Let me declare at the beginning: there is simply no excuse for the burning and looting and violence we saw in Ferguson on Monday night. Most of the people who committed those acts were not protesters. They were opportunists. Criminals. And for those few who were genuinely disgusted by the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and who took their anger out on their surroundings: we don’t settle things that way in a civilized country, no matter how outraged one is about an outcome. It’s unacceptable regardless of what one’s grievance is. It is unquestionably immoral, ultimately counter-productive, and therefore utterly stupid.
Let me further declare that I don’t know whether Officer Wilson is, or should have been found, guilty of any crime. I have seen and read the accounts of various witnesses—including Wilson—some of them conflicting with each other, and I acknowledge that those accounts can be interpreted in more than one way, as is always the case. I have heard specialists discuss the autopsy results, which also can be interpreted in several ways, including supporting Officer Wilson’s claim that Michael Brown was the aggressor or supporting the claim that Michael Brown posed no threat when the fatal shot or shots were fired. I have seen other evidence in the case, recently released, none of it case-closed conclusive one way or the other, as far as I can tell.
I will also admit that Brown’s behavior just minutes before he was shot—when he stole cigarillos from a store and bullied his way out—could easily be interpreted as supporting Officer Wilson’s account of his initial encounter on the street with an aggressive Brown, even though strictly speaking Brown’s prior behavior had nothing to do with whether Wilson acted lawfully when he fired 12 shots at him, one of them entering through the top of his head.
But even though Brown’s aggressive behavior in that convenience store is technically unrelated to what happened minutes later, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the video of Brown bullying his way out of the store at the very least makes Wilson’s account of a demon-faced aggressor plausible to many people, including people sitting on a grand jury. And it is quite likely that that video, and the images from it that were widely distributed, doomed any prosecution of Officer Wilson from the start, no matter whether the officer’s fact-tailored story of what happened seems “difficult or impossible to believe.“
That is why prosecutor Bob McCulloch had little trouble, through his assistants who presented evidence to the grand jury, convincing the jurors that Officer Wilson acted lawfully, even though that is not normally how the grand jury process works. McCulloch’s unusual use of that process, in which his team clearly was acting partly on behalf of Wilson, has a lot of African-Americans angry. Think about it:
1. An unarmed black teenager, who some witnesses say either had his hands up or was otherwise not aggressive, is killed by a white policeman.
2. What followed was an almost unprecedented use of the grand jury system, in which prosecutors presented voluminous amounts of evidence in what was essentially a trial that the prosecutors manifestly controlled.
3. That nearly unprecedented quasi-trial before the grand jury was followed by an equally unprecedented decision not to indict the shooter—almost all such juries hand down indictments if asked to by a prosecutor—done by a grand jury that was 75% white.
Those items and others are why a lot of African-Americans look at this case and find more reasons than ever to doubt the justice in our justice system.
That being said, my first thought, when I heard that the district attorney would announce the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown shooting case on Monday evening, was why do it so late at night? That was exactly the wrong time to announce it, as many have now realized. There was no compelling reason to announce it around 8:30pm. It was as if the entire event was designed to cause what we in fact witnessed. It seemed to be fashioned in order to provide fuel for a easy-to-ignite fire. It took only a handful of violent people, those who burned buildings and cars, threw bricks and fired shots, to make the whole community look uncivilized and out of control. Late into the night, Jon Belmar, St. Louis County Police Chief, said,
I really don’t have any hesitation in telling you that I didn’t see a lot of peaceful protesters out there tonight….What I’ve seen tonight is probably much worse than the worse night we ever had in August.
Yeah, well, the Chief should take that up with the prosecuting attorney. Except that Chief Belmar told reporters that it wouldn’t have mattered much when the announcement of the non-indictment was made. Huh? He also said that it would have been a violation of the grand jury process to get advanced notice as to whether there would or wouldn’t be an indictment, so that he could better prepare. What? Hooey.
What happened was an utter law enforcement failure, from the governor on down. These people weren’t powerless in this situation. They could have influenced the timing of the announcement of the decision and been better prepared to deal with the results. (I won’t even get into how Governor Nixon could have and should have appointed a special prosecutor for such a sensitive case, especially since Bob McCulloch, whose policeman father had been tragically shot in the line of duty by an African-American, had close ties with law enforcement and had a history of protecting the police in four out of four similar cases.)
As I said, the whole thing, from the announcement last week that the decision was imminent to Bob McCulloch’s press conference on Monday night, seemed orchestrated to produce the results we all saw on our TVs Monday night. But I confess that I don’t really have the slightest idea what was in the head of the prosecutor. I don’t know why he did what he did when he did it. I don’t have anything but flimsy circumstantial evidence that he was trying to maximize the negative reaction that would, most certainly, take the focus off Bob McCulloch and put it on the black community in Ferguson and elsewhere. I hope that his decision to make the announcement well into the evening was just a very misguided act by a public official who was trying to do the right thing and nothing more cynical than that.
In any case, prosecutor McCulloch’s weird theatrics Monday night struck me as a oddly cold. Like ice. Like ice that would, paradoxically, unleash a protest of fire into the night. His team had brought the case to the grand jury as both prosecutor and defense, which one lawyer said was “not the normal process” and another called “rare.” Yet another lawyer said—a former prosecutor—that not only were McCulloch’s actions during the grand jury process almost unheard of in his long experience, but that often the process is almost as important as the outcome itself.
He’s right about that. The process has to be right. Justice is a journey, not just a destination. It matters how outcomes are achieved. It has to appear that the prosecutor is as aggressively pursuing justice for a dead black teenager killed by a white policeman as he would be for a dead white policeman killed by a black teenager. It may be that had the system run its natural course, from indictment to trial to verdict, Officer Wilson would have and should have been found not guilty of any potential charge. But this McCulloch-guided process didn’t even get to a charge, even though all that was needed to indict was “probable cause.” Thus there will always remain large doubts as to Wilson’s innocence or guilt.
From the beginning, after Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9, the process did not seem right. It didn’t seem normal. Michael Brown’s body was left on the hot August street for more than four hours, uncovered part of the time. Officer Wilson apparently was never required to offer an official written statement after the incident nor were there any recordings or transcripts of interviews done with him at that time. His first comprehensive explanation of what transpired was a month after the shooting—in front of the grand jury and without real cross-examination—plenty of time for him to lawyer up and shape his story to fit the facts that were subsequently and widely available. That in itself raises suspicions about the process. Then there were the leaks of certain information, leaks that always seemed to exculpate Officer Wilson, like the release of that video of Brown stealing the cigarillos. Tack on the quite unusual way the prosecutor handled the grand jury and you have understandable questions about the justice process, even understandable anger.
President Obama said two days ago that “in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.” No doubt about that. Much of that distrust is generated by police behavior, to be sure. But a lot of it is generated by the legal process itself. The President, ever the optimist, continued:
…there are still problems, and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don’t think that’s the norm. I don’t think that’s true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down. What we need to do is to understand them and figure out how do we make more progress. And that can be done.
I hope he’s right. But what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, here in 2014, makes me wonder if he is.
[image of Officer Wilson on the street is taken from Piaget Crenshaw’s video]