Politics & Policy

The Department of Social Justice

Ferguson protesters take to the streets in August. (Scott Olson/Getty)
Federal officials lectured Ferguson residents about “white privilege.”

When Department of Justice officials arrived in Ferguson, Mo., one day after the death of Michael Brown, it wasn’t just to conduct an investigation on potential civil-rights violations. In fact, officials from one Justice Department office were conducting meetings with Ferguson residents to educate them on subjects such as “white privilege.”

The DOJ’s Community Relations Service arrived in Ferguson purportedly to lessen the tension between protesters and city officials. But sources who attended the DOJ’s private gatherings with Ferguson residents tell NRO that the Justice Department also sought to educate and question the community about the issues of white privilege and racism. The political nature of the Justice Department’s intervention in Ferguson may not be exclusive to its interactions with residents; it also might have affected its ongoing investigations into the Ferguson Police Department and officer Darren Wilson. 

As investigators combed through Ferguson, DOJ’s Community Relations Service began holding the town-hall meetings, which excluded press and everyone from out of town. Ferguson resident Audrey Watson, 47, attended one of the meetings. She says federal officials organized the attendees into small groups and asked questions such as “What stereotypes exist in our community?” “How does white privilege impact race relations in our community?” and “Is there a need for personal commitment to race relations?”

Hundreds of people attended the fall meetings, including Ferguson mayor James Knowles III, who says many people at the initial meetings were angry and screaming. Knowles says the Community Relations Service officials told him they had previously responded to Trayvon Martin’s death in Sanford, Fla., and that they were there to help. During the meetings, he says, the DOJ officials talked about underlying racism that people may not perceive, and the issue of white privilege.

“I mean, I think it was really just trying to get people to understand what that [white privilege] means, because the average white person wakes up and says, if you’re just a middle-class white person, you say, What privilege do I have?” Knowles says. “But until you really understand the systemic issues and maybe some of those not-visible things that exist in society, which affect African Americans or other persons of color, you may not really understand what that is.”

In an e-mail to NRO, a Justice Department spokeswoman said the meetings were designed to ease tension. The spokeswoman requested that NRO not quote her e-mails and added that it’s not the role of Community Relations Service officials to take a position on issues of race. Robert Driscoll, who from 2001 to 2003 was the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s chief of staff, says it’s not standard for these officials to educate the community about white privilege, and he called such action unfortunate. “Their function is supposed to be on the ground . . . and to talk to people and let them know what the processes are at the Department of Justice,” he says. “The hope is that it’s a way to channel public sentiment to avoid civil unrest.” Rioters still managed to burn down much of the town in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, but Knowles says he thinks the Community Relations Service’s involvement has been constructive nonetheless.

However, the mayor says he thinks the DOJ’s investigators misled him from their very first encounter, and he has concerns about DOJ’s ability to conduct a fair investigation. He says the investigators, including Jonathan Smith, the Civil Rights Division’s special litigation chief, told him that the purpose of their first meeting was to determine whether an investigation was necessary. But by the time Knowles got home from the meeting, Attorney General Eric Holder was on television announcing the investigation. “Clearly the decision was already made before they even met with me,” he says. “And later on they apologized to me for that, but of course nobody could say who [made the decision] and why that decision was made.” He adds that, based on his interactions with them, he thinks the investigators he spoke to did not intentionally mislead him and were unaware of Holder’s plans.

Driscoll, the former Civil Rights Division chief of staff, says the Justice Department may have rushed to announce its investigation. “It’s not unprecedented to open [an investigation] that quickly, but that’s certainly unusual,” he says. “Politics factor into that decision, and then, certainly, you have community unrest, and you have people that don’t have a great relationship with the PD.”  

Unlike other parts of the Justice Department that operate behind a cloak of secrecy, the DOJ spokeswoman says, the Civil Rights Division often acknowledges or announces investigations into individuals or police departments. But the spokeswoman did not say how the department decided an investigation was necessary. 

While the Community Relations Service town-hall meetings with Ferguson residents have concluded, DOJ officials remain in the city. Before, during, and after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, the officials met with protesters and other key stakeholders such as Mayor Knowles about how to keep the peace.

But Knowles says he thinks the public statements of Attorney General Eric Holder have built an expectation that the Justice Department will deliver the retributive justice that protesters in Ferguson seek. The Civil Rights Division’s pattern of behavior elsewhere indicates that Ferguson is not the only community receiving special attention from the Justice Department. During the past five fiscal years, the Civil Rights Division has opened more than 20 “pattern or practice” investigations into police departments throughout the country — such as the one involving the Ferguson Police Department — which is more than twice as many as were opened in the previous five years, according to a statement from Holder on Thursday. These investigations are conducted to determine whether local law-enforcement officers have engaged in a pattern or practice that deprives people of rights protected by U.S. law or the Constitution.

While a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson in November, the Department of Justice seems to be hunkering down for the long haul. Holder pledged in a Post-Dispatch op-ed published earlier this summer that, “long after the events of Aug. 9 [Brown’s death] have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community.” He did not say what it would take for DOJ to walk away from Ferguson, and that remains to be seen.    

The force behind the Justice Department’s lasting presence in Ferguson may be Vanita Gupta, who was selected to lead the Civil Rights Division in October after heading up the American Civil Liberties Union’s efforts on Ferguson. Before beginning her new job, Gupta advocated for the Justice Department to take a more proactive role in its independent federal investigations and called for racial-bias training for forces that receive federal grants. A week ago, Holder announced his intention to “institute rigorous new standards — and robust safeguards — to help end racial profiling once and for all,” which were specifically directed at police. He said the Justice Department is preparing to implement these changes in the coming days. After announcing the changes, Holder went on to say, “In recent weeks, there have arisen great sparks of humanity, and hope, that illuminate the way forward.” Perhaps it’s time the Justice Department stopped igniting fires and started putting them out.       

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.