For many in the media, the Ferguson grand jury’s decision was going to confirm the existence of deep American injustice one way or another. If it found there was insufficient evidence for an indictment against Darren Wilson, it would mean that the American justice system was corrupt, unjust, and rife with racism. If the grand jury decided to move forward with an indictment, it could only mean that American law enforcement was corrupt, unjust, and rife with racism.
Even if many of your grievances are legitimate, “justice” doesn’t exist to soothe your anger. In the end, there wasn’t probable cause to file charges against Wilson. And after all the intense coverage and build-up the predictable happened. Even taking a cursory look at the grand jury evidence, the details of Brown’s death were far more complex than what we heard when the incident first broke over the summer. Lawyers will, no doubt, analyze every morsel of evidence in the coming days. But if Wilson’s testimony is corroborated by forensic evidence, and much of it seems to be, it seems unlikely that any jury would be able to convict him.
That doesn’t mean that many of black America’s concerns about these kinds of incidents aren’t genuine. It doesn’t mean that police departments like the one in Ferguson aren’t a major problem. It only means that this incident should be judged on the evidence, not the politics or the past or what goes on elsewhere.
No person should be shot by authorities for stealing some cigars. Too often cops in this country use excessive force rather than prudently avoid violence. Just the other day, a 12-year old boy playing with a BB gun was shot dead in Cleveland. (Check in with Radley Balko to learn more about the extent of the problem.) We have a need for criminal justice reform and law enforcement reform. After reading through the grand jury testimony in the Wilson case, it’s obvious there far more egregious cases that deserve the attention.
But according to his grand jury testimony, Brown hit Wilson ten times while the he was in his police car. He had punched Wilson twice in the face and was coming for more.
Wilson asked Brown to get down. Witnesses saw Brown charge the police officer. Brown also reached for the cop’s gun.
In this case, a number of witnesses paraded out by the media had never actually seen Brown’s death and simply repeated what they heard elsewhere. Namely, that Brown was shot in cold blood from afar. Those stories became part of a narrative—repeated even after the report was released—that was almost certainly believed by many of those protesting in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country.
Here’s Syreeta McFadden in The Guardian:
Ferguson is indeed a microcosm – of the all the narratives about race and America that we fear and suppress. Still: it is not enough to say that, yes, of course the promise of justice – the promise of America, of democracy – has failed its black citizens, again. It doesn’t make the disappointment any less disappointing, nor the rage any less real. But it doesn’t make the moment any less mighty either.
Cramming all those problems into one microcosmic event has had tragic consequences. Of course, plenty has happened since Brown was killed that has been disconcerting. Watching a militarized police treat African-American neighborhoods as if they were war zones is troubling. Watching cops unable to deal with rioters—most of whom probably do not care about Michael Brown—and protect private property, even when they do have a militarized police force, is distressing. All of this continues to fuel more anger and frustration.
For the sake of argument, let’s concede that prosecutors punted and allowed Wilson to walk because they were either racist or incompetent or terrified. Let’s concede that the grand jury capitulated to the will of the prosecutor. Even if that were all the case, we still don’t have an out-of-control cop callously gunning down an innocent, defenseless black man. This does happen in the United States far too often, and all too often there is no indictment. But there is no proof that racism played a role in this shooting. Unless all scientific evidence in the case is debunked, and unless new evidence emerges, it’s fair to say that Brown was an aggressor and, at the very least, put himself in a perilous position. So indicting Wilson to soothe the anger of community would not be just. It would be the opposite.