When hundreds of people rallied outside a Wal-Mart in Kennett, Missouri Monday, they did so to protest the treatment by police and local prosecutors of Heather Ellis, the now infamous 24-year-old African-American college student who three years ago made a routine trip to that very same Wal-Mart to run some errands and ended up leaving in handcuffs after being accused of cutting a checkout line.
Led by civil rights activist Dr. Boyce Watkins and a coalition of civil rights organizations including the ACLU, the protesters marched to the Dunklin County Courthouse where, beginning today, Ellis, a Kennett native whose father still serves the Church in God in Christ congregation in town, will find herself fighting for her freedom after being charged with multiple felonies that could land her up to 15 years in prison. They were there to decry what Ellis has said was the abhorrent treatment she received from both her fellow shoppers and police. In a complaint she filed with the NAACP, Ellis says she was pushed by a white customer, hassled by store employees and called racial slurs by police who physically mistreated her. The police were called to the scene after Ellis and her cousin got into two separate checkout lines, and after Ellis joined her cousin when one line started moving faster than the other.
Make no mistake – this single incident involving Ellis warrants community outrage and the storm of subsequent local and national media coverage it has elicited. It is disheartening to think that in this day and age a woman who never before had any criminal record and who has aims on going to medical school and becoming a doctor could face years of imprisonment over an incident so minor.
But this case is about much more than Heather Ellis. Indeed, her case snaps into focus broad, systemic and longstanding problems with discriminatory policing and prosecutions in the Kennett area and across the state of Missouri, and exemplifies the unjust and disparate treatment that people of color in Missouri’s Bootheel region routinely receive from law enforcement and in the criminal justice system.
Data compiled by the Missouri Attorney General show that police target people of color disproportionately for stops, searches and arrests.
While African-Americans comprise just over 12 percent of the Kennett population, they accounted for almost 15 percent of traffic stops in 2008. During that same year, African-American drivers were more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched and to be arrested.
The racially disparate treatment of Hispanic drivers in Kennett is especially stark: 2008 traffic stop data shows that they are stopped by police at a rate more than three times their representation in the population. In addition, Hispanic drivers were more than four times as likely to be searched and close to four times as likely to be arrested as white drivers.
People of color are also disproportionately represented in Missouri’s prison population. Though African-Americans account for 11.39 percent of the state’s population, 40.11 percent of the Missouri prison population is black. A significant percentage of people in state prison are sentenced from the Bootheel.
Treating people differently based on race betrays the fundamental American promise of equality under the law. We rely on police and other law enforcement officials to be standard-bearers of fairness and justice. When communities of color are treated unfairly, it can create a climate of fear and resentment. These communities may be less likely to rely on or cooperate with police, and an adversarial relationship between police and communities of color compromises everyone’s safety. Heather Ellis, as well as all Missourians, deserves to be treated according to these principles. The security of our community and our democracy depend on it.