Up From Ferguson: A Harvard Law Graduate Reflects on His Hometown

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Demonstrators face off with police after tear gas was fired at protesters reacting to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 17, 2014. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

For recent Harvard Law School graduate Ryan Hatten, the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri hits close to home.

Hatten, 25, was raised in St. Louis. His family moved around, but he spent much of his early life on the city’s North Side, an area characterized by urban blight, poverty, and lack of infrastructure. Before high school, he attended some of the worst-performing schools in the state, in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. His middle school was in the same school district that Michael Brown graduated from high school shortly before his death.

“As a young black man in America, the shooting death of Mike Brown, and other killings like it, hit me close to home,” Hatten told Newsweek. “The fact that Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown 10 minutes away from my high school home makes this experience especially personal to me. I know people who have protested, been shot and been harassed and intimidated by police officers, all while exercising their 1st Amendment rights.”

Michael Brown was supposed to begin college just days after he died on August 9. Hatten did go on to college. “With the help of my caring grandmother and a few passionate educators, I was able to attend and graduate from the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School,” Hatten said.

“In order to understand what happened in Ferguson, one need not study at Harvard Law School or the University of Chicago,” Hatten told Newsweek. “In order to understand what happened in Ferguson, one need only know that Mike Brown was black, Darren Wilson is white and Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown numerous times while Brown was unarmed and, according to eyewitnesses, surrendering.”

The confrontations between protesters and police hit fever pitch Sunday, after Ferguson police released evidence suggested Brown had stolen cigars minutes before he was murdered. Rather than give them answers about Brown’s death, the community felt the police were engaging in character assassination instead.

As the protests enter Week Two, and with the National Guard on its way, Hatten told Newsweek over email about his community’s relationship with the police and its response to Brown’s death. The answers have been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Newsweek: As a young black man who grew up near where Michael Brown did, what is your experience of your community's relationship with the police?

Ryan Hatten: As a St. Louis County resident, I know personally how the police department operates. I have been stopped while driving on numerous occasions, with officers providing no reason for the stops. The numbers regarding targeted stops on blacks speak for themselves, but living the experience makes one feel vulnerable in [my] own community.

When police do not reflect the neighborhoods that they work to protect, there is an antagonism in their presence that is palpable. The stories that I have heard about police brutality and unlawful action in my neighborhood certainly inform my opinion about them.

My younger brother has given me a firsthand account of how St. Louis County police officers in armored cars singled out individual protestors by aiming sniper rifles and assault weapons at them while they were protesting. Others have given me accounts of how the purportedly less heavy-handed State Highway Patrol has surrounded congregations of peaceful protesters with guns drawn to disperse crowds whose only crime was peacefully coming together.

I have been shocked to hear that police have also attempted to provoke peaceful protestors into acting violently off-camera by hurling insults, jokes and threats.

NW: Given the community's relationship with the police, were you surprised by what happened to Michael Brown? Were you surprised by the response both by the community and the police? Or was this a long time coming?

RH: The reason why so many people are so incensed by the shooting death of Mike Brown is because it is not surprising. The murder of unarmed black men has become commonplace in our society, and that fact should disgust any advocate of freedom and equality.

The familiar refrain that “I never thought this could happen in my neighborhood” could not be further from the truth, as, disproportionately, white police serve in mostly black areas with the same historical background as these other incidents across the country. Given the statistics about disparate police action against blacks in Ferguson, coupled with my lived experience and the experience of those around me, this seems as if it was an inevitability.

I have been surprised by a few details of Mike Brown’s death. First, I was surprised that the Ferguson police car of Darren Wilson was not equipped with a camera. What is the cost of such equipment when compared to the benefit of readily available evidence, unless a lack of evidence in certain incidents was a motivating factor for a lack of recordation?

Second, I am surprised that the police have taken so long to interview eyewitnesses at the scene. As a law school graduate, I know that police understand the value of immediate interrogations to preserve witness integrity. Seemingly the only possible motivation for such a tactic is to damage the testimonies’ credibility.

Third, I have been surprised by the intimidation and harassment that has characterized the peaceful protests. In a country that projects freedom of speech and association as foundational principles, the heavy-handed and threatening responses to citizen demonstrations seems drastically out of place.

Fourth, I have been surprised by how many citizens and media personalities have focused on looting to sully the protesters’ message. People have willfully ignored the fact that these are but a few bad actors who the peaceful protesters largely oppose.

Finally, as a law school graduate and as a person interested in the preservation of civil liberties, the police and media attempt to justify this killing by implicating Mike Brown in a “strong-arm” robbery is appalling. Beyond the fact that “strong-arm” has no legal significance, the fact that Mike Brown allegedly stole a box of cigars did not give Darren Wilson the legal justification to shoot him as he stood unarmed with his hands up.

However, as a black man in tune with the deep cultural history of victim-blaming in these types of situations, I know that I should have expected this type of strategy from law enforcement and some in the media.

I truly feel that this is a watershed moment. People are tired of hearing about unarmed black men being gunned down by those purported to serve and protect us. People want to be involved and do something about this issue because it is not going away.

People are tired of lecturing their black boys about how to stay safe in the face of a police force and a society that systematically devalues them. People are angry, exhausted and motivated to fight for change.

I believe that this response would not have occurred, however, if the Ferguson Police Department had responded to Wilson shooting Brown in a reasoned manner. One need only compare the New York City Police Department’s response to Eric Garner’s death [the 43-year-old black New Yorker choked to death by police that was ruled a homicide] with Ferguson’s response to see how a lack of accountability to the community and willful breach of duty can affect how the public views an incident.

NW: On Friday, police released the information that Michael Brown was a suspect in a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store shortly before he was killed. But -- at least at the time of writing -- it appears the police officer involved, Darren Wilson, wasn't aware that Brown was a suspect. Does this feel like character assassination? How are people back home reacting to this?

RH: As mentioned above, the implication of Mike Brown in a “strong-arm” robbery is deplorable in its transparency. Those on the ground, as well as many across the country, see this as an overt attempt to create bias against Mike Brown. That Mike Brown may have stolen a box of cigars on the day in question is wholly irrelevant to whether Darren Wilson committed murder.

The characterization as a “strong-arm” robbery by police and some in the media as opposed to a theft or an act of shoplifting has also frustrated protesters. Even those who have no legal training can see that the theft does not change the fact that Mike Brown was unarmed, and that numerous eye-witnesses assert that he had his hands raised in surrender when gunned down.

Community residents wanted to hear about the officer’s background, the coroner’s report and whether steps had been taken to file charges. Instead, the chief of Ferguson police asserted that he was submitting to media pressure to disclose an irrelevant theft, while failing to give the community and media outlets the information they had demanded from the day of Mike Brown’s death.

This sort of duplicity is not the sort of action that rebuilds community trust or heals wounds. It further undermines the police department’s credibility in the eyes of myself and the numerous community residents with whom I am in contact.

NW: As a student at Harvard Law School, you had the chance to study race issues with some of the country's premier scholars. What added perspective did it give you?

RH: During my undergraduate career and my law school tenure, I have had the opportunity to study systemic racism, institutional bias and tacit approval politics. I have done research on bias within the criminal justice system in the United States and compared the lack of access to community and societal resources based upon race in the United States and Brazil. I have had the pleasure of working with luminaries in the space, including Charles Ogletree, Lani Guinier and Ross Stolzenberg.

Although I certainly believe that these academic endeavors have informed my worldview, I believe they only work to contextualize Mike Brown’s death. I say this to say that, in order to understand what happened in Ferguson, one need not study at Harvard Law School or the University of Chicago. In order to understand what happened in Ferguson, one need only know that Mike Brown was black, Darren Wilson is white and Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown numerous times while Brown was unarmed and, according to eyewitnesses, surrendering.

Even without the legal background, these facts look a whole lot like illegality and law enforcement had the responsibility to investigate it as such. Given my educational background, I can put Mike Brown in the context of police targeting, de facto segregation and disparate impact politics.

That said, the bare facts of the matter, coupled with the inadequate and counterproductive police response to Mike Brown’s death, are accessible to a great many Americans. That is why Mike Brown and Ferguson, MO have captured the hearts and minds of the nation.

NW: The unrest and excessive police force on display in Ferguson this past week resembled for many Americans the 1950s and 1960s -- not the era of the first black president. What's the best way to think about race relations in 2014 -- or how do you think about the issue?

RH: I think that, in a way, the comparison between this period and the 60’s is powerful. That is because Mike Brown’s tragic end has galvanized a people. As protests are conducted across the country, people are seeing just how many people care about the issues of police brutality and racial targeting.

Race relations in 2014 are complicated, but, especially after these incidents, one cannot reasonably assert that we live in a post-racial society. President Obama has faced a great deal of racially-driven opposition himself. I personally feel that, because of this, the president does not feel that he can address racial issues with the level of voraciousness that many of his supporters expected of him.

I also believe that President Obama’s election has been used by some to undermine the necessity of tackling systemic problems like de facto segregation, differentials in access to quality education and lack of access to social goods. Now that we have a black president, some would say, racism is dead.

This sort of argument evinces a lack of understanding of the centuries-old underpinnings of American society as well as a naiveté, willful or otherwise, about the work that needs to be done to ensure that all Americans have access to societal goods and human dignity.

Some have asserted, and I agree, that the racial tensions that have continually existed in St. Louis have simply been uncovered and publicized to a greater extent. For those who live in communities of color that are subject to disparate action by white police on a daily basis, these racial tensions are a fact of life that other St. Louis citizens and Americans are just now being forced to confront.

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