Frustration among many nationwide over the decision of a grand jury not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was fatally shot by Wilson in a daytime encounter on Aug.9, is understandable. But that doesn’t justify the rioting, looting and other unlawful behavior in Ferguson and other cities Nov. 24.
A grand jury composed of nine whites and three blacks had been meeting weekly since Aug. 20 to consider evidence in this case. The jury met for 70 hours and heard from 60 witnesses over that period.
On Monday night, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch announced the decision not to indict on five separate charges, ranging from manslaughter to first-degree murder. McCulloch stressed during the announcement that the grand jurors were “the only people who heard every witness ... and every piece of evidence.”
Thousands of pages of grand jury materials also were made public Monday night, including evidence and testimony from Wilson and several eyewitnesses, much of it allegedly conflicting. Attorneys for the Brown family claimed the process was biased against Brown, a sentiment shared by many in the Ferguson community, whose population is 67 percent African-American.
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Wilson still faces an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, which could charge him with depriving Brown of his civil rights. The officer also could face a civil lawsuit brought by family members.
But this case reflects concerns larger than this one incident. Brown has come to symbolize the large number of blacks fatally shot by police in the line of duty and the rarity of charges being brought against the police.
That is due in part because of the legal latitude officers have to use deadly force when they believe their lives are in danger or when they are trying to prevent the commission of a felony. But beyond that, the Ferguson shooting demands a close examination of whether this prevalent use of force is justified or whether it represents a racial bias ingrained in our system of justice, where so often the victims are black.
In other pertinent ways, Ferguson seems to represent the problem in microcosm. Of the 53 members of the Ferguson police force, only three are black. Only one of the seven members of the Ferguson City Council is black, and the school board has no black members.
The city’s mayor has made statements that make him seem oblivious to the racial discord in his own community. When asked about the issue, Mayor James Knowles stated “there is no racial divide” and “that is the perspective of all residents in our city.”
He attributed the problem to “outside agitators,” echoing a rationale commonly offered by segregationists in the 1960s.
Prosecutor McCulloch’s personal history also gives rise to charges of bias. He has deep family connections with Missouri police, with a father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin who all worked for the St. Louis Police Department.
His father, in fact, was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect.
While McCulloch might be entirely fair and unbiased, he should have begged off of this case if only to avoid the appearance of allowing his connections to the police to influence his duties as prosecutor.
Ideally, the discussion about events in Ferguson and their relevance to the rest of the nation would occur in a calm and orderly way. But that’s not what happened in the aftermath of the Nov. 24 announcement in Ferguson.
About 1,000 protesters took to the streets of Ferguson after the decision of the jury panel was made public. While many, including Brown’s parents and President Barack Obama, had urged calm in the days leading up to the announcement, the reaction by many protesters was the opposite, with looting and burning of more than a dozen buildings in Ferguson.
At least 80 people in the St. Louis area were arrested. Protests also took place in other large urban areas, such as Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver and Oakland, Calif.
The explosive reaction was contradictory and counterproductive. Why do you protest violence by committing violence, senseless violence against property owners who are in no way connected with the case at hand?
We can’t afford to willfully ignore the tension between police and minorities in Ferguson or other cities across the nation. The debate over what happened in Ferguson and how racial bias is present in our justice system is not over.
But the violence needs to stop.