In a digital age rife with e-books, audio books, long-form apps, and the infinite grist of free online content, the choice to publish and sell physical books increasingly seems like a bold one. A publisher makes a stronger statement still when the text of the book has already been released online, to much fanfare, for several months. Who would buy such a thing? On the other hand, maybe the printing of the thing is, itself, the point.
Later this month, The New Press will publish a paperback version of The Ferguson Report, the result of a Department of Justice inquiry into civil rights violations in that small St. Louis suburb that was so thoroughly squished in a slide under the national microscope last summer. Months after the protests sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown, Eric Holder’s Justice Department launched a six-month investigation into all the factors that provided the tinder for that spark. The department had previously decided not to push for criminal charges for Officer Darren Wilson. But in a sense, Holder indicted the entire town when he presented the damning results of this second, larger investigation in March.
The Ferguson Police Department was violating basic Constitutional rights of its citizens with unnecessary arrests and excessive force, the report found. The Ferguson municipal courts were financing their daily operations by gouging people with fines and fees. Many of the town’s cops were openly targeting African Americans and destroying community trust. Above all, Holder said, these violations “created an intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault and under siege by those charged to serve and protect them.”
"Ferguson is the tip of an iceberg, shaped by the legacy of the slavery-to-Jim Crow continuum that even today accounts for eight out of every ten days that people of African descent have spent in what is now the United States."
Now, by binding the report into a book, The New Press is giving it special attention. The book singles this text out from all of the other upsetting news reports that flash in our eyes each day. It pulls it out of the news cycle and makes it a physical object we have to reckon with. It’s a 174-page paperback, it costs 10 dollars, and the book’s cover features the outline of a single raised hand—perfectly scaled so as to match the hand of the reader holding it.
This isn’t the first public document The New Press has published. It has also put out collections of White House emails, declassified texts on the Iran-Contra affair and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and audio recordings of Supreme Court oral arguments. An announcement about the forthcoming Ferguson book quoted the press’ publisher Ellen Adler as saying, “It is a crucial document that deserves the widest possible readership.” The press placed this latest report in historical context alongside the 9/11 Commission Report, the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, the Kerner Commission report on racial unrest in the 1960s, and the Warren Commission report about the assassination of John F. Kennedy—all of which were also printed in book form at the time of their release.
Previous government reports have been published in book form by publishers big and small. Some reports have been technically public, and some not, and they have been printed and sold with varying levels of government cooperation. The New Press says that one of the first things it published was audio recordings of Supreme Court oral arguments, “which became a bestseller when the Court tried to block publication.” Norton published The 9/11 Commission Report and Public Affairs Books published The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report about the 2008 crash, both with explicit permission. The tiny Beacon Press (and the church supporting it) were pulled into Daniel Ellsberg’s trial and had their financial records subpoenaed by J. Edgar Hoover after the press published a selection of The Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Aside from legal threats and intimidation, there are other considerable challenges to this process as well. The small New York-based publisher Melville House printed The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture last year. Melville House’s co-founder Dennis Johnson described in an interview with the New Yorker how “insane” it felt to risk six figures on printing and an incredibly tight (and sleepless) 72-hour turn-around schedule, on a book that no one may even want to buy. But Johnson reverently referenced Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which sold a surprising number of copies in 1776, and which “really did inspire people to go into revolution!”
Like the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, the Senate’s torture report was already public and available online before Melville House sent it to the printer, but it had only existed as a poorly scanned and hard-to-read bundle of Xeroxes. In this sense, carefully formatting the text in a readable (and, in the case of the ebook version, searchable) version is a kind of public service. And it turned out that a lot of people did buy it, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award besides.
The Ferguson Report, which will come out in print at the end of June, is much smaller in scope and scale than the torture report or the Pentagon Papers. It’s a case study of a specific place and time. But its larger significance is not confined by those small-town borders or by this point in American history.
“Ferguson is the tip of an iceberg, shaped by the legacy of the slavery-to-Jim Crow continuum that even today accounts for eight out of every ten days that people of African descent have spent in what is now the United States,” writes Theodore M. Shaw, the director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina, in the book’s introduction. “It reminds us that, in spite of the extraordinary progress our nation has made, we are not as far removed from that legacy as we would like to think.”
True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.