It is important to me, before beginning this piece, to acknowledge that while I do have strong emotions on the incidents in Ferguson, I cannot in any way comprehend the sorrow or rage of the communities that are haunted and oppressed daily by the violence exemplified by Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown. I do not want to speak out of turn. I do not want to take space from those voices that have historically been silenced. I am still in the process of figuring out how I can function best as an ally and how I can be of help if asked. I cannot simply call myself one of the “good guys” and leave it at that. If I have failed in this, I am deeply sorry. I welcome criticism. I want to hold myself accountable as best I can. I am privileged, and as much as I try to be aware of that, I sometimes fail. I hope I can be of support and learn from my failures.
When it was announced last Monday night that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of Michael Brown, I was horrified. Once again, the murder of a black teenager was mutated into a blameless incident; once again, the American justice system announced itself as unable and unwilling to consider its own history. Monday night was a clear and bitter reminder that Ferguson is not the exception in our nation, but the rule.
So let’s consider the Ferguson grand jury and the basics of the process. A grand jury is not able to provide a conviction, nor does it pursue one. Rather, the role of the grand jury is to decide whether or not the state will choose to pursue a case. An indictment, which is what was denied on Monday, is like the stamp of the people and a way for the prosecution to demonstrate the weight of its case. A grand jury thus does not come to a decision in the same way that a regular jury does. It need not be unanimous. It need only return a supermajority, or two-thirds to three-fourths of the jurors voting in either direction. This points to the first implication of that grand jury decision: not that Darren Wilson was innocent, but that the state of Missouri had no interest in figuring out whether he was or not. To deny an indictment is to decide that the case being presented is unworthy of the state’s time and resources.
How did Ferguson’s grand jury come to this conclusion? It reached its supermajority. There were 12 jurors voting on whether to indict Darren Wilson. Nine of these jurors were white and three were black. There was a built-in racial supermajority to begin with. Ferguson, and the St. Louis area in general, has been subject to some of the most brutal housing discrimination in the nation. In the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Ta-Nehisi Coates explored in the combined forces of white flight and black displacement on racial and economic injustice in the St. Louis area. Housing discrimination is a machine designed to create divides along racial boundaries and has been for decades. This shines a disturbing light on the makeup of that jury. Whether or not we choose to admit it, the makeup of that jury foretold the silencing of black voices and black outrage before deliberation even began.
While some have argued that a number of witnesses corroborated Wilson’s testimony, the fact that there is so much dispute about the course of events screams for trial. Take, for instance, the fact that no photos of the crime scene were taken until much later. Why? Because the Ferguson forensic examiner’s camera battery died (despite her testimony claiming she immediately followed Wilson to the hospital where she photographed his injuries). Or how about the fact that Wilson washed himself clean of blood before any of it could be tested or photos taken to analyze spatter? The fact that information about the case was released so haphazardly and manipulatively should have been evidence enough for further deliberation. Of course, that is not our nation’s narrative. To paraphrase one Twitter user, it does not take 100 hours to decide whether or not something may be a murder. It takes 100 hours to come up with best way to say, against decency, that it isn’t.
Looking to other instances of institutionalized violence against young black men, this picture only becomes sharper. In the extremely rare case that a police officer is indicted for murder, it is even rarer that the officer will be convicted. In the minute chance that the officer is convicted, it is still rarer that the sentence delivered is fair and appropriate. When Oscar Grant was murdered by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day, 2009, the officer claimed to have mistaken his gun for his taser. The jury opted for the least severe conviction carrying a sentence of two to four years in prison. Mehserle was given two years, the minimum, and released after 11 months.
The media shamelessly perpetuated these miscarriages of justice in culture, governance, and language, selecting the words and images that best support pre-existing narratives of African American communities: focusing on the one block of stores looted in Ferguson on the first night of protesting, while ignoring the hordes of peaceful protesters, many among them helping to contain and prevent the damage; preemptively speaking of “riots” instead of protests; and recalling images of the chaos in Los Angeles after Rodney King was senselessly and brutally beaten by an officer. CNN’s Don Lemon seemed so appalled by the smell of marijuana in the air on Monday night during the Ferguson protests. Newscasters played the footage of Michael Brown supposedly stealing a handful of cigarillos from a convenience store, even after the market’s attorney claimed that Brown had nothing to do with the robbery. Darren Wilson claims he was in fear for his life while being assaulted by Michael Brown—he went so far as to compare him to a demon—yet he shot Brown from 148 feet away, a distance which was then misreported as 35 feet by the police department. Wilson even admitted in his own grand jury testimony to shooting Brown as he fled, while 12 of 14 witnesses agreed that his hands were up and ballistics experts testified that this best explained the entry and exit wounds in Brown’s hand and arm, and an absence of gunshot residue defied Wilson’s claim that Brown grabbed his gun, causing it to misfire. Yet this went widely unreported, as did the fact that before Ferguson, Wilson worked on a police force in Jennings, Mo. that was disbanded over charges of corruption and racism. Each of these little narrative tricks and spectacles of linguistic gymnastics both refuse to acknowledge and unequivocally establish that the main crime committed by the black man is his existence as a black man.
As we mourn for Ferguson, for Michael Brown, and for all the young black men who have been ignored, we must understand that what has happened, what continues to happen, is an atrocity and an abomination. We must not trick ourselves into believing that because it is both an atrocity and an abomination, it is somehow rare in America. In America, the National Guard arrived in Ferguson faster than they arrived to the site of Hurricane Katrina. In America, three grown white men can carry assault rifles complete with clips of ammunition into a fast-food restaurant, but Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black child, will be gunned down by a police officer in Cleveland for having the gall to open-carry a BB gun. In America, we pride our legal system on precedent, and, even when we don’t realize it, we enforce that precedent: Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner. In America, we teach our children that slavery was ended by Abraham Lincoln, and racism squashed by Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t teach them that in 1918, and again in 1937, the United States Senate failed to pass two separate anti-lynching bills. When a resolution of apology was passed in 2005, 20 senators did not support it. In America, our police forces leave the bodies of boys to bake in the sun for hours, denying their sanctity in the same way that mobs, cartels, and terrorists do in other nations.
In the end, Ferguson is not about the failure of one grand jury or one police force. It is about the continual failure of America—its structures and citizenry—to do anything from preventing this sort of slaughter from reaching inevitability.