Like many Americans I watched the events in Ferguson unfold last night and was left with an empty feeling in my stomach. The St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s sometimes glib, often fumbling and odiously self-righteous press conference was hard for me to watch. Whether Darren Wilson was defending himself using justifiable force or overstepped his authority when he killed Michael Brown seems to me exactly the kind of question best left to a full trial with advocates on both sides having the opportunity in open court to present a case based on the evidence. Maybe it was because he’s generally just the sort of guy who couldn’t convincingly explain that two plus two equals four, but McCulloch’s handling of the entire process made it so that he had to run through a maze in order to justify his own, shall we say unusual, actions last night. The result was no indictment, and no trial.
What happened to Michael Brown is not something that I have worried about ever happening to me, and it’s not something I suspect most of my friends worry about either. My last interaction with the police came earlier this spring where I was pulled over on my way to a business lunch. I wasn’t scared, I didn’t panic- in fact, and I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but my reaction was “Hurry up, let’s get this over with.” The officer, a county sheriff’s deputy, had gotten me for driving without a valid inspection sticker. I wasn’t given a ticket, just a warning. Compare this experience to the policing of black communities in the St. Louis area, where Michael Brown was initially stopped for jaywalking. This isn’t to say that all cops are racists or out to trip up and ruin the lives of decent people. Far from it. But to deny that there are bullies within the ranks is profoundly ignorant. But even worse than the few bad apples is the shaky foundation that our law enforcement institutions are built on.
From the out of whack demographics of having majority black communities policed by a majority white department to the disparities in criminal sentencing that exist for crack vs. powder cocaine, the system itself fails certain citizens before they even get up in the morning. And that’s before you even get to attitudes towards black suspects.
Repeat after me: The. Deck. Is. Stacked.
So what can I do to change things? I suppose acknowledging my privilege is one thing, and trying to live in the world without blinders on. When you have a conversation with people about Ferguson or about the broader issues about how law enforcement interacts with communities, make sure you call them on their privilege. Share the stories and studies I’ve linked to above on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
How about working towards making positive changes in your own community. Find out if your local police department uses technology like body cameras to hold officers accountable in their interactions with citizens (this also has the added benefit of protecting the officers against false claims of harassment). Contact your local district attorney, your local sheriff/city police force. Find out what (if any) training police receive on the use of deadly force and decision making skills when it comes to using it. I know we just had an election, but remember that many of these positions are elected- hold these people accountable at the polls.
I don’t expect much other than maybe a report telling us what we already know coming out of the federal investigation into this shooting, and maybe a civil court trial will go differently, but at this point, what else can we do?