The growing militarization of the police is one of the greatest challenges we face in this nation at the start of the 21st Century. The fact that police officers roam around, closed off, in their vehicles instead of walking the beat and interacting with the community makes it far easier for an us-vs-them attitude to fester in places where a friendly police presence is most necessary. The frequency with which lethal weapons are drawn is also on the rise, even though less lethal options have never been more numerous. In this context, I understand the frustrations of the people of Ferguson.
|Nothing justifies this in a "free" country|
However, that's as far as my sympathy goes. There is a divide in this country between those who believe racism is rampant in law enforcement and those who believe crime--especially violent crime and drug crime--is higher in low-income, broken-family-riddled communities, which happen to be disproportionately minority by demographics. Lest my recitation of this simple fact be misinterpreted as racism, I also believe that minorities face much higher conviction rates due to the fact that, fair or not, our legal system bends towards the wealthy, and the wealthy are disproportionately white. I am certain that historical institutional racism has brought us to this point, and I am willing to concede that there are some racists today that contribute to it, but on the whole, I believe that the racial divide persists more by cultural divisiveness than abject racism.
In this context, Ferguson is a perfect example. Instead of waiting for facts to be presented, the vast majority of people segregated themselves into two separate camps of true believers: those who were convinced that white police officer Darren Wilson, driven by nothing but sheer racism, gunned down black youth and "gentle giant" Michael Brown in cold blood and without provocation; and those who were convinced that Michael Brown was a punk kid who was shot by a noble police officer who had no other choice. From that point forward, every new fact or bit of information was put through a prism of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. In the final accounting, both of these groups were wrong from the get-go, driven by their own racial preconceptions long before anyone could be reasonably certain what actually happened.
|Darren Wilson: racist murderer, officer hero, or actual human being?|
This divide between self-righteous know-it-alls made it inevitable that one side would be angry at the other, no matter the outcome of future investigations. Thus, the racial tension in this country was made worse, and nothing could reverse it. Even if Darren Wilson had been prosecuted, convicted, and executed in front of the angry mob, the divide would have persisted and grown. The die was cast before Michael Brown's body was even cold, so anyone pretending that one grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer is what really ignited the festering fumes of racial division is fooling themselves.
But let's look at how we got here nonetheless. Normally, in an officer-involved shooting such as this, a prosecutor will look at the facts, determine for himself or herself whether the evidence would pass the reasonable doubt threshold of a trial, and decide whether or not to prosecute on his own. If he or she believes the evidence is enough for a conviction in criminal court, the prosecutor will only then go to a grand jury. Thus, because the evidence threshold in a grand jury (mere probable cause) is much lower than in a criminal court, the vast majority of cases that make it to the grand jury go on to become criminal cases. It is exceptionally rare for grand juries to decide not to prosecute, so on the surface, the decision of the grand jury in the Ferguson case not to prosecute can appear to be extraordinary (and thus racist in its implications).
|Michael Brown: evil street thug, harmless innocent child, or actual human being?|
However, the Ferguson case only went to the grand jury because it had become a national phenomenon. The prosecutor didn't want to be labeled a racist for life by the mobs banging on his door, so he wasn't willing to take on the burden of failing to prosecute by himself, as he normally would. Thus, he sent it to a grand jury, probably already knowing from the evidence he'd seen that the case wouldn't go any further. Unfortunately, this wasn't good enough, because he's still being labeled a racist conspirator by those who have convinced themselves that the grand jury decision can't possibly be based on the evidence.
Is the death of Michael Brown tragic? Unquestionably. But the blame for his death doesn't appear to lie in Officer Wilson's hands, say what you will about the necessity of using lethal force. While there is conflicting eye-witness testimony within the documents that have been released to the public, there is an overwhelming amount of forensic evidence that all points to the narrative that Michael Brown, after committing a petty robbery, assaulted Darren Wilson, attempted to steal his gun, and was killed in self-defense, not cold blood. While I have no evidence to suggest that Officer Wilson is a pillar of his community or isn't a racist, I do think the fact that he was a police officer working in Ferguson points to the fact that this was a man trying to help, not hurt, the people of his city. With a city as disadvantaged as Ferguson, the worst thing you can do is demonize the very people who are trying to protect and serve it.
|Robert McCulloch is a fool if he thinks his words, his record, the grand jury, or the evidence will keep him from being labeled a racist for life|
This is why I see little difference between lashing out at Officer Wilson and taking part in the riots that have turned the city into a smoking pile of rubble, blood, and broken lives. Yes, protest is fine and good--necessary, in fact, for the survival of our republic--but hatred is not. Hatred is the motivation for the riots, and it is the motivation behind most of the protests against the Ferguson police force. When you let your preconceptions fill your mind with anger, indignation, and indescriminate rage, that is the definition of hatred, the very thing the protestors claim to be pushing back against. It is this toxic atmosphere of hate in which thousands of young people are raised that is to blame for Michael Brown's death, not the actions of a trigger-happy, racist cop.
Again, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the nature of law enforcement in modern America, the use of deadly force, and the racial tensions that have quite literally exploded in our streets. This, though, does not give anyone the right to convict a man before the evidence has been presented, nor does it give people the right to make baseless accusations of institutional racism. It certainly doesn't give anyone the right to lash out at the police in one of the places they're needed the most, nor does it give anyone the right to burn their own community to the ground. Please, for all our sakes, let's have a calm, rational discussion that is supported by facts, not a prejudiced emotional tirade that can't be reasoned with.
-e. magill 12/1/2014