Ferguson, Missouri: eight thoughts on a smoldering dumpster fire

Ferguson, MO is currently a dumpster full of flaming grease and it’s a long way from being extinguished.

As I have been watching the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson case unfold, a few things have occurred to me.

1: Let’s just get this out of the way first: there were two distinct groups in the streets the other night. Group A comprised people with legitimate grievances about this case and its place in a much longer running history of injustice for minorities in the US. Group B was made up of punks and hooligans looking for any excuse to cause trouble. There’s no defending this element’s behavior in the wake of the announcement that no indictment for officer Darren Wilson was forthcoming. I mean, you done me wrong, so to show you how pissed off I am I’m going to burn down my own house? Not a lot of rocket surgeons in that crowd, huh? I never ate at Red’s Barbecue, but I bet it was good and I hate to think what the owners are going through right now sifting through the ashes and trying to figure out what to do next. 

2: I want to consider some numbers. Ferguson is 70% black but 50 of the police department’s 53 officers are white. The city has argued that it has done all it can to recruit black officers. That may be true. But if you’re skeptical, I understand why.

3: More numbers: Ferguson is 70% black, right? But the grand jury was 75% white. Just saying.

4: How about this number: 0.0068%. What’s that?

In the more than 162,500 cases prosecuted by U.S. attorneys from 2009 to 2010, grand juries voted not to return an indictment in only 11, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics — equivalent to one in 14,759 cases, or 0.0068 percent.

The article goes on to explain that this isn’t a perfect comparison. But even if it’s off by two freakin’ decimal places, that’s still an eyebrow-raiser, init?

5: How in the hell did this grand jury find itself in such rarefied statistical company? Good question. It isn’t clear that the prosecutor tried real hard.

Faced with the high burden of proof surrounding a contested police shooting, what’s clear is that McCulloch did not aggressively push for a prosecution. Rather, the lead prosecutor took a series of steps that are unusual in a grand jury proceeding and that likely influenced the jury’s final decision. Rather than building a case intended to prove Wilson’s criminal culpability before the jury, McCulloch presented all the evidence in the case. In effect, the lead prosecutor gave equal weight to the prosecution and the defense. That’s technically in keeping with the prosecutor’s responsibility to “disclose any credible evidence of actual innocence,” but highly unusual, since prosecutors usually only appear before grand jurys in cases where they are convinced of a party’s guilt.

Was the whole grand jury proceeding an elaborate dog and pony show staged by a man determined not to put the officer on trial? Good question.

6: But why would County Prosecutor Robert McCullough behave in such an unusual fashion? Well, there’s a history there. This isn’t the first time he has been perceived as acting to provide cover for the police in racially charged cases. And while we can’t say for sure that he was biased by his own personal history, it should be noted that his own father, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty when McCullough was 12. By a black man.

I’m not going to suggest for a second that I don’t understand how that might leave a scar on a man. Seriously. And I’m not going to argue that a boy who faced that kind of adversity couldn’t grow up to be a paragon of color-blind justice. But – and I cannot stress this enough – in a case like this it is not enough to act justly. It is also critical that one appear to be acting justly. For better or worse, there are times when perceptions are simply too overpowering, and in these cases officials whose motives are potentially suspect must recuse themselves, handing the reins to someone that the public can trust.

If McCullough didn’t realize this he was either stupid or pathologically naïve.

7: Hey, I know – let’s wait and announce this decision, which we know a highly agitated population has been planning for since the grand jury was seated, after dark. You know, because they’ll probably think it’s too late to go out, right?

Hey Hollywood, I have an idea for Dumb & Dumber 3. Have your people call my agent and let’s do lunch.

8: I wonder what President Obvious has to say? Obama didn’t tell us that water was wet or that the sun rises in the east, but he came damned close.

It’s still hard to say how this is all going to play out. I’m the sort of guy who can’t help hoping for the best, but I’ve learned to expect the worst.

Stay tuned.

12 replies »

  1. There’s an anomaly to point 4 as mentioned in the reference article Sam. State grand juries almost always indict _except_ when a police officer is involved. Then the stats flip to almost no indictments.

    The final result was then as you surmise a foregone conclusion. McCullough wanted to drop charges but he didn’t have the balls or his superiors said, “No you need independent corroboration.” So he threw all the evidence in front of a grand jury and let them decide. At which point any prejudice he harbored because a black man murdered his father would seem moot.

    Is it a good old boy system of white privilege and power running over another innocent minority? The demographics you point to indicate that’s certainly a possibility. I would however suggest that in this one particular case race was not the issue, crime was.

    An angry confused testosterone ridden teenager made 2 horrible split second decisions, compounding strong-arm robbery with assault on a peace officer and paid for those mistakes with his life. The grand jury exonerated the officer based on the evidence and the reality that unless faced with insurmountable evidence policemen are always given the benefit of the doubt.

    • The thing is, in a grand jury you don’t throw ALL the evidence. You present the evidence intended to establish probably cause. That’s the anomaly here – he didn’t want an indictment so he took the unusual step of putting on a defense, too.

      I wonder how often this happens in cases involving cops and if it’s the reason why you get fewer indictments there.

      • Agreed, prosecutors normally use grand juries to seek indictment which they almost always receive. In this case McCullogh used the grand jury in an atypical manner in hopes of them producing a finding that he wasn’t willing to make.

        My understanding is that he didn’t make a case to them pro or con, he just dumped every scrap of testimony and evidence on them and said, “OK, you folks decide.” An unusual step but well within his purvey, and one that absolved him of becoming the hated asshole that let Wilson off the hook. Rather well played actually.

        As to fewer indictments when cops shoot civilians I see a correlation to combat troops rarely being held accountable for civilian deaths in combat. We hold men and women charged with protecting us to a different and decidedly more lenient standard.

  2. Better to be standing beside the fire than in it Sam. I’ve never been a fan of trial by media anyway. Our jurisprudence system is clunky and often unfair but it’s decidedly better than the alternative of vigilante justice.

      • Two points seem salient to me and worthy of further consideration:

        1) Indictment = trial = big old circus atmosphere, even bigger reaction if a not guilty comes down = forced discussion on the divide concerning justice…that, I assume, was to be avoided at all costs. I mean, look at what the POTUS did – not even sure this is about race – maybe more about class and system protecting…? Which might be worse upon closer examination….

        2) Maybe, just maybe, if you’re a D.A. whose policeman dad was killed by a black man – you might ought to spend at least a few moments considering recusal? Why did no one raise this question?

  3. Points taken Jim but at the end of the day Mike Brown is a horrible poster child for racially motivated police brutality. The video of him choking and manhandling the store clerk during a strong-arm robbery minutes before he was shot irrevocably taint him and his story.

    I’ve been thinking about this hard and I think you guys have some good points that are much more easily demonstrated in the very recent shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland. There, this time with video of the actual event, we see police rolling in hot on a “man with gun” 911 call and in a matter of seconds a rookie officer jumps out and pumps 2 bullets in the kid because he didn’t put his hands up on command. Exact same justification, “I was in fear for my life.”

    The Bureau of labor statistics says there are 780,000 police and detectives in the USA. This site says an average of 50 policemen are shot to death every year. In general then (with no adjustment for precincts in poor areas being more dangerous) an average cop has an average chance of being shot to death of .000064%. Just slightly higher than being killed in a car/motorcycle crash.

    My question about all this then is why are we training our police forces with the combat mindset of “shoot first, shoot fast, and keep shooting until the perp stops moving?” I suspect it has something to do with the militarization of our police. The billions of dollars of surplus war materials being dumped on them by DOD and the warrior culture of wave after wave of our young people being sent off over the last 25 years to fight bullshit wars and many coming home with their combat skillsetsintact to become police men and women.

    We all know there are bad people out there and I firmly support LEOs, but this trend towards summary street executions is crying for dialog and ultimately review and adjustment of training methodologies. Racial undertones? Maybe but I think class is more the deciding factor. If you’re poor and you twitch during an interaction with the police you are probably going to get shot.

    Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

  4. i think there are two other numbers here you’re forgeting,sam. one is 77 inches. that’s how tall darren wilson is. he’s thin, but he’s big. 6’5″

    and 12. thats the number of shots that were fired at an unarmed man.

    yes, i think we can agree that mike brown was not trayvon. brown was an enormous and dangerous criminal, who may or may not have been threatening wilson at the moment he was shot. i have no evidence that wilson was a racist or went hunting for a black man to kill (like the cases in florida and georgia.) i suspect he was a young man who got scared and panicked, not admirable, but understandable. but nonetheless, 12 shots?

    i doubt very much he should go to jail for murder. still, to indict him on nothing, not even excessive force, seems unreasonable.

    still, i could support the result, if it had been arrived at through a fair process and one available to everyone accused of a crime. i have a real problem with mccullough making up his own grand jury procedure where the accused is allowed to prevent a defense because he’s special, and stacking the jury to get his majority vote. i agree our system is clunky, and i’m less sure it works (OJ? Blake? Dorff? Anthony? the statistics on blacks getting tougher sentences than whites for the same crime? life sentences in texas for pot?), but i do agree that it is intended to be fair. mccullough made no pretense of being fair.

    • The thing for me is that I wasn’t there and haven’t seen all the evidence, and I know better than to get too righteous on incomplete info. We do seem to have a victim here who was anything but a choirboy, and if what I have seen is accurate none of this would have happened had he not robbed a store and roughed up a clerk. That doesn’t mean he deserved to be gunned down, but it IS part of the context.

      I am troubled by this case from end to end, as you can imagine, and it’s that innovative new grand jury process that’s at the core of it. The prosecutor played Calvinball on it, it stinks to high heaven, and even if Wilson did not deserve to be charged, hypothetically, you have to get there through a legitimate process.

      This process was anything but legitimate, and when you get right down to it, what McCullough did is even better evidence for the point blacks are making than the actual shooting was.