People who suffer under police brutality and racism have a right to fight for justice, write Nicole Colson and Alan Maass in this report from the US – and that fight will go on.
Darren Wilson has gotten away with murder – and the American injustice system sent the message once again that black lives don’t matter.
It was long after dark on 24 November when St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch marched to the microphone and announced that a grand jury had refused to indict the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer on any charge at all for killing 18-year-old Mike Brown on 9 August.
This was the result that millions of people expected, but it was shocking anyway: a white cop who shot more than a dozen bullets at an unarmed African American teenager, killing him, was not only off the hook, but was being portrayed as a victim.
After days of rising tensions as the long-awaited grand jury decision didn’t come, people in Ferguson and around the country erupted in bitter protest. Even while Barack Obama followed McCulloch onto the airwaves to make his own statement urging peace, police fired their first volleys of tear gas and smoke grenades in Ferguson.
The media bemoaned the “violence” in Ferguson when a police car was wrecked and local businesses set on fire – without the slightest recognition of the violence that African Americans living in a city like Ferguson endure on a daily basis, directly at the hands of racist police and indirectly as a result of endemic poverty and unemployment.
Tory Russell, the co-founder of Hands Up United, responded firmly when asked in a CNN interview if he was “urging calm” after the decision. Russell replied, “I am urging calm. I’m urging calm for the police officers to not pepper spray me, tear gas me, mace me and shoot rubber bullets… People need to urge the police to be calm. Stop hurting kids, stop traumatizing our communities.”
The media vultures had their cameras trained on Ferguson, but there were angry demonstrations around the country after the grand jury decision was announced. In Chicago, hundreds of protesters took over Lake Shore Drive. In Oakland, California, in the largest protest in the Bay Area, the hastily organized solidarity demonstration drew more than 1,000 people who marched through downtown and later blockaded Interstate 580, one of the major routes through the city. Nearly a thousand turned out to Times Square.
There will be more protests today and in the days to come. We need to make sure everyone who was outraged by Mike Brown’s murder and inspired by the rebellion in Ferguson against racism and police violence raises their voices and sends a message: We won’t forget Mike Brown – and our struggle for justice will continue.
When McCulloch spoke late Monday, he didn’t act like a prosecutor, but a defense attorney… for Darren Wilson.
McCulloch began by complaining about supposedly “inaccurate” speculation on social media, the “trying circumstances” under which law enforcement had to conduct its investigation, and the “unfounded, but growing concern” that the investigation wouldn’t be full or fair. Then he attacked the credibility of numerous eyewitnesses to Mike Brown’s killing, going out of his way to smear any account that differed from Wilson’s, while highlighting those that corroborated Wilson’s.
All to promote the absurd claim that Wilson was under assault by Mike Brown and feared for his life.
According to the story as Wilson and his lawyer McCulloch tell it, the unarmed Brown was pulled over for walking in the middle of the street – and within 15 seconds or so started punching a cop. After being shot at twice, Brown struggled free and ran away from Wilson, but then inexplicably turned around and “charged” at the officer, forcing him to fire a volley of bullets that stopped him. Brown, now hit half a dozen times, “charged” at Wilson again, leaving the cop no choice but to shoot him dead.
Generally, McCulloch’s office presents a grand jury with a specific recommendation for an indictment and an explanation for why the evidence supports the charge. Not this time, though. McCulloch didn’t recommend a charge – and he essentially dumped every shred of physical evidence and testimony onto the grand jury to make their decision. It was a clear sign that the prosecuting attorney was washing his hands of any responsibility in holding Darren Wilson to account.
At his sanctimonious press conference, McCulloch declared that no indictment should be leveled because of “public outcry or political expediency.” Tell that to the Central Park Five – the youth of color railroaded to prison for a sensational crime amid a lynch mob atmosphere in New York City in the late 1980s.
On the other hand, there are the cases where it’s expedient for the prosecutor to cover up for law enforcement – something McCulloch has some experience with, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reported in September:
During [McCulloch’s 23-year] tenure, there have been at least a dozen fatal shootings by police in his jurisdiction (the roughly 90 municipalities in the county other than St. Louis itself), and probably many more than that, but McCulloch’s office has not prosecuted a single police shooting in all those years. At least four times he presented evidence to a grand jury but – wouldn’t you know it? – didn’t get an indictment.
When you consider the fact that, according to government statistics, U.S. attorneys were successful in winning grand jury indictments in 99.999934 percent of prosecutions in 2010, McCulloch’s trouble getting them against cops looks like more than bad luck.
It remains to be seen what kind of tone the political establishment will adopt now that the grand jury decision has been announced in the Brown case.
On the one hand, sneering racists like former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will be happy to engage in more victim-blaming. On an appearance on Meet the Press alongside Black commenter Michael Eric Dyson, Giuliani attacked Dyson for not talking enough about black-on-black crime. “White police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other,” Giuliani declared.
Among liberals, pleas for nonviolence and patience were the watchwords – including Barack Obama, who appeared at a press conference following McCulloch’s vile grandstanding to repeat his call for calm.
Obama did raise a few facts that the mainstream media ought to acknowledge every once in a while. After celebrating the progress in racial relations in the U.S. over a period of decades, Obama admitted that “what is also true is that there are still problems, and that people of color are not just making this up… and that the law too often feels as though it’s being applied in a discriminatory fashion.”
But the media’s main takeaway from Obama’s speech was no doubt what the president intended. “There’s never an excuse for violence,” Obama declared, echoing the mantra of the press that while peaceful protest should be respected, no one should “throw bottles” or “damage property.”
On the ground in Ferguson, however, there was no sign that police or politicians understood that “there’s never an excuse for violence.”
A full week before the grand jury decision was announced, Missouri’s Democratic Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in the city, mobilizing the National Guard in the hopes of choking off another explosion of anger like what happened immediately after Mike Brown’s killing – which, of course, only guaranteed such an explosion.
It was no surprise when McCulloch’s press conference was followed by clashes with police and clouds of tear gas in the streets of Ferguson once again.
The essential point missing from all the media babble last night and for many long weeks before is simple: People who suffer under the heel of police brutality and racism have a right to be angry.
They should be furious when a white police officer guns down an unarmed black teenager and isn’t even being arrested, much less indicted and put on trial. They should be incensed at a prosecutor who pleads the case for the defense when it comes to indicting killer cops. They should be outraged at the state’s ruthless suppression of peaceful dissent and the demonization of protesters for nothing more than exercising their rights.
And because they did erupt in protest after Mike Brown was shot down in the streets, no one is likely to forget the name of Ferguson for many years to come. The police murder of an unarmed teenager – and especially the mass uprising in protest against it – has changed the way millions of people think about racism and the police. And it has further radicalized a new generation determined to do something about it.
That was clear from the solidarity demonstrations around the U.S. when the grand jury decision was announced.
There were protests around the Bay Area, but the largest was in Oakland – the home of Oscar Grant, murdered on a BART train platform on New Year’s Day in 2009. Swelled by contingents of students from the nearby University of California at Berkeley, where a struggle is taking place over tuition hikes, more than 1,000 people marched through the city’s downtown, chanting “Ferguson, we have your back.”
In Chicago, hundreds of people gathered, despite the frigid temperatures, taking over Lake Shore Drive for a time while chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot.” In New York City, hundreds of people had already come out to Union Square hours before the grand jury decision was announced.
The demonstrations were angriest in Ferguson itself, of course. When some protesters apparently smashed the windows of a police cruiser and later set it on fire, a phalanx of riot police surrounded, racking what appeared to be shotguns before pointing them at the demonstrators.
In a statement, Mike Brown’s parents said, “We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions… While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”
A glimpse of that positive change has already been seen – in the days and weeks since Mike Brown was killed, among those who came to Ferguson and St. Louis to take action against racism and police brutality. They were participants in a fight that won’t be forgotten.
As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, wrote on social media before the decision:
As we await the grand jury’s decision, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you – a deep, heart-wrenching thank you – to all the organisers and activists who took to the streets following Michael Brown’s killing and who refused to stop marching, raising their voices, and crying out for justice. It is because of them – their courage, boldness, vision and stamina – that the world is paying attention to what is happening in a suburb called Ferguson.
The world is not watching because an unarmed black man was killed by the police. That’s not news. What made this police killing different was that the people in Ferguson – particularly the young people – rose up and said We Will Not Take It Any More. Our Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. And their cry has been heard around the world.
No matter what the grand jury does, let us remember that true justice will come only when our criminal injustice system is radically transformed: when we no longer have militarized police forces, wars on our communities, a school-to-prison pipeline, and police departments that shoot first and ask questions later. True justice will be rendered not when a single “guilty” verdict is rendered in one man’s case, but when the system as a whole has been found guilty and we, as a nation, have committed ourselves to repairing, as best we can, the immeasurable harm that has been done.