“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?
No’ ma’am, killed a nigger
Well its lucky, cause sometimes people do get hurt”
Quote from Aunt Sally and Huck Finn
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
After Michael Brown was shot more than six times by officer Darren Wilson his body lay in the street face down for four hours. This combination of disrespect and incomprehensible slowness on the part of Ferguson officials is a metaphor for how they have mishandled the investigation.
At least three witnesses testified that Michael Brown was shot while his hands were raised in surrender.
Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown’s friend, recounts the tragic events of August 9. He said a police car pulled up alongside Brown and him, and the officer—Darren Wilson—allegedly told Johnson and Brown to “get the f- -k on the sidewalk.” As Wilson was driving away the two men declined the officers request saying they were minutes from home. Wilson, allegedly upset that his commands were not obeyed reverses and slams the car door on Brown. He tries to pull Brown into the car. An autopsy confirms Brown was shot once during the scuffle. Johnson went on to say Brown ran but was then fatally shot when he (Brown) turned around with his hands in the air. Ferguson police refused, at least initially to even interview Johnson.
Tiffany Mitchell who did not know Johnson and Brown tells the same story. She saw the confrontation while she was driving in her car to pick up an employee. “Then he turns around and puts his hands up and the officer continues to walk up and shoot him.” Crenshaw the employee Tiffany was attempting to pick up corroborates Mitchell. She was standing on the balcony of her apartment. “[Brown] put his arm up to let them know that he was compliant and that he was unarmed, and they shot him twice more, and he fell to the ground and died.” He didn’t have no weapon on him at all”, Crenshaw said.
In the face of this mounting evidence Ferguson authorities put Michael Brown on trial. They released a video showing a youth who looked like Michael Brown committing a strong-armed robbery of a cigar store. The issue became not what Darren Wilson did; the issue for the Ferguson police was who Michael Brown was.
When a police officer shoots someone the issue is what happened in the moment right before the shooting. Was there an immediate threat of serious bodily harm either to the officer or to innocent bystanders? This is
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson stated that Darren Wilson did not know anything about the robbery before his confrontation with Brown. But even if he did under the split second rule that does not matter. The question is at the moment Darren Wilson fired did Michael Brown have his hands up. Whether Brown was a strong-armed robber, whether he punched Darren Wilson in the car ultimately does not matter. If Michael Brown’s hands were up and Wilson shot him anyway that is murder.
Darren Wilson did testify contrary to the five witnesses. He testified that Michael Brown charged at him. But in the words of Reverend Al is it likely that an unarmed black teen who had already been shot charge at the gun which had just shot him? Portraying Michael Brown in this way seems to suggest he acted like a wild beast. This is reminiscent of the story police told about Rodney king who “continued to fight them after he had been tased and beaten.
There was no need for a grand jury in this case. The issue in this case was probable cause. Clearly, the physical evidence coupled with the eyewitness established that. The fact that no arrest took place is stunning-but not unexpected.
By impanelling a grand jury it gave the Prosecutor political cover under the pleasant fiction that the grand jury is independent. It is not. As the saying goes a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor asked it to.
I abhor violence. It is always tragic. But at the root of the problem is an unmistakable racial divide.
Fifty years after the civil rights movement blacks make up less than six percent of the Ferguson police force despite the fact they make up 67 percent of the population. Of all the traffic stops in Ferguson 86% are African American.
Rioters came to insist that despite what the grand jury said they would have their say. For them the grand jury verdict means that to the system in Ferguson black life does not matter. Rioters came to issue a verdict of their own.
If we are to heal the racial violence in Ferguson we must heal the social conditions that produced it.
Donald Jones is Professor of Law at the University of Miami. He is the author of Fear of a Hip hop Planet: America’s New Dilemma (2013).