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.
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.