The officer shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August has rallied Americans to their camps: The pro-Officer Darren Wilson vs. pro-unarmed black teenager.
In the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer, each side is now digging in their heels. It’s personal, it’s visceral and now it appears to be personality driven.
This is not a “both sides do it” essay explaining how everyone is equally responsible and reprehensible. There are two sides talking past each other, both with some valid points (both with regrettable choices).
First off, we have to go by the evidence. I say this to JFK conspiracy proponents and the Benghazi mouth-frothers: Even when it feels wrong, feelings can’t be facts. No one wants to live in a world where that’s the case.
The evidence, in this instance, the autopsy and the video footage in the convenience store all lend credibility to Officer Wilson’s account. It appears Brown was having a bad day. A kid with no previous record, on his way to college, decided it was a good idea to snatch some cigarillos from a store and then intimidate the clerk before leaving. This is all on video.
Then according to accounts he was walking in the middle of the street. Why would you do that? Because you’re waiting for someone to tell you to move. It’s aggressive posturing young men sometimes display. Unfortunately, Officer Wilson took the bait.
Do I think Brown’s death is justified because he was walking in the wrong place with the wrong attitude? Of course not. He was a human, not an animal and certainly not a demon. Am I a police apologist? No. Please keep reading.
The grand jury didn’t indict. Which is all too typical when it comes to police shootings. The autopsy report said Brown was shot six times, some at close range. The officer admittedly didn’t have a taser and decided to use deadly force against an attack. There are pictures of what appears to be minor injuries to the officer corroborating his account of the events. There’s Brown’s DNA inside the police car, consistent with Wilson’s testimony.
So the question is why is this not satisfying? Why is it not justice? Why does having the first black attorney general and America’s first black president essentially being on the side of the officer not make the protests cease?
As I’ve written about before Americans have gotten really good at punishing casual racism (i.e. notables dropping the N-word and losing their social standing) but are often blind or even unwilling to accept the idea of institutionalized racism. The best example is Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was ostracized for telling his mistress not to be photographed with black people but back when the Justice Department fined him for refusing to rent to African Americans in Beverly Hills, he was still held in esteem and able to own a basketball team. Saying racists things? Outrageous!!! Doing racists things? Bupkis.
Ferguson, Missouri is two-thirds black and its government is 94 percent white, plus the town relies on court fees to provide a quarter of their operating budget. In practice this policy means a nearly all-white police force is incentivized to ticket the majority black population. This is a common practice now so municipalities don’t have to raise taxes; they can just monetize misdemeanors. It means poor people are a revenue source for those trusted to protect and serve. It’s a recipe for resentment. This harassment by police coupled with lack of representation is understandably infuriating. That along with 14 other “officer-involved fatal shootings” by St. Louis area cops in the last decade only adds to the fire.
There’s a tendency among those unwilling to accept the idea of institutionalized racism to err on the side of the law and believe police wouldn’t be stopping and arresting black people if they weren’t committing crimes. When you’re in handcuffs everyone looks guilty. It’s dismissed as a simple equation: You’re in trouble with the law because you broke the law. There’s a bias against being innocent before proven guilty when one looks guilty. They have to support (and at times blindly) the officer because he’s now is a symbol of Law and Order. Wilson is their false idol of the system working.
Then there are the Brown supporters, who claim Wilson didn’t seen him as a person, yet they also view him as a compilation, a representation of a collective experience of black men in America where one in three will go to prison in their lifetime. Where, according to ProPublica, they are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. In trying to get away from victim blaming they’ve gone to the other extreme of victim canonizing. To them, Brown is a symbol of the system being rigged, biased and corrupt.
That’s who was lying dead on the street for hours on that bright August day: Human dignity, fairness and equality in the eyes of the law.
None of this deifying will fix the systematic failures uncovered by Michael Brown’s violent end. The debate is reduced to if Wilson is a lying Klansman or if Brown was a violent thug. Both miss the point.
There’s a federal investigation into alleged civil rights violations in Ferguson. If it’ll resolve the rage remains to be seen. One problem is the law. In 1989, the Supreme Court—during the height of the crack epidemic—set the standard of “objectively reasonable” when it comes to use of force. Police officers have what appears to be carte blanche due to the demands of their work. It was hard to get an indictment of Wilson because the law basically says if you have a badge and a reasonable fear—you’re not criminally liable. Most of these shootings are dismissed by internal investigations and on some level that has to be going through the minds of officers: They have immunity. If Wilson didn’t, would he have just let Brown walk home?
The other is police with militarized weapons sans military purposes. When the protests first started in the summer, the whole nation gasped as a small town of 21,000 residents were occupied by a well-stocked militia. “They are equipped with Kevlar helmets, assault-friendly gas masks, combat gloves and knee pads (all four of them), woodland Marine Pattern utility trousers, tactical body armor vests, about 120 to 180 rounds for each shooter,” writes former Marine Lyle Jeremy Rubin. “Semiautomatic pistols attached to their thighs, disposable handcuff restraints hanging from their vests, close-quarter-battle receivers for their M4 carbine rifles and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights.” Along with Bearcats, K-9s and helicopters. These were their local police.
We’ve entrusted our police departments with far too much firepower and made them into metropolitan revenue producers instead of patrolmen. Also we have yet to wrap our collective heads around what institutional racism looks like, let alone how to resolve it.
And if there’s any take way from the events in Ferguson, it’s that institutionalized racism is clearly unresolved.
And the evidence clearly supports that.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue