Ferguson: A New Milestone in American Race Relations

Protestor in Ferguson, Missouri
Protestor in Ferguson, Missouri, Photo: Bigstock

It is amazing what you can do on the internet today. For example, the entire 4,700 page transcript of the testimony before the grand jury in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is now available online. Dipping into it, it is possible to see how a grand jury of three blacks and nine whites concluded that no charges should be filed.

There were witnesses to the shooting, but there are so many conflicting accounts from the witnesses that not much of it is helpful. Nevertheless, a reading of the transcript, together with certain evidence presented, gives a preponderance of what likely happened in this three-minute encounter.

The officer, Darren Wilson, was on a call to help someone who was sick in the apartment complex where this all took place. On the way there, at about noon, he encountered two black men walking down the center of this street. Driving alongside them in his police Tahoe, he slowed, put down his window, and told them to get off the road and up onto the curb. They did not. He drove past them a few yards, stopped, backed up, and told them again. One of them, Michael Brown, walked over to the car, had a sharp verbal exchange with Wilson, and began punching Wilson in the face through that window as he sat belted in at the driver’s seat. (The officer’s face was swollen afterward.)

There was a struggle for the officer’s gun. Wilson claims that Brown reached down and removed it from its holster, and as they struggled with it said, “You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me.” A shot rang out, which grazed Brown’s thumb and lodged in the car’s armrest. (Brown’s blood was found on Wilson’s clothing and gun.) Brown retreated and then ran off.

Wilson got out of his car and shouted for Brown to stop. About 40 yards away the man stopped, turned and, according to Wilson, charged at him. He never made it.

A volley of shots did not stop Brown (blood from Brown was found in the road trailing Brown, consistent with the opinion that he was running back toward the officer.) A second volley of shots killed him instantly. Brown had nine wounds, caused by seven or eight shots according to autopsy reports—all shots hit Brown in the front. The autopsy found no injuries on Brown other than from the bullet wounds.

Brown, age 18, was 6 foot 4 and about 290 pounds. The officer was a smaller man (6 foot 4 and 210 pounds), and he probably would have been no match for Brown had it come to a wrestling match.

If you accept all this and do not declare that the blood was all put there, or that Brown had his arms up surrendering (witnesses are divided about why his arms were where they were), you have to conclude that the officer was within his rights to defend himself.

Monday-morning quarterbacks have said Wilson might have avoided the shooting by not stopping his car that second time, or he might have stopped the second time but then pulled over to call HQ for backup—but to say what? “I need help because these two boys won’t get out of the road?” Or that he could have used mace, or his baton. Both were either unreachable or would have been ineffective in that car, he said.

It seems, rather, that once it started, it was inevitable. And it did not help that although the Ferguson police arrived within five minutes of the shooting, they could do nothing to move the body because the matter had been taken over, by phone, by the County Police, who then did not get there for nearly an hour. By that time, the witnesses and the growing crowd were understandably in a rage that a member of the community was left lying dead in the road. It’s also true that when it started to get ugly, the officer’s superior ordered him to leave the scene and go to the station and stay there, rather than wait at the crime scene to be interviewed by the County Police.

On one level, the toxicity of this situation can be attributed to the fact that the police department was nearly all white, and that people believe it takes care of its own. As a result, over the years, as Ferguson became largely a black community, very few black officers came to work for the police force. This was a big issue. The persecution of blacks by whites, still true in many communities in America to this day, was by and large the root cause of all this.

Six years ago there was a case in Southampton that may shed a little light on what happened in Ferguson.

A bouncer named Andrew Reister, working part-time at the Southampton Publick House, told a patron there to stop dancing on a table. The man did not stop. According to the case, Reister grabbed him by the leg and pulled at him, which caused him to either fall or get down. At that point, the reveler, Anthony Oddone, charged at the bouncer, even though the bouncer was six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than he was. They wrestled. People screamed, tried to stop them but could not. Oddone then got the bouncer in a headlock, refused to let go—probably figuring the larger man would eventually prevail—and in the end, inadvertently, choked the bouncer to death.

Oddone then fled, was later picked up by police officers, put in jail, put on trial—much of his defense was bankrolled by the members of a local golf course where Oddone worked as a caddy—and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He served five years in jail, and then had the balance of his sentence commuted.

The thing these two cases have in common is that they both escalated from situations that seem mundane. Get off the table. Stop walking in the middle of the road.

There’s little to be learned from this. Humans—mostly men—sometimes will become violent at even the slightest of remarks.

There’s lots else to be learned from the Ferguson case, however. We are all entitled to be treated equally under the law, for one thing. For another, because tribes tend to congregate with their own, where prejudice exists the members of a police force should mirror the tribal composition of the community. Fire departments have come to understand this. It’s time all police departments do as well.

Having said all this, it should be pointed out that Robert McCulloch, the County Prosecutor in St. Louis County, Missouri, refused to step aside to allow a state prosecutor to conduct the grand jury investigation. So instead of a one- or two-day presentation to see if charges should be brought and a jury summoned to look into it further, McCulloch, who is white, basically conducted not a short grand jury presentation, which is held in secret, but essentially a kind of three-month trial that in America is required to be held in public. Also, this months-long process that felt like a trial could well have led a grand jury to consider it upside-down. In a trial, a man is innocent unless proven guilty. It’s not whether there is enough evidence to proceed to a trial.

Without lawyers who cross-examine, it also allowed McCulloch to control the facts he presented. Also, it was a 12-person grand jury, but only 9 were needed to force an indictment. It was selected so that there would be nine white members but only three black members. This did not have to be a unanimous decision.

Ferguson and its riots and protests that followed are a wake-up call for this country to end the treating of African-Americans as second-class citizens. This young man, angry and as menacing as he apparently was to Wilson, should not have had to die for it. One wonders if Wilson had told a white teenager to get off the street, whether this would have happened this way.

Our hearts go out to the family of Michael Brown.

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