Posted by on September 22, 2014 in Blog

By Dina Salah-ElDin
Fall Intern, 2014

Three months are left for this Congress to take action and pass the End Racial Profiling Act. Originally triggered by a long history of nation-wide profiling, and brought to life by the murder of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, the bill was the topic of a Capitol Hill briefing titled “Ferguson and Beyond – Profiling in America”  on September 16th.

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), who introduced the bill last year, began the briefing by asking, “How many more Michael Browns are we going to have, that are going to lose their lives? How many more Trayvon Martins?” 

Senator Cardin acknowledged that “we all know that profiling is un-American and is wrong” but what he concluded with the panelists was that this knowledge alone is not enough to fix the problem: there has to be an action and there has to be a plan.

By the end of the one-hour briefing, it was clear that both seem to be missing.

Attorney Ben Crump, who has been representing black victims of police violence, including the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown junior, deconstructed the double standards of the American system.

“Those who came out for officer Wilson, the shooter, they were recognized as supporters,” he said and followed, “ those who came out as supporters for Michael Brown Jr., the dead kid on the street who had been there for almost five hours in the baking sun, they were recognized as protestors.” Crump said that this was in no way a state issue – profiling is a national issue.

Chief John Dixon III of the Petersburg, Virginia police department said that the lack of transparency in organizations is a big fault that needs to be addressed. “There has to be a sense of accountability, and accountability has to be the higher standard,” Dixon said. But to Dixon, it is not just the lack of accountability that resulted in the tragic death of Brown, Martin, and those who preceded them.  “It was a recipe for disaster,” Dixon said, commenting on the demographic and the makeup of the police department in Ferguson Missouri that was evidently incapable of matching the community it is supposed to serve.

The panel then shifted to address potential lessons that have been learnt from Ferguson. Phillip Goff, Associate Professor of social Psychology at the Harvard Kennedy School        stressed that it was high time “we stopped following tragedy with embarrassment”.  As a scientist and the co-founder of the co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, Goff offered the scientific perspective on profiling:

“We have been for the past two years putting together the first national data base for police stops, pedestrian and vehicle, as well as the use of force. We are in the process of fixing the embarrassment, but we need a plan.”  To add what he described as “a positive spin”, Goff said that police chiefs             now know this; they know that “they are one dead black teenager away from their whole cities burning to the ground.”

Anthony Rothert, Legal Director, ACLU of Missouri, watered down the positivity when he broke the bad news: “There is nothing special about the city of Ferguson. There is nothing that special about the Ferguson police department”

Rothert, who came in from Missouri shared the recurring history: “Every year our attorney general would come out with a report and go ‘Gosh, these numbers are getting worse, something ought to be done about it!’” It is obvious that not much has been done about it. Taking it from the nation-wide level to the level of his own household, Rothert shared with the attendees the pain he felt as he still saw people not willing to take the issue seriously:

“I am the parent of two black teenage sons. And I am afraid for them. I am scared that what happened in Ferguson to Michael Brown, and what has happened across this country, could happen to them.”

All communities of color can relate to the tragedy in Missouri and are calling on Congress to prevent more tragedies and more embarrassments and pass the End Racial Profiling Act. This legislation will end the justified attachment of race, national origin or religion to criminality. A practice that should never be justified in a country whose driving force is diversity.

If we were to judge how seriously the public is beginning to take the issue of profiling and its lethal repercussions by the turnout in this Capitol Hill briefing (all seats taken, no room for to even stand up), we may be looking at some promising signs. But it is time for Congress to take this just as seriously. It is time to turn the concern to a strategy, a legal action, legislation. The best thing this Congress can do in its three months left is to guarantee that when the next Congress is in session, we will not have to hold yet another Capitol Hill briefing to lament the loss of yet another unarmed black teenager.

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