Ferguson Decision: A Foregone Conclusion Three Months Ago

St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announces the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren
St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announces the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo. (Cristina Fletes-Boutte/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS via Getty Images)

The decision not to prosecute Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown was clear to every criminal lawyer over three months ago, when Saint Louis County's chief prosecutor turned the matter over to a grand jury.

His department had the power to file charges and bring the case to trial, but prosecutors defer to grand juries when they want to pass the buck for a controversial decision. The tactic also can be used to delay the process, in the hopes that public attention will die down by the time a decision is released. You can be sure that, when people are arrested for killing officers, or even for "routine" homicides, their cases are not turned over to grand juries, and it does not take 100 days to file charges.

Thus it is no surprise to see these comments from attorney Vince Warren, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in Democracy Now!'s predictably excellent coverage of the grand jury's decision and its meaning.

[T]hey did release some of the transcripts yesterday. . . .The prosecutors are framing the evidence. . . . It was almost as if in that grand jury process looking to charge Darren Wilson, that they were really charging Mike Brown. . . . [T]he prosecutors were setting up the sense of fear . . ., to play into the defense of Darren Wilson, that he acted reasonably out of fear for his life, . . . and pursuant to the law. . . . Mike Brown's side of the story never gets told.

Ferguson: The Rule Not the Exception

The result was also predictable, I am sure, by most people of color, because they know that these cases are almost never prosecuted. The Ferguson P.D.'s over-the-top racism explains why protests reached a level not seen since 1968. It is not, however, needed to explain the Mike Brown shooting or the official response. When, in 2012, I first wrote about the long-standing epidemic of unjustified police killings of unarmed people of color, I was shocked to find that no data were kept on the extent of the problem. (Subsequent studies by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement documented the fact that a black person is killed every 28 hours, mostly by police, but also by security guards and "self-appointed law enforcers." There are still no figures on non-fatal shootings or killings of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans.)

The federal government tracks statistical data on everything it could conceivably care about. The failure to collect statistics on police shootings means far more than Eric Holder's rhetoric does.

In fact, lethal force is condoned, if not encouraged, by typical policing policies. In September, when former Kansas City police chief Joseph McNamara died, I wrote the beginnings of a piece titled "A Missouri Cop Who'd Have Been Appalled at Ferguson." McNamara once told the L.A. Times that, while a patrol officer in Harlem, he had been in 150 situations where department policy would have justified his firing on a suspect, but he had never done so. Given the trajectory of his career (he also headed San Jose's department), he was obviously an effective cop nonetheless. The Times reported,

On McNamara's ninth day on the job, a Kansas City policeman shot and killed a 14-year-old black fleeing a burglary. McNamara attended the boy's funeral and issued a directive that police could shoot only when a suspect endangered others' lives.

And, as I explained in my 2012 piece, there are plenty of additional means to enable officers, the vast majority of whom are well meaning, to do their jobs without causing unnecessary harm.

If we are white, we should imagine what this feels like. Most members of another race view us with something between mild, unconscious and extreme and overt suspicion, guilt, fear, and anger. Heavily-armed police, mostly from that culture, patrol our communities. While it varies from place to place, in general enough of them are in the moderate-to-serious range on the bias scale to create this style of policing: a domineering, aggressive mode of enforcing the "respect" they think they need to maintain control. Some are scared or angry enough that they too often see threats where there are no threats, and bully us, beat us, cuff us or -- now and again -- shoot us.

Then an "investigation" happens. The killing is always found justified. If we protest enough so that a different result seems possible, hundreds of thousands of dollars flow to defend the cop. Hardly anyone seems to care about us, about our children. Our hearts ache with pain and helplessness.
I am a fervent believer in nonviolence, and I spent the last 10 days in a retreat largely focusing on bringing love to every situation we encounter. What is the loving response to norms that make the McNamaras the rare exception, not the epitome of official values? Amy Goodman quoted Martin Luther King:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

Valuing Human Life?

I can't leave this topic without also noting another story reported by Democracy Now! the same day as its initial coverage of the Ferguson grand jury protests.

[T]he group Reprieve found that [drone] strikes targeting 41 people in Yemen and Pakistan have killed more than 1,000 other, unnamed people. The 41 targets have been reported killed as many as six times each. In its attempts to kill al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri alone, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults. Al-Zawahiri remains alive.

When I was young, our national leaders justified napalming whole Vietnamese villages by asserting that Asians didn't put the same value on human lives as we do, because they believe in reincarnation and because there is less emphasis on the individual in their societies. Yeah, we really value human life. Maybe if it appears in white skin (and comes from an economic class that isn't drawn to military service).


Followup pieces to the 2012 article mentioned above, explaining why the powers that be do not create use-of-force policies and training that would protect civilians, and what it will probably take to change that (hint: making us the powers that be), appeared here and here, respectively.

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