Last night, reports came out that the grand jury in the Michael Brown case decided not indict officer Darren Wilson for any wrongdoing in the incident.
This announcement sparked a wide variety of reactions, most of them inextricably tied to emotions: anger, satisfaction, disbelief, defensiveness…
I understand that this issue is still a fresh wound on the American psyche, so I will tread carefully. But there are a number of things I feel compelled to say in the wake of the decision. I only ask that you do your best to put your own feelings about the case to the side for a minute and consider some of the larger, overarching issues involved.
Thought #1: The bad apple argument works both ways.
In the days following Michael Brown’s shooting, a wave of videos showing various incidences of excessive police force dominated Facebook and social media, as people tried to show that police brutality was a pervasive issue, rather than a matter of a few “bad apples”.
Not surprisingly, this lead to a backlash of people who generally supported the police and argued that the people posting these videos and making these arguments were just trying to give all officers a bad name based off the few crooked ones.
Fast-forward to last night’s coverage of protestors after the decision was announced. Almost every news outlet was dominated by footage of the jackasses who decided to take advantage of the situation by looting and causing destruction.
How many shots did you see of peaceful protestors voicing their disapproval for the indictment proceedings? How many extensive segments with scholars breaking down some of the structural issues that created an environment so ripe for unrest? I’ll wait.
It’s crucial to understand that television is an image-based media, meaning that they will show you whatever images they think are most likely to get your attention.
To do this, news outlets build narratives that are exciting (the more controversial, the better) and then choose images that fit with these narratives. Unfortunately, shots of fires and looting are far better for their bottom lines than conversations with peaceful protesters.
If you are unaware of these narratives and image biases in the media, it’s easy to look at all of the footage of hooliganism and crime as proof that African-Americans really are more prone to crime. Indeed, many people who supported Darren Wilson made this exact argument in the countless debates that occurred on Facebook today as they tried to justify his use of deadly force against Brown.
What both sides fail to understand is that the “bad apple” argument is invalid both ways. In the same way that crooked cops don’t make all cops evil, the actions of looters and vandals in no way represent the tens of millions of African-Americans who feel wronged by the decision not to indict Wilson. There is also something to be said about the racial profiling of minorities by police, which brings me to my next point.
Thought #2: We need to seriously reconsider deadly force.
In his testimony before the grand jury, Wilson constantly emphasized how incapable he was of opposing Brown’s strength and size:
“…never at any point did I have control of him. I mean … he manipulated me, while I was in the vehicle, completely…the only way to describe it is that I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,”
Wilson said in his testimony. Describing the final moments before Brown’s death, Wilson said Brown made, “a grunting, like aggravated sound”, and then charged toward him, despite Wilson’s gunfire.
“I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better word, crazy… I’ve never seen that. I mean, it was very aggravated, … aggressive, hostile. … You could tell he was looking through you. There was nothing he was seeing.”
Wilson told detectives when he was interviewed following the incident.
Besides the clear attempt to characterize Brown as animalistic and even subhuman (a common portrayal of the black male when you examine the history of racist ideologies in America), I feel that it’s necessary to point out that Wilson, at 6’4″, 210-pounds, is no shrimp himself.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it all went down like Wilson said, with Brown basically throwing him around like a rag-doll to the point where he felt his life was in danger and the only way to survive was to use lethal force.
I can understand an average civilian using lethal force out of fear of Michael Brown’s size and supposed aggression. But isn’t that precisely why officers are sent to police academies in the first place? To learn how to handle these types of situations better than the average person?
I guess my question is this: is there really no way Wilson could have handled that situation without killing Brown? Am I being naive to ask why Wilson couldn’t have shot Wilson in the legs to demobilize him (if Wilson’s account of Brown charging him is accurate)? Isn’t marksmanship one of the classes at the police academy?
And why wasn’t Wilson armed with a taser as well as his handgun? It’s quite possible that a taser could have incapacitated Brown well before the situation was escalated to the point of deadly force.
Maybe I’m being idealistic here, but if we’re going to authorize police officers to use deadly force against American citizens I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold them to a higher standard.
For me personally, Wilson’s argument that he basically had no chance in the fight and was so overmatched that he had to fire 12 shots at Brown (who was hit seven times) should not be valid for someone who we have authorized to uphold the law, based off of the belief that their police training has adequately prepared them for dangerous and volatile situations.
So maybe we need to examine the police academies themselves, and seriously reconsider what standards we set for the people we allow to police us. More specifically, we need to make sure that officers go through extensive training on not only how to immobilize suspects without killing them, but also on how to diffuse such tense situations in the first place.
And, though I touched on it a bit earlier, I feel the need to reiterate how ridiculous it is that every officer isn’t armed with a taser.
Thought #3: Ferguson isn’t a response to Michael Brown alone. It’s the flash point of long-term systematic oppression and exploitation of minority communities.
I could speak on this point for days, but Radley Balko of the Washington Post has already written an extremely eloquent and well-researched piece describing how these issues created high levels of animosity between residents and law enforcement in the greater-St. Louis area.
So, rather than clumsily trying to make the argument myself, I will just pull some particularly telling excerpts from that piece, which you can read in its entirety here).
“Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations…”
“These aren’t violent criminals,” says Thomas Harvey, another of the three co-founders of ArchCity Defenders. “These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”
Arrest warrants are also public information. They can be accessed by potential landlords or employers. So they can prevent someone from getting a job, housing, job training, loans or financial aid. “So they just get sucked into this vortex of debt and despair,” Harvey says…
But these of course are problems that extend well beyond the St. Louis area…
“Local officials, scholars, and activists say that whatever happened between Brown and Wilson, St. Louis County’s unique political geography, heightened class-consciousness, and the regrettable history that created both have made the St. Louis suburbs especially prone to a Ferguson-like eruption.”
“Locals say the cops and court officers often come not only from different zip codes, but from completely different cultures and lifestyles than the people whose fines and court fees fund their paychecks…A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch survey of the 31 St. Louis County municipalities where blacks made up 10 percent or more of the population found just one town where black representation on the police force was equal or greater than the black presence in the town itself. Some towns were shockingly disparate. In Velda City, for example, blacks make up 95 percent of the town, but just 20 percent of the police. In Flordell Hills, it’s 91 percent and 25 percent respectively. In Normandy, 71 and 14. In Bellefontaine Neighbors, 73 and 3. In Riverview, 70 and 0.”
“Residents of these towns feel as if their governments see them as little more than sources of revenue. To many residents, the cops and court officers are just outsiders who are paid to come to their towns and make their lives miserable. There’s also a widely held sentiment that the police spend far more time looking for petty offenses that produce fines than they do keeping these communities safe.”
While all of these realities don’t justify reactions like looting and vandalism, I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that anger is a fairly reasonable response to long-term oppression.
Race relations in the St. Louis area were a gas-soaked pile of tinder before Michael Brown was shot. His death was simply the match that exposed all of that animosity.
Thought #4: We need to rethink the use of the grand jury and the entire indictment process.
Darren Wilson was never on trial – that’s because he was never actually charged with anything. That was the point of the grand jury: to decide whether or not Wilson should even be charged with wrongdoing.
The details of what went on during those indictment proceedings are still coming to light, as journalists pore through the 1,000+ pages of court transcripts, but a number of people have already raised serious questions about state prosecutor Robert McCulloch.
Even before the grand jury convened, there were serious questions raised about the choice of McCulloch as the prosecutor for the case. Specifically, people were concerned about McCulloch’s deep family ties to law enforcement in St. Louis police department. According to CBS News,
“His father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for St. Louis’ police department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect.”
Keeping these facts in mind, it’s extremely difficult to argue that there was no conflict of interest with McCulloch being the prosecuting attorney in the Brown case.
In fact, a number of groups, including the Mound City Bar Association (one of the oldest African-American bar associations in the country) formally called for McCulloch to recuse himself as prosecutor because of his family ties to St. Louis PD.
Obviously, this didn’t happen. And now, many people reading through the transcripts of the grand jury proceeding are seriously questioning whose side McCulloch was even on.
A number of lawyers have already called attention the strange proceedings, including Benjamin Crump, the Brown family’s personal attorney. Following the announcement of the decision last night, Crump had this to say:
“Where was his [Darren Wilson] veracity ever challenged? When was his credibility ever challenged when you watch those four hours that he got to give a speech to this grand jury?”
“So in a typical grand jury proceeding, the prosecutor comes in and presents only evidence that would point to a criminal defendant’s guilt. They’re normally short proceedings, but there’s none of this cross examination that we count on in jury trials in order to establish the truth. We are a nation based on a justice system that thinks the truth is found when two parties battle it out, according to the rules of court- that doesn’t happen in a grand jury proceeding.”
She continued by explaining that in a grand jury proceeding, the prosecution exclusive power to call witnesses and ask questions (the defense isn’t given an opportunity to do these things like in regular trials). McGraugh continued,
“That’s what Benjamin Crump is complaining about: that had there really been someone in the grand jury room to ask pointed questions of officer Wilson and to impeach his testimony, that it would’ve looked much differently in front of the grand jury, and perhaps they would’ve had a different verdict.”
Cornish then asked McGraugh what misconceptions existed about the role of the grand jury in general, as well as what questions should be raised about how the grand jury was used in this particular case. McGraugh responded,
“Well, I think the big problem is that a grand jury was used properly in this case, but in a way no one else has benefited from, except for officer Wilson. By Bob McCulloch’s own admission, this is the only time he’s a grand jury in this way. A normal criminal defendant would’ve been charged before their case went to grand jury. And because they were charged, would’ve either had to wait for the grand jury to finish while they were in jail or would’ve had to post a bond.”
“That wasn’t done here. Officer Wilson was not charged, he was free to do whatever he pleased while the grand jury was meeting. I think there’s some resentment by parties in the community who see this whole procedure as being one that benefited Darren Wilson while normal criminal defendants are not given these opportunities.”
McGraugh also said that the defendant almost never gets an opportunity to tell their side of the story during grand jury proceedings like Wilson did, stressing how much the process is typically controlled by the prosecutor.
Some parts of Wilson’s testimony were corroborated by the forensic evidence presented during the proceedings, but it also contained a number of inconsistencies.
For example, Wilson estimated that Brown ran 20-30 feet away from the car before turning around and charging another 10 feet back towards Wilson. However, we know from forensic evidence that Brown died 150 feet away from Wilson’s patrol car.
Maybe Wilson’s story was completely true, maybe not. Maybe his characterization of Brown as reckless, aggressive and extremely violent was totally accurate, maybe not.
But Brown is no longer around to tell his side of the story, and Wilson didn’t have to face any real challenge to his version of events.
To reiterate McGraugh’s earlier quote,
“We are a nation based on a justice system that thinks the truth is found when two parties battle it out, according to the rules of court.”
Those rules were clearly bent by the extremely unorthodox use of a grand jury in this case. And as a result, Michael Brown and his family have been deprived of their right to a fair trial.
There’s plenty more I could write about this topic, but I’ll stop here. If you have questions and/or comments, please use the comment section below for discussion.
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