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Racism, separateness, and the Ferguson decision


There is so much we don't know about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9 – so much that we'll never know. And even if Officer Darren Wilson had been indicted and tried for the killing of Michael Brown, we might not have learned much that we don't know right now.

But Darren Wilson wasn't indicted, and he won't stand trial. And we're left with yet another spotlight on the racial division, the lack of understanding, and the racism that continue to plague the country.

Overt racism has been on flaming display since the story of Michael Brown's death hit the news. A typical example is the hatred unleashed online aimed at Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, who used her Facebook page after the grand jury announcement to say what many African Americans are feeling.

The vitriol spewed anonymously at Warren is awful, but it's coming from a minority of Rochesterians. Just as serious – maybe more serious – is the enormous divide between people of color and white Americans who would never say such things. We don't know one another, and we don't understand one another. We believe and trust people who are like us. Less so, those who are not. That plays out in the way we view the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. And it plays out in the way the criminal justice system operates.

From the moment of Michael Brown's death, the justice system failed to serve anybody well. Not Michael Brown or his family and friends. Not Darren Wilson or his police department. Not the residents of Ferguson, black or white.

In a lengthy Washington Post article last week, reporters Jerry Markon and Tom Hamburger detailed some of the problems.

For instance: A federal Justice Department manual describes how police should handle crime scenes and potential suspects. They're supposed to keep suspects under control at the crime scene and confiscate weapons and the suspect's clothing. Instead, once other police arrived at the scene, Wilson drove himself back to the police station, washed blood off of his hands, and put his gun in an evidence bag himself. He assumed that was OK, and no other officers said otherwise.

Police didn't tape their interview with Wilson after the shooting. A medical examiner's investigator "opted not to take measurements at the crime scene and arrived there believing that what happened between Brown and Wilson was 'self-explanatory,'" Markon and Hamburger wrote.

County prosecutor Robert McCullough – whose police-officer father was killed by a black man – could have recused himself from working on the case. But he was sure he could be impartial. When he didn't recuse himself, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon could have removed him and appointed a special prosecutor. But he saw no need to.

Numerous critics say that prosecutors shouldn't be involved in cases like this, because they work too closely, regularly, with police and rely on police too heavily. "These cases should automatically be referred to the state attorney general's office or a special prosecutor who does not have the same perceived conflict of interest," former federal prosecutor Kami Chavis Simmons wrote on the New York Times website.

Once the case was in McCullough's hands, he could have recommended an indictment, which might have led to a trial in an open court. Instead, McCullough left it to the grand jury to see the evidence his office presented, hear the testimony of witnesses interviewed by prosecutors, ask their own questions, and draw their own conclusions.

Would Darren Wilson have been convicted if he had gone to trial? Probably not. Given the conflicting testimony, it would have been hard to convince the jury he didn't act properly. And I'm not sure that a public trial would have erased the mistrust of many Americans, particularly black Americans. The history of real abuse of black Americans by the criminal justice system is too deep.

But at least in a trial, Darren Wilson and all of the witnesses would have been questioned by someone other than officials from the prosecutor's office. And that's important, because there are two versions of what happened in Ferguson on August 9, given by the two people closest to the action: police officer Darren Wilson and Dorian Johnson, the 22-year-old walking in the street with Michael Brown when Wilson drove past them. And their stories conflict in key areas – right from the beginning of their encounter.

Wilson's version is that he politely asked the two to walk on the sidewalk to avoid interfering with traffic. They continued in the street, Wilson said, and, realizing that Brown matched the description of a suspect in a nearby theft, he backed up to them in his police vehicle. A frighteningly angry Brown mouthed off, struck Wilson in the face through the vehicle window, tried to grab Wilson's gun, and, when Wilson managed to fire the gun once, turned and ran away. And, Wilson said, when he gave chase and ordered Brown to stop, Brown turned and charged menacingly at him as Wilson fired at him, finally killing him.

Johnson's version is of a rude police officer telling the two to "get the f... on the sidewalk," driving off, backing up – "screeching" – and nearly hitting the two when they stayed in the street, then reaching out and grabbing Brown by the shirt, leading to a fierce tug-of-war struggle between two angry, cursing males as Johnson stood in shock, watching. And then, Johnson said, Wilson fired his gun, he and Brown ran, and Wilson followed, shooting and ultimately killing Brown as Brown seemed to try to surrender.

Who was telling the truth? Reading the transcripts, I've found both accounts entirely credible. Certainly, though, each had a vested interest in the outcome of the grand jury's deliberation – Wilson, personally, more than Johnson – and each had plenty of time to fashion their account. And they had plenty of opportunity to get expert help in fashioning it.

But given the stress each was under during that event, it seems just as likely that each told the story as he remembered it. Or that each embellished it a bit, or smoothed it off a bit. In the end, whom do we believe – and why? For many of us, our own race will have an influence, subconsciously or not.

One bit of potential good could come out of Michael Brown's death. Governor Jay Nixon has appointed a citizen's commission, not to review the killing but to conduct "a thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality, and safety in the St. Louis region."

Commission members will look into police-community relations, race relations, the court system, disparities in "education, economic opportunity, health care, housing, transportation, child care, business ownership, and family and community stability," and other areas.

That's a gratifying recognition of the seriousness and the depth of long-standing problems this country still hasn't dealt with satisfactorily – in Ferguson, in Rochester, and elsewhere.

It is simply a fact that many authorities, including police officers, treat African Americans differently than whites. But those "authorities" reflect a national divide. Because we don't really know one another and don't understand one another, many white Americans have reacted differently than blacks to the Ferguson shooting and the grand jury decision. We have reacted differently to the protests and the rage and violence that followed the grand jury's decision.

And we react differently to the impact of poverty and the needs of the poor, especially when they are people of color.

African-American writer and feminist Bell Hooks wrote about "the intense anger felt by black people who experienced repeated instances of everyday racism," Kevin Cokley noted in the American Prospect last week. It is "critically important," Cokley wrote, "to try to understand the depths of hopelessness felt by some individuals that would lead to such violent protests."

Hopelessness, the despair and numbness of not seeing a path upward, leaves a mark. In his provocative last book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the consequences if the country didn't deal with the racism, poverty, inferior education, and myriad other problems facing black Americans.

Pointing to the nation's enthusiasm for space exploration, King wrote: "No such fervor or exhilaration attends the war on poverty. There is impatience with its problems, indifference toward its progress, and hostility toward its errors."

The citizens of Ferguson are beginning to investigate a crisis in their community, of which Michael Brown's death is simply a part. But what about the rest of us? The comments lashing out at Lovely Warren don't give me much hope.