The heartbreaking events of this past spring and summer seemed to amplify each other, almost is if the next were worse than the last. First there was the crisis in Ukraine, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the killing of Michael Brown, ISIS and Ebola. For me personally and perhaps for others, now that some time has passed, it is a little easier to sort fact from fiction in these crises and also look for solutions.
The Michael Brown case was particularly tragic because of what it revealed about police-citizen interactions and problems in the criminal justice system and black communities. Now that the grand jury in St. Louis County has decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson while releasing mounds of testimony and evidence, some of the facts are starting to become clearer. What this calls for more than anything is a thorough federal response from the Justice Department, which is conducting its own investigation, and for wide-scale antipoverty programs to assure that young people of color do not senselessly lose their lives.
There is little doubt that Michael Brown wasn't using his best judgment that day in August, as the video footage of his confrontational robbery before the incident demonstrates. The question of Darren Wilson's possible use of excessive force, however, is separate from the question of Michael Brown's possible confrontational attitude. There is also a wide gulf of believability between physically confronting a store owner and physically confronting a uniformed police officer.
There are questions about the interpretation of facts as well, including whether or not Michael Brown was shot entirely from the front. While Darren Wilson claims Michael Brown charged at him, there are witnesses from out of town who were candidly filmed right after the killing saying that Michael Brown had his hands up in surrender.
There is reason to believe that the prosecutor in the case did not honestly do his job, especially based on his history as a prosecutor. It looks more like he hoped to quell public dissent by preventing the case from going to trial. Of course, this alleged tactic failed and dissent ratcheted up even more when the lack of indictment was announced Monday night, in the form of disappointing rioting. It is a sad statement about this tragic case and other instances of injustice in America that officials so distrust possible public reactions to the truth that they maneuver themselves around the truth in attempts to assuage the public. It should be telling to our politicians that these tactics do not work in the long run.
To me, the solutions to this horrible case are more myriad than the questions. First of all, the truth must be thoroughly investigated and discovered in this case. Police, who by and large do their jobs extraordinarily well, may need additional non-violence training for interacting with people in sensitive situations. For example, George Stephanopoulos asked Darren Wilson why he didn't wait for backup to arrive, and the officer replied it was just his job to pursue Michael Brown.
Additionally, people of all political stripes have to begin to support broad antipoverty programs to address the lives of young people of color. Missouri's Republican Senator Roy Blunt, wrote, "Together, I know we can move forward and heal as we work to find better job opportunities in and more investment for challenged communities." Whether you sympathize with Michael Brown or not, if you're interested in the facts, there is a strong correlation between lack of income and crime that indicates that a lack of funds can have behavior-shaping influences. While you can find some flawed studies questioning this connection, for instance, by studying Scandinavian countries known to have better social harmony, new techniques of meta-analysis show that there is such a link.
As I learned from my social service jobs and internships, so often life on the margins of society is an unforgiving existence. In one of my criminal justice internships, my agency seemed to harshly punish people, locking them up in Cook County Jail, for doing the same kinds of things I was doing. I could get away with it because I am white and privileged. I quit that internship in protest. It is time more people, especially the powerful politicians who can actually effect change for people like Michael Brown, to take it upon themselves to personally make a difference in poor communities.