Beauty out of Ashes

The Department of Justice released its 102 page investigation of the Ferguson Police Department this week.   I was in Ferguson last month and it is difficult to describe the extent of destruction that remains.  Scores of buildings remain in ashes.  Hope also seems to float like ashes in the wind.  If justice were a woman, she would be lying in sackcloth and ashes.

The report was as harsh on the court system as the police department, who together implemented policies built on raising revenue rather than serving and protecting the public.  Consider Mike, a 32-year-old man cooling off in his car after finishing a basketball game at a public park.  An officer blocked his vehicle and demanded identification.  Why?  He was accused, without cause, of being a pedophile.  When Mike pointed out this was unconstitutional he was forced out of the vehicle, patted down, arrested, and charged with 7 municipal violations.  One for making a false declaration – he said his name was Mike when his birth name was Michael – another for not wearing a seat belt even though the vehicle was parked with no engine running.  As a result of the charges Mike lost his job as a contractor with the federal government.

These municipal violations are prevalent in Ferguson.  The court system does not make clear when to appear and when you don’t the court issues arrest warrants.  When that happens a driver’s license is automatically suspended.  Additional fines are added with no alternative for reducing or working off the fines.  In one year the court issued 9,000 warrants on minor parking infractions, traffic tickets and housing code violations.

Consider a poor woman experiencing periods of homelessness.  One time in 2007 she parked a car illegally.  She was fined $151.  She was in poor health and missed court dates, not notified of other dates and over the next seven years was arrested twice and spent six days in jail.  She tried to make payments but the court would only accept payment in full.  As of the end of 2014 she has paid $550 and still owes $541 on a parking ticket.  Justice is lying in ashes in Ferguson.

That Mike and this woman are both black is no surprise.  Despite being 67% of the population, blacks are routinely targeted by officers and issued harsher sentences by the courts.  85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrest from 2012-2014 involved blacks.  Yet the data showed blacks were 26% less likely to be found in possession of contraband than whites.  In court blacks are 68% less likely to have cases dismissed, 50% more likely to have an arrest warrant issued and 96% of those arrested on such warrants were black.

While in Ferguson, I was informed there is only one law office for an entire area.  There is no right to a free attorney in this mountain of municipal law violations.  No access to justice.  As the Justice Department Report stated:  “These court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices.  They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty.  Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment or housing.”

That city officials routinely asserted the problems were because of a pervasive lack of “personal responsibility” among “certain segments” of the community demonstrates the bias and stereotyping fueling much of the injustice.  Several specific actions are outlined by the Dept. of Justice for Ferguson to take or they will face a Civil Rights Suit.  As the report concludes, “The City must replace revenue-driven policing with a system grounded in the principles of community policing and police legitimacy, in which people are equally protected and treated with compassion, regardless of race.”

Pray for Ferguson.  When I was there I saw the beauty sign pictured above in a pile of ashes.  I was told the owner is rebuilding.  We can rebuild.  The Bible reminds us that Christ brings beauty out of ashes.  Most have heard that phrase.  But the reference is important.  Found in Isaiah 61 it is the portion of Scripture Christ read to tell us why he came and that he was the fulfillment of this powerful promise.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,

the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.

A fitting prayer for Ferguson and for us all as we seek to restore hope and bring justice as we

Go and Do Likewise.