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The Kid asked for my opinion over what's going on out in Ferguson. She's some stripe of Middle Eastern and her dad is dark-skinned (I'm not sure the exact ethnicity - somewhere in Near Asia, or maybe the Indian subcontinent, I think?) so she's a bit sensitive to racial issues, though she looks white herself. So I spent a good part of yesterday looking through the court documents released from the grand jury.

I flattered myself some of you might be interested in what I thought of the whole mess so thought I'd write it up. I know this is a sensitive issue so I'm going to put it under a cut, and if anyone needs to keep on scrolling I won't think any worse of you.


1) There's more nuance and ambiguity in the physical evidence and testimony than you might think. Witnesses gave contradicting testimony, and there were multiple autopsies - some of which supported Wilson's story, some of which didn't. You wouldn't necessarily get this impression through the media coverage, particularly if you read a lot of coverage from a certain vantage point. I definitely think what Wilson did should earn him a long prison sentence, but I can see why a grand jury wouldn't indict him.

2) Following up on that point: the case that was presented is very, very odd. For the non-Americans (or Americans who've forgotten high school civics), grand juries are just groups of jurors that decide whether there's enough evidence to justify a full trial. The burden of proof is much lower than a full trial, and only the district attorney gets to present. So a decision to present evidence that made the situation look complicated was ... odd. My crystal ball has gone fuzzy and I'm hesitant to guess about peoples' motivations, but the only way I can make sense of that move is incompetence (and the prosecutor is experienced enough I don't believe that) or wanting to have the case not go to trial. My gut feeling? McCullough didn't want to prosecute Wilson but felt he couldn't just dismiss the charges because of political concerns, so he set up his case in a way that encouraged the grand jury to no-bill him.

3) It's true, grand juries almost always indict people on some charge or other. But that's not nearly as true with cops as with people generally. So while I think McCullough presented the case badly, it's not all that unusual for cops to get off.

4) Wilson knew about a robbery that had happened just before he came across Michael Brown. Brown also apparently gave his friend a packet of cigarillos, the same item that was stolen from the store. That gave Wilson a reasonable suspicion that Brown had committed the robbery, which is a felony. So technically under the law in effect, he had a right to use legal force to arrest Brown.

(Which is obscene. So, so wrong that the law sees nothing wrong with a cop killing someone because they suspect him of robbery. But it is the law as it exists in that state.)

5) If we assume Darren Wilson's testimony is basically truthful (I mean the events he talks about actually happened; obviously he has his own biases and perceived things from his own frame of mind, and probably put the best spin on them possible), then Michael Brown seems like he was acting like a punk and (I suspect) showing off a bit for his friend. He was walking down the middle of the road and talked back when a cop asked him to get over on the sidewalk. He also apparently had marijuana in his system when he was shot, and the thing about handing over the cigarillos in front of Wilson definitely had an air of defiance in it to me. If he'd been a student in my class and acted like that I probably would have told him to drop the attitude or leave and come back when he was able to do that.

That said, none of this is a reason to shoot him. At all. It's exactly the kind of things that stupid eighteen-year-old white boys are allowed to do but black and brown boys usually aren't. He doesn't come off as a hardened or dangerous criminal to me. A stupid kid, maybe, but in the neighborhoods I was lucky enough to grow up in, that won't get you shot.

6) According to his own testimony, Darren Wilson entered into the situation on his own terms (he saw the jaywalking and backed the car up, had time to get himself together before engaging Michael Brown), and he didn't have options at hand besides using his gun. He talks about how he reacts badly to mace so didn't want to use it in close quarters; how he couldn't get to his taser without leaning over to the next seat. He called for backup before engaging but didn't wait for it. And there was no real urgency that I can see: it was just two teens walking down an abandoned street. Basically, my point is that Wilson didn't seem to have any strategies for handling Brown pushing back that didn't involve lethal force - and it seems like he had time to arrange those. It's telling to me that the killing can still be justified when he didn't take reasonable steps to make it unnecessary.


In case it needs saying, I think it's shameful that Michael Brown died, even if I think there's evidence to suggest (also contradicting evidence!) he was a bit aggressive when he came up against Darren Wilson. I don't think he would have died if he was white, because of the combative history between POC and the mostly-white cops that police them (and I could write quite a bit about the economics and the histories and the political situations that drive all that) and also because of some latent racist stereotyping in how a lot of cops in those forces see POC. Do I think Wilson is a racist in the sense that he consciously hates black people or thinks they're especially criminal? Not that I can see evidence of; the issues are subtler than that, but still there. I do think Brown's family would have faced an uphill battle toward getting a conviction even if they were white, which is another issue: why we give cops so much latitude to act violently in this country. It's a major problem, and again, I could say quite a lot if I were so inclined.

Now I get go make casseroles and watch Granada Holmes, and probably later explain to the Kid why people who look like her cousins and her dad get treated this way. Joy. :-S


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 26th, 2014 01:31 pm (UTC)
Having served on a grand jury, I know how a DA can slant the evidence to get (or not get) an indictment. I also know that we had a handful of cases that were politically sensitive in which we were not steered in either direction. I also know that there were at least two occasions in which we kind of went completely against the DA's advice, in order to indict on charges he didn't seem to want to deal with.

(Of course, grand juries are different from state to state. We convened once a week for six months and heard hundreds of cases, since in MS every felony that goes to trial must have GJ indictment. But some states only use GJ's in special circumstances.)

The thing is, whatever steering the DA's office does, juries are people, and in the long run make up their own mind, results may not be what any outsiders expect.

I just now watched George Stephanopoulas' interview with the police officer. He said that he would not have reacted any differently had Michael Brown been white. I think he believes that; I don't believe it's true. I think the entire confrontation would never have happened had MB been white.

Edited at 2014-11-26 03:27 pm (UTC)
Nov. 26th, 2014 01:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you SO much for posting this. I am grateful that you captured the nuances in the source material and framed it all with your perspective.
Nov. 26th, 2014 03:35 pm (UTC)
That said, none of this is a reason to shoot him. At all. It's exactly the kind of things that stupid eighteen-year-old white boys are allowed to do but black and brown boys usually aren't.

A very well-worded summary. Thank you for sharing this with us.
Nov. 27th, 2014 01:52 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this. This week in my state (in Australia) police shot dead a man when responding to a domestic dispute (it's actually the third fatal police shooting this week - all domestic disputes - 4 fatal shootings this year, 6 shootings total this year). My 6 yr old heard the report on the radio and it was difficult enough explaining why a man was killed when we don't have the death penalty in this country and the police are supposed to protect us (why didn't they use tasers, pepper spray he asked, why didn't they do another option? I explained that there will be an investigation to see if the police had no other option) - I cannot imagine what it must be like to explain the situation in Ferguson or the recent death of the poor 12 year old child, how could you possibly set their minds at ease?
Nov. 27th, 2014 02:11 am (UTC)
Thank you for explaining this as for someone in the UK, the case is baffling to me. I'm glad our police don't usually carry guns.
Nov. 27th, 2014 04:09 pm (UTC)
It's exactly the kind of things that stupid eighteen-year-old white boys are allowed to do but black and brown boys usually aren't.

Wow, this was fascinating. Thank you very much for this summary and your thoughts. It's really hard when reading the media to tell what actually happened with the grand jury, so this was useful.
Nov. 29th, 2014 06:28 pm (UTC)
I agree with the commenters before me that this was a well-done synopsis.

It's exactly the kind of things that stupid eighteen-year-old white boys are allowed to do but black and brown boys usually aren't. He doesn't come off as a hardened or dangerous criminal to me. A stupid kid, maybe, but in the neighborhoods I was lucky enough to grow up in, that won't get you shot.

Most of my students are African American, so I cannot help but think of them when I read about Mike Brown. He could easily have been one of them.

One of my students was telling me last week that he has learned, when picked up by the cops, to just sit quietly and say or do nothing because, even if you say something in the heat of the moment, like "Fuck you," they are more likely to hit you or seek additional charges, like resisting arrest. This kid is a ninth grader. The same thing struck me when Trayvon Martin was killed, that these kids are taught young things that white kids never even have to imagine as possibilities.

There is so much hatred, distrust, and--though they'd never say it--fear of the police among my students. Even my [African American] coworkers tell stories of being stopped by police on their way home from work and being made to sit on the curb while their cars are searched, having the cops called because they were opening up a storage locker they had rented, and having the cops called over a confusion over a hotel reservation. These are professional people, not "hoods" behaving in a way that is construed as inviting added scrutiny from the police.

And the sad thing is that this helps no one. It certainly doesn't help a community of people that continues to feel the effects of institutionalized racism. It doesn't help to fight crime either. Baltimore's infamous "stop snitching" campaign was able to work because of the hatred and distrust fueled by the actions of the law enforcement community. I find my own mindset has even shifted: When students I teach have been shot, stabbed, or killed, I have no hopes that their attackers will ever be found. One can only hope for retributive justice. And I get to go home to Carroll County at the end of each day.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )



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