsely arrested in order to get money from the people. And it also reinforces that folks don't feel that they don't have a real responsibility to engage in running for office, in being elected for office and voting for candidates and holding jobs that will make their families more successful. All these things stem from the fact what African-Americans see in Ferguson: that they are treated differently and treated with less respect and dignity by the police force. That's why, one, African-American people need to stand up and be strong and, two, the people of Ferguson need to have leaders who represent them in a fair and conscientious way and not simply look at their race and ignore their rights.

Is Ferguson an extreme and isolated case or do you think other communities have similar problems?

I have to say it is not isolated even tough it is extreme. If you look at what's happening in Chicago and the problems that city has had. If you even look at what's happening in parts of Boston - Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury – you see the distinction of African-Americans being arrested, jailed, dropping out of school, not working. I think that becomes a problem. It's a national problem in so many communities. I don't want to cite all the different cities, but if you go to Newark, New Jersey, if you go to parts of Harlem, New York, if you go to Cleveland, if you go to Illinois in many states you see that problem. It's not a Southern problem, it is a national problem that is affecting communities around the United States. I hope that Ferguson will be an example of what other communities can do as well if they move in the right direction.

If you think the Justice Department can't do anything legally, what concretely can be changed in Ferguson?

I think it is going to be adults educating their children that things can make a difference. I think back as a kid whose parents – my mother was from Arkansas, my father was from Alabama – and they came to California and I was born in 1952. And they had a sense that there was segregation and discrimination and there was a whole list of laws that made it impossible for them to succeed, but they wanted to make sure that there son, their first child, me, would finish high school. And then, because I did well in high school it was not a surprise that I was the very first in my family to finish high school and then go and finish college - and then go to law school. And that is what we have to do.

My son and my daughter, due to my wife who has been exceptional and made sure that they finish high school, made sure that they went to college and finished college and made sure that they have great jobs now. So it has to be a transformative experience that means that you are lifting up the generations behind you and then as you do that you are going to make sure that the generations behind you are lifting up the generations that are behind them as well. That's what we are trying to do and that is going to make a big difference.

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