The Rev. Carlton Lee had just checked into a hotel room, weary from a day of talking about race, faith and politics at Yale University when he heard the news: Sources inside the Department of Justice leaked that the agency would not be charging Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for civil rights violations in the death of Michael Brown.
“I am just very saddened by this,” Lee said. “It’s a statement to all law enforcement officials that you can kill a black kid and get away with it.”
Lee, a friend of the Brown family who baptized Michael Brown Sr. and would've baptised Michael Brown one day before the grand jury’s decision was announced in November, sounded tired and a bit caught off guard by the news, reported by The New York Times. Like most of the developments in Brown’s case, Wednesday’s report was just the latest in a long string of perceived injustices for the man Lee claims was killed simply for being a black teenager.
“I’m very surprised, because of some of the conversations that were had behind the scenes about this case, it seemed like the federal government was going to come in and really investigate to the best of their ability,” Lee said, adding incredulously, “You mean to tell me the federal government didn’t have enough to charge [Wilson]?”
The case, by all appearances, was investigated thoroughly and independently from St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office, an entity that employed local law enforcement and federal agents to collect a glut of witness testimony and evidence surrounding Brown’s death. Much of that was released following the grand jury announcement, and soon after that McCulloch dumped thousand of pages of FBI interviews with witnesses, neighbors, friends and family of Brown’s.
It’s unclear what, if any, of those documents were used by the DoJ. But their task was different. To charge Wilson with a violation of civil rights in Brown’s death, Attorney General Eric Holder’s department would have had to prove not only that the officer acted wrongly in pulling the trigger, but that he was motivated by factors of race in doing so.
The grand jury under McCulloch’s watched already decided on the former charge, and the latter is an even more difficult one to pin on Wilson, according University of Missouri law professor Ben Trachtenberg.
“To win a conviction, they must prove the usual bad acts (such as an unlawful shooting) plus racial animus, which is very difficult to show beyond a reasonable doubt,” Trachtenberg wrote in an email.
Wilson has been cleared by his peers on the St. Louis County grand jury, and has now been apparently exonerated by the feds. The only thing that remains is the DoJ’s investigation of Wilson’s former employer, the Ferguson Police Department. That’s another civil rights probe, and one that may carry a similar difficulty in proving actions motivated by race.
Speaking over the phone Wednesday night, the outcome of that investigation didn’t seem to matter to Lee. The system is rigged in a way that the pastor, whose church was burned down with much of Ferguson following the grand jury announcement, said he is focused on doing the work in his community no one else is willing to do.
“Critics like to say that the African-American race is killing each other one by one. But if you you take the jobs away from them, you take education away from them, what the hell are they supposed to do? You take away these resources, you take away this help, what do you expect to happen?” Lee said. “Our church—we’re going broke trying to stabilize the community—trying to create these social programs to address these situations.”
Beyond that, Lee has another, more personal concern: Protecting those closest to him.
“What am I supposed to tell my sons?” he said of the boys, ages 12 and 4. “I tell them not to walk in the street. I tell them, ‘Try not to act as black.’”