Black (and Catholic) Like Me in Ferguson

A Department of Justice report reveals a pattern of institutional racism in the depressed Missouri town, but one observer says the problem of fatherlessness is another key factor that must be addressed.

Protesters gather outside of Ferguson police headquarters in August 2014, following the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Protesters gather outside of Ferguson police headquarters in August 2014, following the shooting death of Michael Brown. (photo: Wikipedia/Jamelle Boule/CC BY 2.0)

FERGUSON, Mo. — When her two sons were growing up in the St. Louis metropolitan area, Alice Reese and her husband sat them down for “that special talk.” It wasn’t the talk most Catholic parents in the United States expect to give to their young sons approaching manhood — unless you’re African-American, that is.

This “talk,” Reese explained, involves sitting down with your children and telling them how they need to interact with police safely, avoiding any kind of confrontation.

In short, “If you ever get stopped, be respectful; don’t argue; don’t talk back,” she instructed her sons.

“It’s sad that you have to do that — that you have to warn your children,” Reese said.

Reese is a black Catholic parishioner at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Church in Ferguson, but lives in a neighboring town. She’s an educator with more than three decades of experience working in Catholic and public schools in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Despite the advances made since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, she said, “Not enough progress has been made.”

For one thing, socio-economic status little impacts how many black people are perceived by society and the police. Her sons, both suit-and-tie wearing professionals in their 40s, with advanced degrees — one is an attorney — have told her they “can’t even count the number of times” they have been stopped by officers or been treated in ways different from their white counterparts of the same socio-economic class.

“It’s sad that is still prevalent, no matter who you are and what strides you’ve made,” she said. “From time to time, you still get that feeling that you’re going to be treated as a second-class citizen.”


Two DOJ Reports

On March 4, the U.S. Department of Justice released its final reports on the federal investigations of the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A Missouri grand jury subsequently concluded in November that Wilson’s actions warranted no criminal charges, in a ruling that triggered more destructive riots in Ferguson.

In the first report, the Justice Department cleared the police officer of any civil-rights violations from the deadly encounter with Brown. It stated the evidence did not support the claim that Brown raised his hands to surrender and that Wilson’s use of force in self-defense was not “objectively unreasonable” under the U.S. Supreme Court’s constitutional standards.

The second Justice Department report shed extensive light on why Brown’s death served as a catalyst for the community’s already-existing anger.

The report was a scathing indictment of the Ferguson police and municipal court, accusing them of a pattern of “unconstitutional policing,” where the city based its law-enforcement practices “on revenue rather than by public-safety needs.”

The report listed First Amendment violations, Fourth Amendment violations and systematic failures to hold officers accountable for violations such as “stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause and using unreasonable force against them.”



Six Ferguson city officials have so far resigned from their posts or were fired, including the city manager, chief of police and a municipal court judge, who was alleged to not even listen to witness testimony before rendering a verdict. The Justice Department report documented their actions in working together to turn “minor offenses” into what it characterized as “crippling debts” through fines that could lead to jail time and result in “the loss of a driver’s license, employment or housing.”

Two police officers were fired over their promotion of ugly racist jokes emailed throughout the police department. One joke involved a black woman getting a check for stopping crime by having an abortion.

But according to Ryan Bomberger, a biracial pro-life leader and chief creative officer of The Radiance Foundation, an organization which works to educate the public on social issues, including abortion’s disparate impact on the black community, the Justice Department has downplayed the aspect of “personal responsibility” with the community itself in its assessment of Ferguson’s problems.

Bomberger said that while the racism in Ferguson is “inexcusable,” the breakdown of the family is another fundamental issue. “One of the largest influences of poverty is the abandonment of a father, but none of that is talked about,” he said, adding that studies have shown father absence to be a root cause of “violent crime, delinquent behavior … and yet none of that is figured in this; it’s always blamed on the actions of a police officer.”

In a previous article, titled “Ferguson, Fate and Fatherlessness,” Bomberger pointed to FBI data from 2012, where the murder of more than 5,500 black males accounted for 43% of all homicides. In cases where the victim and offender are known, 91% of black victims were killed by blacks. And he noted in the article that Michael Brown grew up in a fatherless household, a fact seldom noted in media reports about the shooting victim’s family background.

Bomberger said that he has experienced racism himself in Baltimore from police officers who see that he is “brown” — growing up adopted in a white household didn’t make a difference.

However, he said, “It’s not the 1960s,” adding that the world cannot be explained simply through racial lenses.

“Police officers see more of the violence and the crime than the average citizen does,” he said. Bomberger said he personally witnessed “out-of-control behavior” from flash mobs of black teens in Virginia Beach. The problem is that the experience for police “definitely taints things, and, unfortunately, it taints the whole perspective, because we tend to lump people into one group.”

“Yet they don’t represent all black kids, they don’t represent all of the black community, but the reality is: There is this element,” he said.


Community Policing and Prayer

Deacon Mark Byington, a criminology professor at Jefferson College, in Hillsboro, Mo., said he would like to see a restoration of the federallyfunded Police Corp training program, which trained officers in “community policing to establish the officers’ tie to the community, so they are invested in the community” and not simply in enforcing laws.

“The reaction and people being upset [after Michael Brown’s death] was not surprising to me, because if anyone was being mindful of their communities, it was only a matter of time that a situation was going to result, because people were at their breaking points,” said Deacon Byington, a former police officer with almost two decades of experience.

When Deacon Byington led the Police Corp program’s training in Missouri, the officers going through the program would interact with the community over four to six months, working with Boys and Girls Town of Missouri, experience living hungry on the streets like the homeless, get locked up for a night in prison and build relationships in the community.

“Those types of things made them connect, our officers did well, and those who completed the program here in Missouri are still involved in a lot of activities, are good solid people, and most have a good, solid family life,” he said.

Police officers seldom realize how the cumulative pressure of their jobs affects their moods, perceptions and reactions, according to Deacon Byington. He and other St. Louis police officers are trying to provide a solution by offering the first St. Michael’s retreat for public-safety personnel, where they can recharge with prayer, meditation and silence.

“The focus is to establish internal peace, because if I’m an officer and I’m called to keep the peace in my community, I can’t establish external peace without having internal peace,” he said.


Archdiocesan Response

In the wake of the Ferguson protests, Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis re-instated the archdiocese’s civil-rights commission, the Peace and Justice Commission, which will focus on the whole St. Louis metropolitan area, not just Ferguson.

“The really sad thing is that nobody was surprised [by the DOJ report],” said Marie Kenyon, the commission’s new director. Based on recent conversations Kenyon has had with various members of communities, some “may have been shocked about the extent.”

“But [in terms of] the overall numbers or the racial profiles of who was stopped, what happened to them after they were stopped and the overall tenor of how business was conducted, nobody was shocked,” she said.

The archdiocese now is in the process of picking the commission’s members, and Kenyon said they will identify ways to build a more just society.

“We’re going to address issues of poverty, education, obviously racism, and the lack of health care and meaningful employment,” she said, adding that the leading issue is the “lack of jobs.”

“I think we’re pretty much going to be basing all our work starting on the family unit; how the family unit is affected, not just in the black community, but in the white community, the Hispanic community and the Vietnamese community,” she said.


Sacred Conversations

St. Louis-area Catholic and religious leaders also have been trying to create dialogue between blacks and whites through a series of meetings called “Sacred Conversations,” where both groups can discuss their different points of view and experiences.

Father Robert Rosebrough, pastor of Blessed Teresa, said the biggest challenge is that racism “is perceived as a localized issue.” It is difficult to get people, including white Catholics, to understand how profoundly different their experiences of society are from the black community.

“I’m a jogger, and I’ve never felt afraid or harassed — in any place that I’ve jogged in the city,” he said.

By contrast, Father Art Cavitt, director of the St. Charles Lwanga Center, who is black and lived at the rectory in Ferguson, was stopped by an officer while jogging through the predominantly white neighborhood.

The difference in treatment, Father Rosebrough said, is “unbelievable.”

Father John Paul Hopping, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ferguson, has a dream that one day his congregation will be at least 50% black. Right now, there are only a few black families. But getting there is going to be a challenge, because while the schoolchildren often play together,  the adults are “still often segregated” in their own activities.

“My white parishioners don’t really interact that much with black parishioners,” he said.

Still, progress is being slowly made, and the conversation goes on. Alice Reese said the “opportunity to dialogue” is progress in itself.

Said Reese, “If you can dialogue, then you can change the minds and hearts of people.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.