This post has been updated.
In the US, police officers can kill without consequence. The latest confirmation of this injustice came today (June 23) when Baltimore officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, was found not guilty on all charges related to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Previously, on May 23, police officer Edward Nero was similarly acquitted in Gray’s death.
Nero—charged with second-degree intentional assault, two counts of misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment—was one of six Baltimore officers charged in Gray’s death. He is not the first officer in a high-profile killing to avoid punishment since the 2015 Baltimore indictments. And he’s unlikely to be the last.
On August 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown to death and left his body on a Ferguson, Missouri street for four and a half hours. Wilson likely had no idea that his actions would set off a national controversy over race and police brutality–and that this controversy would make him a millionaire. Within two weeks, a GoFundMe page set up to support Wilson raised $225,000. Despite online protests, a second GoFundMe was soon created, raising his total to $433,000.
In November 2014, after St. Louis prosecutor Bob McCulloch chose not to charge Wilson in Brown’s death, a Wilson fundraising organizer revealed that an outpouring of additional donations had raised Wilson’s total to roughly one million dollars. Though Wilson’s fortune changed, the fate of young black men in St. Louis have not. Since 2014, St. Louis police have continued to kill unarmed young black men without repercussions.
“The Ferguson Effect” is a term used by some politicians and pundits to describe a link between a rise in protests against police brutality and an increase in crime since the 2014 killing of Brown. The theory has been debunked: officials from New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to Attorney General Loretta Lynch to US president Barack Obama have all denied that there is any evidence to support it. And St. Louis’s crime rate began to rise in April 2014, months before Wilson killed Brown.
The real Ferguson effect is the way Americans have learned that they can kill young unarmed black men and face no legal repercussions–and may even receive a financial reward. In a country built on slave labor, where lynching was viewed as entertainment, unpunished killings of black men are hardly new. But digital media has allowed anti-black brutality to be commodified in new ways.
Since 2008, America has been devastated by the aftermath of the financial recession, with cities struggling to provide basic services and families struggling to get by. Yet when it comes to the killing of young black men, we find two related phenomena: donations given by citizens to the officers allegedly at fault and an enormous government payout in lieu of any serious attempts at police reform or, in some cases, even an admission of wrongdoing.
That cities are willing to give away millions of dollars to the victims’ families rather than admit culpability in the slaying of black men shows how resistant police departments are to confronting racism and brutality within their own ranks. More disturbing, however, are the Americans who eagerly donate to the killers of black boys and men. There are thousands of online fundraisers for families struggling to pay health care or funeral costs that cannot meet their modest goals. But kill a young black man, and the money comes rolling in.
When the six Baltimore officers including Nero were indicted in May 2015, it was viewed as something of a transformative moment in the fight against police brutality, a sign that perhaps nationwide protests were having an impact.
“The larger message, if there is one, is that we’re moving on these things,” law professor David A. Harris told The New York Times on the day of the indictment. “We’re taking them seriously, and there’s no longer going to be any kind of slowing down and taking it to the point where people wonder, ‘Whatever happened to that?’”
What actually happened was that officers continued to walk free.
In December 2015, Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Cleveland boy playing with a toy gun in a park, was acquitted of all charges. In February 2016, the city of Cleveland sued the Rice family for not paying the $500 bill for the ambulance that took their dead son to the hospital. Rice’s lawyer described the attempt at financial extraction “an insult to homicide” and it was retracted later that month.
In April 2016, Cleveland itself had to pay up: $6 million was awarded to the Rice family after a civil lawsuit. But even then, police would not admit guilt. The court file states “there was no admission of wrongdoing.”
Even when an officer accused of killing an unarmed black man is actually charged, the financial outcomes can be questionable. In November 2015, Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke was charged in the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald after a graphic video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times in 13 seconds was released to the media. That same month, a GoFundMe allegedly created by Van Dyke’s wife raised over $10,200 before GoFundMe shut it down, claiming it violated their terms and conditions. (GoFundMe refused to do the same in the Darren Wilson case.)
In December 2015, Van Dyke was indicted by a grand jury on six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct: the first time a Chicago officer had been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years. Again, a multi-million dollar settlement was offered, with the McDonald family receiving $5 million from the city whose officers had killed their son.
Perhaps the most notorious example of the real “Ferguson effect” is the May 2016 auction of the gun of George Zimmerman, whose killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 was deemed self-defense. Zimmerman has remained boastfully unrepentant since his trial. But the sale of the gun for $250,000 revealed a new level of shamelessness, and showcased again just how the murder of black men has been monetized.
The most disturbing aspect of the Zimmerman auction was perhaps the buyer: a woman who, according to the BBC, had wanted the gun as a birthday present for her son. No information has been given as to her identity or her son’s age. We only know she had a lot of money and used it to further the financial incentive for murdering black boys.
That is the lesson her son will learn on his birthday. That is the lesson all American children will grow up with as they watch the killers of Brown and Gray and Rice and Martin walk free. The lesson black boys will learn is that if they are shot to death in America, their killers will not only go unpunished, but may be financially rewarded.
It’s a lesson that should shame us all.