A State Of Misery: #Ferguson and The Failure of Leadership

Rule of Law. The restriction of the arbitrary exercise of power by subordinating it to well-defined and established laws.

The events in Ferguson have made me think a lot about the 3 P’s: process, politics, and peace. And my conclusion, after much reflection, is that the actions of a few state and local government officials here in Missouri—ironically in the pursuit of justice and “law and order”—have practically and consistently undermined the rule of law. In other words, I am not happy with what Governor Nixon and St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McColluch have “Shown-Me.”

I won’t bother with the niceties of gathering a few random-ish links to the justifiedly voluminous coverage of the events in my town. See, I live in Clayton, Missouri, the county seat of St. Louis County. Indeed, I live less than 2 miles from where the grand jury deliberated and about 8 miles from the site of the shooting of Michael Brown.

From a process standpoint, Prosecutor McCulloch’s use of the grand jury has been absolutely and transparently cynical: the community, nay, the nation needs a trial when a police officer kills an unarmed civilian. Period. Even more strongly, it does not require an aberration from the normal process of how grand juries are run. As many others have pointed out, grand juries are not intended to hear a “balanced” accounting. Why? Because a prosecutor’s job is not to provide such an accounting, and there is (essentially) no defense team in the grand jury room. The grand jury is supposed to be able to indict a ham sandwich: that’s why the failure to seek a grand jury indictment is suspicious to juries and judges.

From a politics standpoint, the simple point I want to make is this: everything in the run-up to the announcement of the grand jury’s decision was decidedly political. From Governor Jay Nixon’s declaration of a state of emergency in Missouri—1 week prior to the actual decision—to the oddly timed announcement of the decision at 8pm CST last night (and mentioning only in passing both Prosecutor McCulloch’s tardiness at his own coming out party, ahem, press conference and his own highly questionable relationship with grand juries, truth, and unbiasedness), there has been absolutely no positive effort to handle this very difficult, very fragile process toward a positive outcome.

To be clear, this is not about Officer Darren Wilson. This is about a system that, regardless of whether one thinks it is “broken” at the core, is indisputably demonstrating that in its current configuration is incapable of maintaining even a semblance of professionalism.

That brings me to the point about peace. The whole dynamic has been adversarial between McCulloch and Nixon. Neither is a particularly inspiring politician (though I have admired Nixon at times dealing with the state legislature). Each is a Democrat. Neither has any realistic career goals beyond/above their current office (McCulloch has been the St. Louis County Prosecutor since 1991!). Simply put, this tragic event was an opportunity for each of them to stand together for, I don’t know, providing clarity and certainty to a large, heterogeneous, and great city. Instead, each fell far short, providing nothing of the sort. The timing of the decision, the rambling press conference that I watched while holding my confused daughter, holding out hope of at least one indictment, the continuing mishandling/miscalibration of the law enforcement response in the area, the fact that public schools in decidedly working class towns were cancelled in anticipation of the uncertainty about this whole shebang…

THESE ARE EACH A FAILURE OF A BASIC RESPONSIBILITY OF GOVERNMENT.

After all, the responsibility of government in general, and the justice system in particular, is to provide security, clarity, and regularity to the governed. And accordingly, this is exactly where every relevant component of the governments of the State of Missouri and St. Louis County have completely and unquestionably fallen short of even a bare passing mark.

Governor Nixon and Prosecutor McCulloch have been playing a game of cat and mouse from the days immediately following Michael Brown’s killing. Viewed in isolation, the actions of each can be arguably justified as a response to the uncertainty he faced with respect to the actions and intents of the other. But this is exactly why each must be judged, without hesitation, as having failed their most basic, “Hobbesian” responsibility. They are supposed to work together. Instead, we have seen multiple, craven and ham-fisted attempts to procure attention-grabbing, position-taking, and general preening opportunities. Leadership is hard, it often requires a team, and when done right, the rewards are disperse, but permanent.

To summarize, the social science of this is that Ferguson of course starts with and encompasses racial inequality, but it extends beyond this. People are angry because the government, at multiple levels, has failed us in its most basic responsibility: maintaining the rule of law.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]