Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Political Mayhem Wednesday (since tomorrow is Thanksgiving)

Yesterday, a number of students came into my office to ask what I thought of the decision of the grand jury in Missouri regarding the possible charges against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.  The grand jury, as we all know, declined to bring an indictment against Wilson for shooting Michael Brown.

Here are a few of my thoughts:

1) Some commentators have said that the proceeding was "unusual." That's true, relative to most grand jury proceedings.  Most of the time, a prosecutor goes in with the goal of getting an indictment on a specific charge or set of charges.  She presents evidence, and then asks for a true bill (that is, an indictment).  That did not happen here, because the prosecutor apparently took no position on whether a true bill should issue or not.   That's unusual relative to most other grand jury proceedings, but it is NOT unusual in politically-charged cases where the prosecutor is not strongly invested in an indictment.  It is pretty typical, in situations like this, for a prosecutor to avoid making the charging decision by leaving it to the grand jury.

2)  However, that doesn't mean that the prosecutor doesn't expect a negative outcome.  By not seeking an indictment, the prosecutor sends a strong signal, in fact.  Think about it from the perspective of the grand jury:  for week after week, month after month, prosecutors come in with sharp, focused presentations that clearly seek an indictment.  Then, after all that, a prosecutor comes in and just presents some mixed evidence and doesn't take a position.  Of course that sends a message!

3)  I still don't know what happened between Brown and Wilson.  I can't opine on that exchange.  Neither do most of the people who have spoken sharply and conclusively about it, on both sides.

4)  As a symbol, Ferguson represents something we all do know, though. It is this: there is racism in our society.  Blacks are not treated the same way as whites by the police in some (maybe most) places.  We can't pretend that we have gotten beyond race, because it just isn't true.

It appears there were other unusual things about this case before the grand jury, including the officer having four hours of testimony, mostly unchallenged by questioning, before the panel. Extremely unusual and evidently biasing.
The fact of the matter is that throwing Officer Darren Wilson in jail will not solve the racial rift at the bottom of all this, just as throwing Officer Darren Wilson in jail will not bring closure to anyone but perhaps Michael Browns' parents. The national outrage and ensuing discourse surrounding the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin's death did not stop Officer Darren Wilson from pulling the trigger on Michael Brown only a year later. The fact of the matter is that mobbing the streets exacting justice by destroying property and spitting on cops will not come any closer to solving the racial rift in America. Yesterday afternoon at the peak rush hour, large masses of people blocked the traffic on FDR Drive and the Holland Tunnel here in Manhattan…massive mess in a city as busy as New York. As per news reports, the even larger mass of people trapped in their cars did not join the protest as one might expect if the issue were to be addressed by all of us. Instead black and white and all other races alike complained in perfect unison at the giant nuisance and how they just wanted to get home. How is that for effective dialog? And how short our collective attention span?
I have some trouble connecting 1-3 with 4.

Number Four seems true only to the extent that Ferguson has become an extremely supple symbol for almost every point of view about race in America.
Re 1: "..some mixed evidence?"
In this case, at least, there is every indication that the prosecutor presented all the evidence the state and the feds could unearth. Whether the "message" sent by the prosecutor's declination to ask for an indictment was received by this GJ as a "negative" none of us can say. But, even if some or all of the jurors had that impression, it certainly appears that the GJ looked at the whole mountain of evidence and deliberated long and hard before reaching their decision. Insofar as I can see, whatever the prosecutor's views, and whatever the members of the GJ made of them, assuming they drew any conclusions about the meaning of the evidence from those inferences, all indications are that they made individual and ultimately their collective judgment after lengthy study and discussion of the evidence itself.

Re 2. "racism, etc.

I have not seen, nor have I heard anyone say that they have identified in the evidence or de hors the evidence, that Officer Wilson acted out of prejudice, bias, or from racial motives, much less that he is a "racist."

One might reasonably conclude that the protestors who called for and carried out the burning and looting, or at least some of them, believe in their hearts that the largely white police force in Ferguson was "racist," and that the GJ would not do its job-a job they preconceived to be to indict- because of "racial" factors. Their preconceptions are not necessarily symbols of "racism," to my way of thinking. They may be evidence of ignorance, limited powers of reason, inability to control emotions or unwillingness to do so out of the same malignity that motivates some folks after natural disasters to loot and burn. But, I grant, their actions may, dare I say it, be evidence of their own "racism."

"Racism" has so many meanings, however, it is practically without meaning. But, insofar as I see it, neither the shooting nor the subsequent judicial proceedings are its symbols.

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