The Critical Mass

Ferguson, and the authorities’ subversion of the law

I watched Monday night’s announcement that a grand jury had declined to indict a white police officer for shooting an unarmed black 18-year old in Ferguson, Mo. And my initial reaction was… I just didn’t know.

Truthfully, most Americans wouldn’t know. Most of us don’t have experience with the grand jury process, which decides whether enough evidence exists for a case to go to trial. But what I did sense while watching St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announce that there would be no charges against officer Darren Wilson that it was the victim, Michael Brown, was the one who had been on trial.

The argument seemed to be: Brown created the circumstances that led to his death. And there is some truth in that, Brown did rob a convenience store of some cigars moments before, the evidence does seem to lead to the conclusion that he initiated the physical confrontation with Wilson.

McCullough blamed the media, and he blamed the inconsistent stories of witnesses for inflaming passions. But the media was reporting on a story of great significance in today’s troubled American landscape. That’s its job. And the inconsistencies seem to run both ways. The early story that I remember from the police was that Wilson didn’t know about the connection between the convenience-store robbery and Brown. But what I heard last night was that Wilson recognized Brown as a suspect, and that’s why he stopped him. That’s a significant shift in the official narrative.

There is a larger argument that needs to be addressed here, and this is the moment: What is to be done about the adversarial relationship between cops and minorities? That cannot be ignored, it is an epidemic with far more victims than the recent ebola scare. Taking one larger step, what is to be done about the adversarial relationship between law enforcement and American citizens in general? The militarization of our police may make us feel we’re better prepared to deal with ISIS when it begins its surge across the Mexican-American border, as has been promised by some members of Congress. But why is this equipment and mentality allowed to be used against citizens using their right to assembly and peaceful protest? Remember how the Occupy protestors were gassed, beaten and arrested?

What are the police doing to reverse this behavior?

This morning, one statistic startled me, and led me to the conclusion that the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office had failed. In 2010, the last year that numbers for such matters are available, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases, and grand juries declined to return an indictment in just 11 of them. While the Ferguson case was presented in a state court, not a federal court, it still shows the way that these generally things go. Overwhelmingly so.

That number tells me that officer Darren Wilson did not have to answer to the same standard as do virtually all American citizens. There may be a difference between the level of training that a police officer and the average citizen has when it comes to the use of firearms and the handling of volatile situations, but those actions should be able to stand up in a trial. With a proper prosecution and a proper defense. Officers of the law should have faith in the process, and not subvert it at their convenience.

In Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler says a grand jury would “indict a ham sandwich, if that’s what you wanted.” I guess Robert McCulloch wasn’t hungry. In Ferguson, Michael Brown wasn’t even worth a ham sandwich.

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