The Day of New London (Conn.), Nov. 26, 2014
The rioting that took place following a grand jury's decision not to indict a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer for the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen was understandable, but inexcusable.
It was understandable because the black neighborhood in this St. Louis suburb is filled with idle young men who view the overwhelmingly white police force as if it were an occupying army. The grand jury's decision to exonerate Officer Darren Wilson for gunning down one of their own in the street Aug. 9 affirmed their sense of powerlessness and their conclusion that cops are above the law.
They lashed out violently, angrily, horribly and, ultimately, foolishly, destroying small businesses in their own neighborhood, many owned and staffed by people of color who did nothing to anyone. Hoodlums and agitators, taking advantage, looted and incited the anarchy.
The rioting was inexcusable because this is a nation of laws. Agree or disagree with the failure to indict, there was a judicial process. A 12-person jury looked at a lot of evidence before concluding that it did not have the grounds to indict Officer Wilson for either murder or manslaughter, persuaded that he was acting to protect his safety when he shot 18-year-old Michael Brown multiple times.
Evidence viewed by the grand jury presented a much different version of events than the information that circulated soon after the shooting. This was not a teenager out for a stroll when a chance confrontation with a police officer left him dead.
Instead, when Officer Wilson confronted Brown and the friend he was with, he realized the pair might be those being sought for strong-arming some cigarillos from a convenience store minutes earlier. They were. Physical and eyewitness evidence showed Brown struggled with the officer, leaning into the patrol car window. The officer fired two shots, one grazing Brown's hand.
Brown, a large young man, started to run away, with Officer Wilson pursuing on foot and ordering him to stop. The teen did stop and turn. There appeared no credible evidence that Brown raised his hands in surrender, an act repeated at many subsequent protests. Instead, there was testimony he moved toward the officer, though eyewitnesses varied greatly on how threatening were his movements, ranging from a stumble to a charge.
Did Officer Wilson have to stand his ground and fire when there was an option to fall back, the suspect had displayed no weapon and backup was on the way? An argument could be made that the fatal shots were a criminal use of excessive force, but the grand jury did not see it that way.
There are many lessons to learn from this tragic series of events.
Policing an urban community with a force that bares no racial resemblance to the people that the officers are sworn to serve and protect invites distrust and misunderstanding.
Racial profiling remains a problem in many places and it must be dealt with, not dismissed.
High unemployment in many black, urban neighborhoods leaves young men idle, never a good thing, creating pent up frustration that awaits an incident to release it. Fix that problem and you fix a lot.
The lack of strong community institutions, which appeared to be the case in the African-American community in Ferguson, is sorely missed in such stressful situations. Better local leadership could have given some structure to the protests and clarified demands beyond punishing the officer, such as steps to improve police-community relations and better use of technology to record police behavior.
The decision by authorities to release the grand jury's decision during the dark of night, when tensions were high from a day of anxious awaiting, was stunningly wrong. A morning release would have allowed easier pre-positioning of police and time for efforts to diffuse the emotions. But from the state level on down, this situation in Missouri has not been handled deftly from the start.
If lessons are not learned, there will be more Fergusons and more nights like Nov. 24.
The Bennington (Vt.) Banner, Nov. 26, 2014
A grand jury hearing room was the worst possible place to adjudicate the case of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9.
Grand jury proceedings are conducted in secret, which means no one else knows the evidence the grand jury considered. More important, the rules of justice employed in a trial are not in effect during a grand jury hearing, which means witnesses are not cross-examined and evidence is not tested the way they are in a trial. Wilson has not been exonerated because he has never been tried. Nor have the claims of the victim's family and the community of Ferguson received a full, fair and open hearing.
Instead of examining the case in the light of day in a public trial, the prosecutor shrank from pressing a case against a white police officer and put the grand jury in the position of judging the case. That is not the function of a grand jury. A grand jury is supposed to determine whether there is probable cause for a trial, and usually it does so after it has been presented evidence by a prosecutor with an interest in prosecuting. Instead of building a case, Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, unloaded a raft of contradictory evidence on the grand jury, for whom, apparently, clear and convincing evidence did not exist.
The result was that justice was not done, and anger boiled over in Ferguson during a night of rioting. Thus, the nation has fallen back into the same two warring camps: African-Americans who see once again that police are allowed to kill blacks with impunity, and whites who believe that Brown had a bad attitude and more or less got what he deserved and that force is the only thing that will keep violent black communities in line. Not pursuing justice at trial allowed this to happen.
Justice does not mean that Wilson would have to be found guilty and thrown in jail for killing Brown. Justice would be the open testing of the facts according to the law. There are conflicting versions of what happened Aug. 9. Brown had been up to some mischief. What was it? There was an encounter between Brown and Wilson — how threatening was it? Did it warrant deadly shots?
On its face, shooting an unarmed person is a mistake. Police officers have ways short of lethal force for controlling threatening subjects, or they should have. Did Wilson panic? These are things we should know. Maybe his actions warrant a manslaughter charge. Who knows? A trial did not happen. That's what trials are supposed to determine.
One commentator noted that people are predisposed to believe certain versions of events. Are you inclined to discount witnesses on the scene Aug. 9 who say Wilson attacked Brown without cause? Is it because those witnesses are black? Are you inclined to believe witnesses who claim Brown had a bad — uppity — attitude? Or are you inclined to believe those who say Wilson was out of line and that Brown had his hands up? One's biases are revealed by examining whom you are likely to believe.
The nation has a history of murdering young black men on the street for what white people believe is a bad attitude. That is history. It is the lived experience of millions of people. White people can discount it or excuse the overreaction of police, but they cannot negate the history, which grows out of the painful, centuries-long experience of slavery and oppression. That doesn't mean that is what happened in Ferguson. We don't know for certain what happened there because the actions of the police officer who killed Michael Brown have not been subjected to a public trial. Thus, we are plunged again into another round of mutual recrimination, replaying our history of racial hostility, instead of seeing the humanity of both sides of the color divide. And the color divide persists.