We often hear about the cultural bubbles that we build for ourselves online, but, for better or for worse, I’ve never managed to insulate myself from the opinions of those I disagree very strongly with. Ferguson has been no exception. I thought it might be worth the effort to lay out, in detail, my own opinions and observations here on my blog. This is a bit difficult because, for the most part, I would much rather promote the voices of others on this issue, particularly those voices coming out of Ferguson, but I also think that there are people that I can reach by writing about it myself. It’s worth noting at the top, then, that I am a white, upper middle class woman who has never had any trouble with the police and never thought twice about calling the police when I was in trouble myself. But that’s who I’d like to talk to right now, white people who aren’t afraid of the police, because I think we’re the ones who aren’t getting why people are burning buildings and cars in their own city in frustration.
I have some quibbles and questions about who exactly is burning things down, but let us assume for the sake of this discussion it is in fact residents of Ferguson behaving destructively and looting and so on and not, as rumored, militant anti-protester groups, out-of-towners, anarchists, or the KKK.
Forget, for a moment, what you know about Ferguson. I want to talk about anger and despair. When is the last time you got angry? Really, really angry? That you felt unjustly treated, that someone got something that should have been yours? You were robbed, you were violated, you were cheated, you were mistreated, powerless to control the world around you. Have you ever been so mad that you screamed? Threw something? Punched a wall? Got in a fight? The last time I got angry, really properly angry like that, it was because someone had lied to me. I was so angry I wanted to hurt something, wanted something else to hurt so I didn’t have to. I had no power to change what had happened. Despair and anger and powerlessness together are destructive — usually self-destructive.
Feel the anger, feel the despair.
Now, perhaps you want to protest, the people of Ferguson have nothing to be angry about. There was a fair trial. If people break the law, there are consequences. The people of Ferguson have a lot to be angry about, and so do a lot of people in this country — there is a reason that protests broke out nationwide. The “trial” was not a trial, and it was not fair, by any meaningful definition of the term. Finally, yes, there are consequences to breaking the law, but there should be consequences for abusing your position as The Law to subjugate others.
Walk through this with me.
1. The Law of Ferguson, MO, is Abusive
It’s easy to see how a community would be angry over the treatment of Mike Brown. Whatever was discovered afterwards, a teenage boy who witnesses said was surrendering was gunned down in the street in the middle of the day and left out, uncovered for nearly an hour. His body was left in the street for hours after that, while his parents screamed and cried. It would take a very strong community relationship with the police to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even before the military gear and tear gas and armored vehicles were rolled out, it was clear that there was no love lost between the community of Ferguson and their police.
From Newsweek, emphasis mine:
“Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of 2,635,400,” according to the ArchCity Defenders report. And in 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases, “or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”
The paper points out that in Ferguson, 86 percent of vehicle stops “involved a black motorist, although blacks make up just 67 percent of the population.” In addition, blacks stopped in Ferguson “are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1 percent versus 6.9 percent) and twice as likely to be arrested (10.4 percent versus 5.2 percent)”. Searches of blacks only results in discovery of contraband 21.7 percent of the time, whereas contraband is recovered from their less frequently stopped white counterparts 34.0 percent of the time.
The police of Ferguson: 94% white. Policing a town that is 2/3rds black. And doing so in a corrupt manner meant to raise money from the poor by fining them repeatedly for low-level infractions and harassing them constantly. The police here are the Sheriff of Nottingham and there is no Robin Hood, just a bunch of really downtrodden people trying to make their way through the world.
Mike Brown was merely the most egregious recent bad thing. It should be noted that for the hours that Mike Brown was in the street the police didn’t even take pictures of the crime scene because their camera was out of batteries and, apparently, no one had a phone or the ability to borrow a phone or anything like that, but they did manage to take a camera to the hospital with Wilson to get pictures of his red cheeks. They also let Wilson go back to the station and wash his hands and gun. Just actively bad police work.
In Darren Wilson’s own words about the town he polices, to get a sense of the love lost between the two:
There’s a lot of gangs that reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity; it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police.
And this is still going on. The protesters are still being mistreated terribly. People are being arrested illegally without consequences to the arresting officers. Dangerous weapons are being used on protesters rather than against people who are starting fires or looting. The Brown’s church was burnt down, rumors of KKK involvement. The KKK is definitely involved in local activity. Others have been shot by police in the St. Louis area since Mike Brown was killed. And none of this addresses the fundamental problem of a police force that neither represents the city it is policing nor treats it with any kind of respect. Law enforcement can only work when people have faith in the law.
Feel the anger.
2. The System is Fundamentally Broken Everywhere
Here is a link to a video of a 12 year old boy, Tamir Rice, being shot and killed in the right to carry state of Ohio for holding a pellet gun. He was killed 2 seconds after police exited their vehicle.
Here is a link to a video of police strangling a man, Eric Garner, to death.
Here is a link to a video of a South Carolina policeman shooting a man, Levar Jones, for reaching for his wallet to get his ID. Jones survived.
Here is a link to a video of St. Louis police killing Kajieme Powell, four miles from Ferguson (with analysis).
Here is a link to a video of a man shopping in a Wal-Mart, John Crawford III, right before he was shot and killed by police.
And those are just links to videos of people who’ve been shot by American police since July that I know of online off the top of my head. InnocentDown.org has more of a list. It’s something like 400 people a year.
But it’s not just that people are shot or killed when they have no weapons or legal weapons or toy weapons by jumpy cops. That’s really bad, of course, but that’s not the only thing that’s wrong with the system.
Let me take you on a bit of a tangent. I’ve been listening to this podcast, Serial, and maybe you’ve heard about it. It’s about a murder case from 1999 in which a guy, Adnon Syed, got put in jail for life for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, based on the testimony from another guy, Jay Wilds, who claimed to be an accessory after the fact. There was no hard evidence linking Adnon to the murder and no clear motive, but he also lacked a solid alibi. Jay’s story changed frequently and his story’s timeline didn’t match up with all the evidence. Despite this, Adnon went to prison and Jay, the guy who confessed to helping with the crime, got no time in jail at all. The state completely failed to prosecute Adnon with a plausible story of how the murder happened based on the facts of the crime, but despite this, Adnon is in prison. And there’s no way of knowing whether Adnon did it or not and which parts of which of Jay’s stories are true.
A lot of people are listening to Serial hoping to find out whether Adnon did it, but that’s not what Serial is about. It’s not a meditation on the nature of truth, either, though it makes important points about how hard it is to get at the truth after an event unless it is recorded on film — and even film is imperfect. It’s a meditation on the nature of the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system in America is incredibly flawed.
Adnon was convicted with information that was demonstrably false by lazy prosecutors more interested in a conviction than in the truth. Because a conviction is more useful to the prosecution than the truth — especially if they believe that the truth is that Adnon did it and it doesn’t matter how. Journalists care about truth, prosecutors care about cases, the state cares about keeping people in prison. How true is this? There is another person mentioned in one of the episodes, a guy named Justin Wolfe. Justin Wolfe was put in prison, on death row, based on the testimony of someone who said Wolfe hired a hitman to commit a murder. This testimony was entirely false and the person immediately recanted, saying the prosecutors forced him to say it. A Federal Judge was told this and vacated Justin’s convictions and sentences, removing him from death row, because it was grotesque misbehavior on the part of the prosecutors. But Justin was not removed from prison. He’s still in prison, facing newly conceived charges and not being allowed to leave until they are tried. It is unbelievable.
The system is fundamentally broken. We put people in prison for the wrong reasons. We put people in prison for too long. We put people into corrupt prison systems. We put people into prison systems that are meant to make a profit, not to rehabilitate the prisoners. We use corrupt systems of justice to send people to prison in the first place — systems with opportunities to be corrupted by politics, racism, sexism, cronyism, nepotism, and bad law at every stage of the game. Systems that are rife with human error based on things like whether people have eaten recently enough.
We arrest people (black people more) for harmless things like smoking a joint and then create mandatory minimums so they have to go to jail for extremely long periods of time for minor things and then states can take away their right to vote. The system is designed to prey on poor people, on people of color, and on people who are already disenfranchised. People are put in the system young and stay in the system.
Feel the despair.
3. It should never have been Bob McCulloch
There are a lot of reasons it looks bad for Bob McCulloch to be the man who took this case. His father was a policeman who was killed in the line, he’s white, he’s associated with the police group that was supposedly benefiting from the fundraising in the name of Darren Wilson, and he’s never indicted a policeman. These are, you might say, merely circumstantial, but they don’t start us off on the right foot with McCulloch. I actually don’t have a problem with any of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if its the background you find for most prosecutors.
The real problem is McCulloch’s day job.
Prosecuting a police officer is a nightmare unless the officer did something so clearly egregious that the rest of the police community has turned against him. And egregious in the eyes of police officers is not always the same as egregious in the eyes of everyone else. It’s not just that you have to prosecute them and the police aren’t going to like you, it’s that you are the prosecutor and you work with the police all the time. That group that’s not actually making any money from the fundraising in the name of Darren Wilson — it’s still a group that’s dedicated to the police. Because McCulloch knows who he works with, and it’s not the protesters on the streets of Ferguson. His every day life has a much better chance of going back to normal if he doesn’t indict on what is, from his perspective, an unwinnable case. Police just don’t go to prison for this — McCulloch knows that. He held the grand jury because he knew it would cause more anger if he didn’t, not because he thought that there was a chance of indictment, even though Mike Brown was shot when he was no longer a threat, if he ever had been.
The reality is also that McCulloch is an elected official and this is a political disaster. The case should have been given to an outsider. It would have given him some protection and given the grand jury a shot at impartiality. It should be noted that this never happens, it’s not really how the system works, and it’s a large part of the reason why police are almost never held accountable for their actions.
Feel the anger.
4. The Grand Jury was not a Fair Trial
I have seen a lot of people make the claim that both sides got a fair hearing at the grand jury and this was just as good as a trial, so no one should be angry about the results.
- The grand jury was used as a political dodge by McCulloch, not as a grand jury
- The grand jury was used in a way unlike any other grand jury held in the history of grand juries to create a special treatment just for Darren Wilson
- The grand jury lacked an adversarial courtroom
- The grand jury was full of bias and mistakes
There is an argument to be made that all grand juries should be held the way this one was, with evidence for and against the accused presented. That said, that is simply not the way grand juries are used in this country. A private law (privilege) was created for one man that no one else gets all because McCulloch wanted to dodge a political inconvenience.
The way a grand jury normally works is that the prosecutor presents the strongest argument they have as to why this needs to go to trial and what they want to charge the defendant with. It usually lasts a few minutes. Fortunately, McCulloch released the documents so we can actually see how the grand jury went — and it is revealing to see the ways in which it was very much not a trial. The goal of a trial is to get at the truth, the goal of the grand jury was to make sure that Wilson never got charged by obfuscating rather than clarifying.
The biggest way that it failed to clarify was in lacking an adversarial courtroom — there was no cross examination of the witnesses, including Wilson. There were things in Wilson’s testimony that warranted questioning, including changes in his story from the first time he told it to the the courtroom version. And disparities between his story and Dorian Johnson’s. Both of them should have been grilled to get the facts straight — because this now isn’t going to an actual trial, there is not going to be an opportunity to get at the real truth of the thing. Throwing this meant throwing out our best chance at the truth.
Questions for Wilson: If you were being hit so hard, why don’t you appear to be injured? How do you define a charge — you say he took a step and you say he was running and you say he was about to run, could you please be very specific about what happened and when you started shooting? We have audio of the shooting, could you please tell me what he was doing during these shots? You keep mentioning that he was reaching for his waistband, but you say you didn’t think about whether he had a weapon, why did you note he was reaching for his waistband? You’re a big guy, why did you feel he was so much bigger than you, the disparity isn’t that great? You compare Mike to a demon, do you believe in demons? You talk about the people in this community not liking police, why do you think that is? How do you feel that hostility mattered in this incident? In your first version of this event, you don’t mention the cigarillos, why are they in your current testimony? Do you know the punishment for stealing cigarillos?
There’s nothing like this. It reads like questioning from a defense attorney. It’s incredible. How incredible? After getting his name and such, the questioning opens with the prosecutor asking Wilson about how he saved a baby the morning before he killed Mike Brown. Totally irrelevant to the facts of the case, and overstating Wilson’s role. Wilson answered a call for a baby with a fever. And the prosecutor makes sure to bring it up as the initial thing to frame who Wilson is. Just as an example of bias in this fair trail.
Another example of bias? Before Darren Wilson testified, the prosecutor handed out a use of force law that’s been unconstitutional since 1985 — this law said that as soon as a suspect ran, it was OK to shoot them. The grand jury had that illegal statute for months before the prosecutor corrected it and, when they did correct it, they didn’t explain what was wrong with it, just handed them a print out. Yeah.
Feel the despair.
5. Darren Wilson’s Testimony shows the Danger of Racism
That is somewhat awkward phrasing, but I wanted to avoid saying “Darren Wilson is racist and that’s why Mike Brown is dead,” because I don’t know that it’s a helpful thing to say. But I will say this, Darren Wilson says some transparently racist things about Mike Brown in his testimony.
It’s also worth noting that Darren Wilson worked for a police force that was disbanded for being completely dysfunctional, basically because they were racist and dependent on excessive force, before he joined the Ferguson PD.
Wilson described Mike Brown as an “it,” as a “demon,” and as the “Hulk Hogan” to 6’4″ Darren Wilson’s five-year-old self. He claimed that Brown “bulked up” with every shot that hit him. “I’ve never seen that. I mean, it was very aggravated, … aggressive, hostile… You could tell he was looking through you. There was nothing he was seeing.”
These myths and stereotypes all played into what is likely fairly close to what Wilson believes really happened. That he faced some superhuman black man that grew stronger with each bullet. This kind of thinking isn’t dangerous just because it’s a bad way to think about and relate to other people on a human level but because in these situations when people are making snap judgments, they fall back on things that are so grotesquely untrue that we can end up shooting and killing someone who is no threat because we think that black people are super powered demons, not really human at all.
Wilson did fear for his life, but not because his life was in danger. He feared for his life because he believed that black men are inherently dangerous, capable of killing so easily that Wilson wouldn’t have been able to dodge an injured, unarmed man stumbling in his direction. And he wouldn’t ever get convicted because a jury with white people on it would imagine a big black man and think, yeah, I would have been afraid for my life too.
Why are they burning their city down? What are they supposed to do? When the world is this unfair and there is no recourse, no justice, and no hope, what the hell are they supposed to do?
9 thoughts on “Ferguson: 5 Points We Need to Understand”
Great post. One small quibble: other witnesses were cross-examined. Witnesses who didn’t corroborate Wilson’s story were aggressively cross-examined by the prosecutors (!).
The problem there being, of course, that there was no defense to be the other side of the examination. So it was still just one-sided.
Very well parsed. I have 2 additional thoughts for consideration –
1) The media has overwhelmingly recounted Wilson’s versions of events without giving equal space to Johnson’s testimony, cementing in many minds that Wilson’s account is factual.
2) Despite the accusations of race baiting, if I begin to discuss this case without regard to race, the other party almost inevitably brings it up. And then expects me to believe that racism does not exist. I’m adding your article to my Ferguson links.
[…] Ferguson: 5 Points We Need to Understand […]
The erasure of Dorian Johnson by the media has been really disturbing and surprising to me. His testimony has got to be as reliable as Wilson’s, especially as he’s got far less reason to lie. Ezra Klein has some good coverage, but that’s all I’ve seen: http://www.vox.com/2014/11/25/7287443/dorian-johnson-story
Chris Hayes interviewed Dorian Johnson on his MSNBC show last week. That’s the only place I’ve seen him.
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You wrote that Michael Brown had little size advantage over Darren Wilson due to his height!? Do you not consider 82 pounds to be a sizable difference between two people!?
And maybe Darren Wilson was afraid of Mike Brown because black men in this country commit 52% of the homicides, despite being roughly 7% of the population. And maybe the fact that black men are 4 times more likely to commit felonies such as rape, robberies and assaults might have something to do with the reason that police officers are sometimes weary and afraid of young black men. ( These statistics are easily googled from the Bureau of Justice and from the FBI, which is where I got them)
And the physical evidence at the scene supports Darren Wilsons account of this tragic encounter. The blood evidence from Michael Brown and the shell casings from Wilsons gun support the two eyewitness who stated that Michael Brown charged Officer Wilson. “Charged” is the word that they used in their descriptions. And yes, other witnesses had different accounts. Accounts that disagreed with each other in numerous details. But the physical evidence at the scene contradicts their testimony while supporting Wilsons.
And you seem to think that because Darren Wilson didn’t have savage injuries to his face then his assault was minor. Nonsense. Wilson had bruising and swelling that certainly seems consistent with a physical altercation. And if the person who is assaulting you happens to outweigh you by 80+ pounds!, then you’re probably going to feel threatened. And the testimony from the first officer to arrive on the scene after the shooting confirmed that Darren Wilson’s face was bruised and starting to swell.
There are no doubt unjustified shootings by police officers in this country every year. And that is certainly a cause for concern and should be investigated.
But the shooting of Michael Brown is NOT one of those stories.
Michael Brown robbed a store, assaulted a police officer (a felony), and disregarded commands from said officer while moving in his direction.
Michael Brown is a good role model:
This. It’s a known fact that racial prejudice causes a severely warped perception of reality. To the degree that you’ve absorbed racist ideas, to that degree you will be unable to clearly perceive reality.
Example from White Fragility:
It’s not limited to racism, either. The same kind of perceptual distortions can be seem with regards to gender: Effects of gender and group size on perceived group variability.
It’s almost as if our brains twist our perceptions to fit what we expect to see. In fact that’s probably exactly what is happening.