A Grave Injustice

Rodney King died too young on June 17, 2012. He was beaten nearly to death by Los Angeles police officers on March 4, 1991. He lived over 21 years after his beating. Michael Brown did not survive his encounter with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Which outcome was more outrageous?

Once the nation’s eyes were trained on the LAPD, it wasn’t long before we learned that it was an embarrassingly corrupt organization. The same has proven true for St. Louis County, which runs “a system that raises money for itself by deluging a largely-black population with fines and tickets for minor civic infractions, then punishes them again and again with arrests and imprisonment for not being able to navigate a convoluted judicial system.”

They run a system where the prosecutor acts as the police departments’ defense attorney, which is a highly anomalous scenario:

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

The authorities didn’t even want to have a grand jury in this case. When the threat of civil unrest compelled them to convene one, the prosecutor threw the case, blaming the 24-hour news cycle and social media for creating the expectation that justice might be done in the broad daylight murder of Michael Brown. After the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision, Michael Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden said, simply, “They still don’t care. They ain’t never gon’ care.”

As Jamelle Bouie puts it:

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a society that gives dignity and respect to people like Michael Brown and John Crawford and Rekia Boyd. Instead, we’ve organized our country to deny it wherever possible, through negative stereotypes of criminality, through segregation and neglect, and through the spectacle we see in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area, where police are empowered to terrorize without consequence, and residents are condemned and attacked when they try to resist.

It should come as no surprise that black leaders in this country are expressing exasperation:

“This decision seems to underscore an unwritten rule that Black lives hold no value; that you may kill Black men in this country without consequences or repercussions. This is a frightening narrative for every parent and guardian of Black and brown children, and another setback for race relations in America,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) said in a statement.

The congresswoman called it a “slap in the face to Americans nationwide who continue to hope and believe that justice will prevail” and expressed solidarity with “the loved ones of all the Michael Browns we have buried in this country.”

Despite glaring racial disparities in the attitude to this case, there are no shortage of white people who are disappointed, saddened, or outraged by the “legality” of Michael Brown’s murder. But they will never feel what it is like to have their children threatened and devalued like this. They won’t know the fear and uncertainty this causes even for our president, First Lady, and Attorney General, all of whom have children who could one day be guilty of walking down the middle of the street when a man in a patrol car rolls up and tells them to “get the f*ck on the sidewalk.” And then guns them down in cold blood, collects a half million dollars from racist fans, and walks off scot-free to an early retirement.

You’ll hear all manner of justification for this outcome. You’ll hear that the evidence was inconsistent. You’ll hear that Michael Brown was a thug who looked like a demon. But he was an 18 year old boy who was minding his own business one minute and was left dead in the street the next. He was left there in a pool of blood for hours. There was no incident report. The victim was smeared. Grand jury testimony was selectively leaked.

Officer Darren Wilson should have been given the opportunity to defend his actions in a court of law. He could well have won an acquittal. But what’s clear is that the moment after he ended Michael Brown’s life, the system went into overdrive to protect him and to justify what he had done. They made sure that killing Michael Brown was not a crime. It wasn’t even maybe a crime. It was just what police officers do in America without having to worry that they might have to answer for it in court.

Americans can debate this all they want, but unless they know firsthand how this system feels to those who have to live their lives in terror, their opinions aren’t worth much.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.