Ever since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by a white police officer back in August, the people of Ferguson, Missouri have been on edge, waiting to see if they would get justice. On Monday night, the grand jury that had been weighing the case for weeks came to a decision: no indictment, no charges – and the town exploded in rage. Businesses and cars went up in flames, and once again America witnessed the brutal spectacle of militarized police unleashing their arsenal against civilians.
The grand jury proceeding was ludicrously slanted, a rigged system in all its raw and ugly detail. The prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, made an extraordinary decision to not recommend any specific charge, instead dumping thousands of pages of evidence on the jurors and inviting them to figure it out for themselves. The officer who fired the deadly shots, Darren Wilson, was invited to testify in his own defense, which is unheard of for a grand jury; and as if that weren’t enough, the prosecutor helped him out with sympathetic, friendly questions, offering explanations for why his story might have changed and never pressing him to explain the numerous inconsistencies between his testimony and other evidence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Other interviews were equally farcical, like the medical examiner who testified that she didn’t take any photos of Mike Brown’s body lying in the street because “My battery in my camera died“, or the prosecutor who referred to Wilson, not Mike Brown, as “the victim“.
After the grand jury’s decision, McCulloch held a press conference in which he argued for the rightness of the result, sounding more like a lawyer for the defense than the prosecutor he is. Remember, McCulloch was supposed to be trying to get the grand jury to issue charges against someone he wanted to put on trial. Technically, this result means he lost. But you’d never have guessed that from his strutting, triumphal press conference. It’s spectacularly rare for a grand jury not to indict – in 2010, it happened in just 11 out of 162,000 cases – and given the state’s behavior, it’s more than reasonable to conclude that they didn’t get an indictment because they never wanted one.
Last but certainly not least, there’s Darren Wilson himself. On the stand, he claimed that Mike Brown looked like a “demon“, violently attacked and punched him for no reason, told him “You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me“, then suicidally charged him through a hail of bullets. This wildly implausible story invokes the old, enduring racist specter of animalistic, irrationally violent black men.
But this is about much more than just one police officer or one grand jury. Those people are a small part of a much larger legal regime, one seemingly built on the premise that black lives are worthless and disposable, and that officers of the law can kill people of color with impunity (as they’ve done every three or four days between 2006 and 2012, the last year for which data is available). Even if the grand jury had indicted Wilson, McCulloch’s behavior makes it clear that he would have plea-bargained the charges into oblivion.
I don’t condone the riots and violence that happened in Ferguson, regardless of who’s at fault. But I recognize that the people marching there are human beings. It’s obscene to expect them to be peaceful forever, to be patient forever, to bear the weight of every insult and injustice heaped upon them with passivity and meekness. No less a figure than Martin Luther King Jr. said that riots are “the language of the unheard” – the desperate cry of people who’ve been denied all peaceful avenues for redress, whose calls for justice have been met with scorn and hostility at every turn. It’s the response of those who feel that society has failed them so badly that they have nothing left to lose.
The fallout in Ferguson isn’t solely a reaction to Michael Brown’s death. That was the spark, but what’s fueling the conflagration is decades of accumulated frustration and anger at injustice, at oppression and violence under the guise of law. And it’s still happening: Just a few days ago in Cleveland, a twelve-year-old boy was shot to death by a police officer because he was black and was holding a toy gun. Twelve years old!
There’s a fundamental sickness in any society that allows this to happen, not just once, but over and over again. How can anyone’s conscience be so calloused that they can shrug this off as just a fact of the world, not subject to change? What will it take to break down the walls of indifference? How many more deaths will it take?