Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What did we learn from Ferguson?

The story sounded familiar: Another White cop gets off the hook killing an innocent Black man!

Or maybe it was this: See I told you so, Blacks just can’t accept that they have to follow our laws!

They are two stories told from two opposing views, often having more to do with personal experience, where you lived, and your own politics than the facts of the case.

In one version, on August 9, 2014, Officer Darren Wilson drove up and harassed Michael Brown, a young Black man, for no other reason than walking in the middle of the street. The Officer hit Brown with his vehicle door, shot at him for no reason, then gave chase and finished off the teenager outside of the squad car with several shots to the torso and head while Brown was retreating with his hands up to surrender.

In the other version, the 18-year-old Brown reached inside Officer Wilson’s vehicle hitting him in the face and tried to grab his gun. In fear for his life, Wilson began shooting at Brown from inside the vehicle, then fired fatal shots outside after he had no other choice.

Which story is the truth? The answer to that question may be biased by the race of the opinion maker.  

It also comes down to whether or not you have a lot of faith in the American judicial system.

The majority of Whites in this country tend to think of the system as being fair, but not perfect.

Many Blacks in this country feel the system is racist, unfair, and far from perfect as history and often their own personal experience has shown.   

Some witness accounts were conflicted about whether Brown walked, stumbled, or charged back toward Wilson before he was fatally wounded. There were also differing accounts of how or whether Brown's hands were raised. His body fell about 153 feet from Wilson's vehicle, quite a distance, and that is where the story varies the most.

Wilson told jurors that he initially encountered Brown and a friend, later identified as Dorian Johnson, walking in a street and when he told them to move to a sidewalk, Brown responded with an expletive in defiance. Johnson stated that Wilson was rude and yelled to them, "Get the fuck on the sidewalk!" Wilson then noticed that Brown had a handful of cigars, "and that's when it clicked for me," he said, referring to a radio report minutes earlier of a robbery at a nearby convenience store. The store managers appear to be people of color. Store video showed Brown handing a friend cigarillos then snatching some more from behind the counter, close to $50 dollars worth in all.

Make no mistake about it, Michael Brown was no angel, by this point he already committed a misdemeanor that he escalated to a felony crime when he fought with the store manager. If you believe Officer Wilson, Brown was about to commit several more felonies that led to his death.     

Wilson said he asked a dispatcher to send additional police, and then backed his vehicle up in front of Brown and his friend, later identified as Dorian Johnson. As he tried to open the door, Wilson said Brown slammed it back shut. Wilson said he pushed Brown with the door and Brown hit him in the face. Wilson told Grand Jurors he was thinking: "What do I do not to get beaten inside my car?"

Later, pictures were taken of Wilson’s face which shows a red imprint, about the size of a fist, on the right side of his face, not the left side that would be facing out on the driver’s side. Perhaps Brown hit him with a left hook as Wilson was talking to him from inside the vehicle. The photos also showed a red mark to the back of the neck; Wilson stated that he was hit two times in the face. He also made a reference of Brown being like huge famed wrestler “Hulk” Hogan and that he felt like he was a five year old kid holding on. Wilson is not a small man, they are about the same height, 6-foot-5-inches, but the 289-pound Brown was bigger by approximately 82 pounds in weight. 

"I felt another one of those punches in my face would knock me out or worse. I mean, it was, he's obviously bigger than I was, and stronger, and the—I've already taken two to the face, and I don't think I would—the third one could be fatal if he hit me right." He then stated, “I drew my gun," Wilson told the Grand Jury. "I said, 'Get back or I'm going to shoot you.'" Wilson went on to say, "He immediately grabs my gun and says, 'You are too much of a pussy to shoot me,'" Wilson told Grand Jurors. He said Brown grabbed the gun with his right hand, twisted it and "digs it into my hip."

After shots were fired in the vehicle, Brown fled and Wilson gave chase. As the bullet wounds would show, at some point, Brown turned around to face the officer. Brown was not armed and he was not shot in the back. Why somebody who had already been shot at close range by the police vehicle would turn around and charge the officer is also puzzling. Perhaps Brown was under the influence or perhaps he was just turning around to see how close the pursuing officer was and stumbled as some say.

But, the undeniable fact is Brown lay dead in a pool of his own blood. 

A Grand Jury considered the case for three and a half months. It heard testimony from numerous eyewitnesses and saw forensic evidence. It heard from Officer Wilson but there was no cross examination and few Jury instructions. Grand Juries are usually secret proceedings, so if you are a believer in government corruption and conspiracies then you were probably already suspicious.

Critics of the process had already called for a Special Prosecutor to be appointed instead of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert “Bob” McCulloch handling it.

It was already expected that many people, especially Blacks, would be angry about the Grand Jury announcement. So in a departure from tradition, McCulloch, who has strong family ties to law enforcement, walked through the timetable of events and promised to release a complete account of what the Grand Jurors heard and saw. Those who doubted the Grand Jurors' decision would have a chance to weigh the evidence for themselves.

Indicting Wilson or any Officer in this country is difficult because Police Officers get wide latitude when they use “Deadly Force” in the line of duty. A 1985 Supreme Court decision gave a green light to Officers to use deadly force when they reasonably believe their own lives or the lives of others are threatened, and Missouri state law is even more permissive. In Police Academies all over the nation, Recruits are trained to use this force only as a last resort. Many modern departments and national police watch dog groups encourage Officers to deescalate situations when possible, not to shoot down unarmed civilians.

If one is to believe Officer Wilson, the Prosecutor, multiple Autopsy Reports, the forensic evidence, and multiple reliable witnesses who just so happened to be African-American, then the killing was justified after Brown hit Wilson, tried to grab his gun (forensics showed Brown had gun powder residue on him and Wilson had Brown’s blood on him and vehicle evidence showed shots were made at close range), then Brown made a "full charge" at Wilson before he was killed.

But to police critics, certain things still don’t make sense, even though the Grand Jury's conclusions appear reasonable if one believes the Prosecutor. Questions remain: Were 12 shots necessary to subdue Michael Brown or was it excessive force? Was there some other, non-lethal way to control the suspect? Why didn’t Officer Wilson wait for back-up? If the Officer was scared, as he admits, did he overreact and empty his service weapon on Brown? Was he scared of Black people or just defending himself?

Almost as important as these questions is a startling fact, police shot to death more people in the line of duty in 2013, than any time in the last two decades. A total of 461 people were killed, many of them Blacks.

It is also true that assaults and deaths of Officers in the line of duty is up, 105 or 76 killed in 2013, depending on how you classify the deaths as being “in the line of duty”.

Many of the suspects in Officer deaths were charged or will be. There are no official numbers on how many police killings lead to indictments or prosecutions, but the unofficial numbers back up the widespread belief that few Officers, less than 2% are ever charged for shooting and killing someone when they're on the job. Add to this, the fact that Blacks are locked up in prisons and jails in alarming disproportionate numbers makes many Blacks fear, not respect cops.

Some reports show that police arrest African-Americans at rates 10 times greater than any other race, so it's little wonder that majority-Black communities such as Ferguson believe that police often act in biased ways and that killings such as Brown's grow out of that prejudice. Adding to that, police forces tend to be predominately White, often former military servicemen, even in cities where the majority of the civilian population is Black, like Ferguson. This leads some to view police as being an “Occupying Force”.

After the verdict was read, some people understood the anger and disappointment that some people must have felt, especially the Brown Family. But why burn down sections of the city where Blacks live and work? Large White businesses were probably insured, it is Mom and Pop businesses, often Black owned that suffered the most. It also appears that many of the rioters were outside agitators who hate all cops. Police said more than 150 gun shots were fired by agitators in Ferguson during rioting that followed a Grand Jury’s decision.

Violence came despite pleas from officials in Missouri, the Brown Family, and even President Barack Obama who encouraged calm in a speech from the White House that was televised side-by-side with pictures of police clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray referred to the events as “the murder of Mr. Brown” and said that many outside the African-American community share the “tremendous hurt” at a Grand Jury’s decision not to indict the Police Officer who killed the teen. Known for his bluntness about race, the Mayor argued that American society is “failing young African-American men,” and said it is time to “recommit us to making this a more just city. … Our community is committed to racial and social justice in all areas.”

Seattle had its own controversy on August 30, 2010, after the killing of Native-American woodcarver John T. Williams on a downtown street. As with the Ferguson Shooting, no charges were brought against Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk who later resigned from the force.

The local Jurors for the Brown case, whose identities were kept secret, were 75% White: 6 White men, 3 White women, 2 Black women and one Black man. St. Louis County overall is 70 percent White, but about two-thirds of Ferguson's residents are Black.

The Grand Jury could only determine whether probable cause existed to indict Wilson, not decide whether he was guilty or not. Obviously, Jurors found they lacked probable cause that Officer Wilson committed a crime, let alone having enough evidence to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt.

Larger societal issues and pent-up frustration remain after the decision and likely will linger for years to come. The dialogue about race and culture should continue, but unfortunately many people will retreat back to their perspective camps until the next incident occurs, again taking polarized positions, but doing little about it.

One local young Black man who appeared in a national TV interview after the rioting probably said it best, “In order to change the system, we must become the system. In order to change the police, we must become the police. In order to change the laws, we must become politicians.”

Ferguson brought some very important topics up, but death, destruction, and violence in one's own community is not justice, it just continues the injustice.

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