Ferguson: Race and the Law
The investigation into now-former police officer Darren Wilson, accused of shooting unarmed black teenager Michael Brown this past summer, was indeed a high-profile event not only for members of America’s black community but for millions across the nation. What happened next seems like it almost came out of To Kill A Mockingbird: on Monday November 24, the Missouri grand jury shocked the nation by deciding not to indict—to formally accuse of a crime—the police officer for his actions. Beyond exacerbating existing hostilities between the black and law enforcement communities, originally formed during slavery and the civil rights movement and sustained by the regular monitoring and policing of black people in urban settings, it is to be noted that grand juries almost always decide to indict. Other atrocities that occurred after the shooting and during the investigation include leaving Brown’s body out for several hours, not writing down testimony from law enforcement on the scene, and lack of clarity regarding the events after the shooting.
The point here, however, is that this event did not take place in a sleepy Southern town in a fictional novel. This did not take place during an instance of civil disobedience in the 1960s. This occurred on a warm summer day in 2014, six years after electing the country’s first black president, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps the realization – or simple reminder – that the murder of African-Americans can go unpunished in America is what shocked people the most. W.E.B. Du Bois’s immortal words “the system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect” come to mind.
Amidst chants of “hands up, don’t shoot!” and “this is what democracy looks like!” and among images of police in riot gear and facing protestors while in tanks, many Americans complain about black rage in the face of alleged racial progress. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani did no one any favors by citing black crime statistics, stating that the need for white police officers in areas heavily concentrated with blacks stemmed from black-on-black violence. While the statistics on black-on-black crime are alarming, Giuliani has uncovered other more serious problems within American society: socioeconomic and geographic segregation in neighborhoods, and the lack of police officers of color in predominantly black areas. Other notable conservative commentators have said that this is not a race issue, without realizing the brutalized history the African American community has with the police. It is in statements like these when race relations in American are invalidated and ignored.
In terms of the actual court proceedings of the grand jury, some experts have said that it is difficult to find a probable cause for Wilson to have shot Michael Brown, and that even if he was indicted, getting a conviction would have been difficult, if not impossible. This reading of the case stems from the fact that jurors found that witnesses were unsure what Michael Brown was doing with his hands when he raised them either to allegedly surrender or assault Wilson, and many of those same witnesses offered conflicting and even self-contradictory accounts of the nature of the interaction between Brown and Wilson. These questions may complicate the way people think about the case, but racial power asymmetry cannot be denied. In a country where 60% of people stopped at traffic lights by police are black males, it is difficult to expect the legal system to work objectively for racial minorities who are otherwise subjected to extreme levels of discrimination.
I stand with Michael Brown’s family and his supporters. I mourn his loss and mourn the justice that his family and friends will never receive. It is difficult to disassociate race relations and the inner workings of the legal system, and for that reason, anger rages on in Ferguson and across the United States.
- Anjana Sreedhar