Police Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted on Monday, but society itself was.“For how many years have we been talking about issues that lead to situations like this?” asked St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. “I don’t want to be here again.”
He went so far as to say, “If the laws are not working, we need to change them.”
McCulloch said this immediately after announcing to the world that under present Missouri law the grand jury had not found reasonable cause to charge Wilson with a crime in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
McCulloch cited specific evidence that led to the decision, noting among other things that Brown’s blood had been found on Wilson’s uniform.
But McCulloch remained vague about the issues that he says we need to address. He has in the past said nothing about a case where Ferguson police officers arrested a man for destruction of property because he bled on their uniforms while they allegedly beat him. One cop who admitted to hitting the man went on to become one of the five whites on the six-member Ferguson City Council.
McCulloch also has not had much to say about the Ferguson Police Department being overwhelmingly white in a city that is 70 percent black. He has not seemed disturbed about blacks in Ferguson being three times as likely as whites to be stopped by the police, twice as likely to be searched when they are, and then twice as likely to be arrested. He has not suggested anything is amiss when Ferguson issues three warrants for every household in a year and residents annually average some $100 per person in fines and court fees.
Years of that set the tone of life in Ferguson when Wilson and Brown encountered each other for 90 tragic seconds in August.
Maybe now McCullough and others in positions of power and influence are ready to address this other body of evidence, along with the larger issues of race and class that extend far beyond Ferguson.
That is certainly the hope of Michael Brown’s father, who was quoted by President Obama after the grand jury’s decision was announced.
“Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer,” the elder Brown had said last week in a public-service video. “No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”
In now citing the father’s words, Obama noted, “Michael’s parents lost more than anyone.”
Obama emphasized that we are a nation of laws and that “we must accept this as the grand jury’s decision to make.” He reminded everyone that “police officers put their lives on the line every single day.”
But he also said we cannot be blind to the tension between the police and minorities, who often feel the cops are not working for the community but against it.
“This is tragic because nobody needs good policing more than poorer neighborhoods with higher crime rates,” Obama said.
He proposed among other things that police departments must better reflect the ethnic makeup of the populace.
“We know that makes a difference,” he said.
He then struck an optimistic note, saying his own life is proof that we have made great progress in matters of race.
“To deny that progress is to deny America’s capacity for change,” he said. “But what is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”
He added, “These are real issues.”
Even as Obama spoke, a number of protesters in Ferguson either let their anger get the better of them or used the tragedy as an excuse to act out, looting and setting fires and by the sound of it firing guns. They certainly could not be feeling anything close to the hurt being experienced by Brown’s parents, who were continuing to call for peace and progress.
“We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden said in a post-decision statement. “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”
They went on, “We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction.”
They concluded, “Let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.”
Meanwhile, the prosecutor released the grand jury minutes for all to read. The transcript includes Wilson’s testimony, in which he dramatically describes himself as firing to save his own life as an unarmed teenager charged toward him, leaning forward.
“I know if he reaches me, he’ll kill me,” Brown testified. “I remember looking at my sites and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot.”
That final bullet seems to have been instantly fatal. The pain of that loss was still manifest in the dead teen’s father on Friday, as Michael Brown Sr. was filmed walking past the same spot where his son fell. The father had a plastic bag in each hand, containing two of the turkeys he had come to pass out to people in the neighborhood.
“Michael!” a woman called out.
“You still here?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m still here,” she said.
The father gave her a turkey and continued on, having summoned the very best in himself after the worst hurt a father can suffer.
He is someone for whom we should all give thanks as we come to Thanksgiving. He is also a challenge for all of us to join him working to set right a society that the prosecutor himself indicted even while announcing that Wilson would not be charged.
“SEASON’S GREETINGS” reads the sign over the street outside the building housing both the Ferguson Police and the municipal court, the two entities where reform must begin.