There is nothing to say to make this situation better. But one sure way to make it worse is to ignore it. A friend texted me last night, expressing disbelief at the protests and rioting, and saying that he thought that would only make things worse. I have seen that sentiment echoed by others, including veterans of the civil rights movement such as John Lewis, who argued for peaceful demonstrations.
I know this hard. I know this is difficult. Do not succumb to the temptations of violence. There is a more powerful way. #FergusonDecision
— John Lewis (@repjohnlewis) November 25, 2014
Many people out there may feel that protests and riots only turn the public sentiment against those doing the protesting. That is a legitimate point of view, and it may be correct. But at this point the public needs to be hit over the head with this issue, and trying to win public sentiment isn’t as important as forcing the public to confront the ugly reality that the government of Missouri, from a local cop to the police chief and mayor of Ferguson, and on to the district attorney and the governor of Missouri, is guilty of inflicting racial violence. And the criminal justice system has exacerbated rather than alleviated that violence.
I think the most appropriate response to that sentiment is that marches, protests, demonstrations, and riots exist for the extreme moments in the life of a country, and the state murdering an innocent teenager is absolutely an extreme moment. There really isn’t any other choice besides large public demonstrations, unless you think that “Continue to be the victims of unpunished violent crime at the hands of the police” is a viable option.
According to the news, White People Celebrate or Demonstrate, but Black People Riot
Before we get too caught up in some of the imagery from last night, it is important to consider some other recent incidents that fall under the categories of demonstrations. One obvious trend is that when groups of mostly white people gather in public to it doesn’t get called a riot, even when they wantonly destroy property and engage in violent acts. Also, these people don’t get teargassed, bombarded with smoke grenades, or shot at.
SOMEONE CALL IN THE NATIONAL GUARD TO PROTECT OUR- oh, that was after the World Series in San Francisco. pic.twitter.com/21PgkOrFbJ
— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) November 25, 2014
— Christopher Okey (@christopherokey) November 25, 2014
LOOK AT THOSE GODDAMNED THU- oh, that was in Huntington Beach after a surf competition. pic.twitter.com/ylzaCGAwtR
— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) November 25, 2014
(Look closely and you will notice a surprising lack of armored police vehicles and officers dressed for combat in those photos).
The Fucked Up Legal Proceedings
I am sure most of you have seen the statistics on how rare it is for a grand jury to fail to return an indictment.
Extremely rare for a grand jury to fail to return an indictment. Only about 0.01% of the time in federal cases (1/2). http://t.co/XrK4yLwALi
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 25, 2014
Jay Nixon, the Governor of Missouri, chose not to appoint a special prosecutor and left district attorney Bob McCulloch in charge. It seems pretty clear that Nixon had a reasonable expectation that this move would reduce the likelihood of an indictment and therefore upset the community, which is why he called up the Missouri National Guard last week!
After being placed in charge of the case, McCulloch did an unusual and self-serving thing – he decided to place responsibility for the outcome in the hands of the grand jury. He was very clear about this in his speech last night, when he said, “They are the only people – the only people – who have heard and examined every witness and every piece of evidence.” McCulloch presented himself as simply a resource for this evidence.
But McCulloch was the fucking prosecutor! As several prosecutors have explained today, in deciding to present the grand jury with all of the evidence he abdicated his role as prosecutor. McCulloch was tasked with framing the case to the grand jury, calling witnesses and presenting evidence to make that case, not leaving them with a pile of evidence to figure out themselves. Grand juries almost always side with prosecutors, but McCulloch didn’t act like one. In choosing to act this way, he made an indictment less likely.
It is also important to remember a few underreported facts. First, a lot of attention has been focused on the fact that Michael Brown was a big kid, with the implication being that it would be natural for Darren Wilson to be afraid of someone that size. Brown was 6″4 and somewhere around 280 lbs. But Wilson is a big guy as well, he is 6″4 and roughly 210 lbs. We aren’t talking David and Goliath here. We are talking about two large people, one of them a teenager and one a grown man, and the grown man had police training, a motor vehicle, and a gun. Second, the St. Louis County medical examiner didn’t take photos of the crime scene because…his camera battery died!1 Absurd.
Third, Wilson’s account of what happened is literally unbelievable. According to Wilson, he asked Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson to walk on the sidewalk. When they refused, he asked again, and Brown approached the car, slammed the door shot as Wilson tried to open it, began punching Wilson (though oddly he hit the left side of Wilson’s face from his alleged position outside the driver’s side door), paused his assault and calmly handed some cigarillos to his friend, and continued the assault. Then Wilson reached for his gun, and Brown allegedly said “You’re too much of a fucking pussy to shoot me.” Sounds more like the dialogue of a Sylvester Stallone film than what an unarmed 18 year-old would say. Wilson apparently fired 2 shots before Brown began running away, at which point Wilson got out of his car and began chasing him. Wilson screamed for Brown to get on the ground. Brown allegedly turned, began running at Wilson, on his second stride reached for an imaginary handgun (again, Brown was unarmed). Wilson shot him multiple times, which apparently did nothing to slow Brown down, so he continued shooting (he fired 12 times).
Are you fucking kidding me?
Wilson claims Brown ran 20-30 feet from the car, turned, and charged him. But Brown’s body was 150 feet from the car (sure would be helpful to have some crime scene photos). More to the point, as Ezra Klein states, why? “Why did Michael Brown, an 18-year-old kid headed to college, refuse to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk? Why would he curse out a police officer? Why would he attack a police officer? Why would he dare a police officer to shoot him? Why would he charge a police officer holding a gun? Why would he put his hand in his waistband while charging, even though he was unarmed? None of this fits with what we know of Michael Brown.”2
This story is just begging for holes to be poked in it. But, as legal analyst Lisa Bloom states, the cross-examination of Wilson was a cakewalk, not the type of detailed, intense questioning that the situation merited:
So many missed opportunities for cross examination of Wilson. Should have been a grueling session, not the tea party the transcript shows.
— Lisa Bloom (@LisaBloom) November 25, 2014
Hospital records for Darren Wilson's same day visit: "well-appearing, well-nourished, in no apparent distress." No one asks him to explain
— Lisa Bloom (@LisaBloom) November 25, 2014
If the victim was white all the news shows would be focusing on the many holes in the case and serious problems with McCulloch’s strategy, things we learned about yesterday when the evidence was released. Both Wilson and the medical examiner would be crucified on national television. Instead we are talking about protests and looking at images of police in riot gear.
As one former federal prosecutor put it, “So when a District Attorney says, in effect, “we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,” that’s malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.”
We live in a society where statistics like this are shocking to some people (none of them black):
— ThinkProgress (@thinkprogress) November 24, 2014
A big reason for the disconnect (not to mention a huge driver of “black on black” crime) is segregation, most importantly in the form of housing discrimination. In America, we live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools and mostly have friends that are the same race as we are. Next time you read that stat about how 90% of black murder victims are killed by black people, remember that 83% of white murder victims are killed by white people.”3 Basically, people kill people nearby. But conservatives only throw a hissy fit when talking about crime involving black people.
“Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).”4
White Americans almost never have black friends, Hispanic friends, or Asian friends. White Americans are less likely to have minority classmates than they were 30 years ago. This might all seem shocking to people in my generation, the so-called “millennials.” According to social science research, we support diversity and equality at higher levels than older generations.
The problem with all this is that the same research also shows the troubling prevalence of “post-racial” thinking. 5 That is troubling because the idea that America is “post-racial” is complete bullshit. Pick any stat, from incarceration rates to income levels to neighborhood demographics (which, again, are the biggest and most under-discussed issue when we talk about race in America) to police shootings, and it is clear that not only is the idea of a post-racial America a distant fantasy, it is one that is moving further from reality because of our refusal to recognize reality.
Basically, millennials want people to be treated the same but we don’t want to discuss race, we are opposed to government measures to reduce inequality, and we aren’t really even sure what racism is.
White people in America don’t know what life is like for black people in America (or Latinos, or Asians, et al). It really comes down to that. If we had even a faint idea we wouldn’t be surprised by the outcome in Ferguson. Because we don’t know, we look at cases like this from a totally different perspective. As Jamelle Bouie of Slate argues, “A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.”
Postscript: Charles Pierce of Esquire has a powerful piece up today on Ferguson. I will paste most of it below, but it is worth reading in full here – http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/There_Is_Always_A_Reason.
“There is always a reason. Fear. Orders. Duty. There is always a reason after it happens. There is always a reason because we want there to be a reason.
There always have been people in whom we invest the power to take a life. There always has been a tendency among us, or at least among the more privileged among us, to give the benefit of a thousand doubts to those people in whom we invest this awesome power, because we give it to them in order for them to protect us and to keep us safe. They act in our name, always, no matter what they do. That, on the other hand, is often what we refuse to admit to ourselves when that power is misused. That is the way it is in a self-governing Republic. Every act of war is done in our name. Every action by the police is done in our name. Every prosecutor does his job in our name. Every governor who makes a decision does so in our name. When Michael Brown is shot and killed in the middle of the street by a police officer named Darren Wilson, then Darren Wilson is acting in our name, whether we want to admit it or not. We have given him the power to decide to take Michael Brown’s life. And, last night, the governor of Missouri, and a local prosecutor, and 12 members of a grand jury told their their fellow citizens that, in killing Michael Brown, the moderately abraded Darren Wilson acted properly, and in their name. That is the hard and undeniable truth of the matter. Darren Wilson cannot be guilty, because then all the institutions of our government are, and we are, as well, because we told Darren Wilson to protect us from people who look to us like demons.
Right from the beginning, when Governor Jay Nixon refused to name a special prosecutor and left the case in the hands of Bob McCulloch, the greasy and hopelessly conflicted local district attorney, this case was headed for the biggest public fix since the 1919 World Series. The people in Ferguson knew it. The police knew it. Even Nixon knew it; he declared a state of emergency a week before the grand jury’s decision was handed down. McCulloch simply abandoned his duties as a prosecutor and dumped the evidence on the members of the grand jury without giving them any direction at all. Both of them relied, tacitly, on the fact that they knew the benefits they all would get of the thousand doubts that we give to the people we empower to take another person’s life—”under the color of law,” as the legal jargon has it, and in this case that couldn’t be more ironic.
And whoever it was that prepped Wilson for his testimony deserves a raise. There is the “hand in the waistband” defense, which you hear in almost every police-related shooting. Wilson was able to convince a grand jury that he was physically intimidated by someone who was exactly the same height. He was able to convince them that he was struck in the head with a closed fist three times, and that he suffered what appeared to be nothing more than a severe razor burn. He was able to convince them that Michael Brown had become something else—a “demon”—and that Wilson’s actions in killing him was an act of exorcism on behalf of the entire community. He was able to convince them of something that the elected officials of the community already needed to believe.
This is a perilous time for the country, and for many of the citizens living in it. Our police are armed and trained as you would arm and train an occupying army. They are given body armor, and armored vehicles. They have been removed, physically and psychologically, from the people they are paid to serve, the people who invest in them to take the life of another. And there is a reason because there always is a reason, when some citizen winds up dead. The argument always is that you, the citizen, do not know the pressure these people face, that you never will experience a split-second life and death decision, and that the benefit of a thousand doubts is always justified because, otherwise, you will not be made safe by the people you empower to take a life. As regards to all the incidents cited above, not one person ever served one day in jail. This because there were reasons, and there are always reasons.
And the people who complain, and the people who riot, and the people who march and shout and scream for some kind of justice are just ungrateful because it is the job of the people we empower to take lives to keep them safe from each other, and don’t they understand that? Don’t they understand that Darren Wilson’s exorcised the demon on their behalf as well, that Michael Brown died so that they can be safe? That is the reason, and there is always a reason.”