What To Make Of Ferguson?

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I was on break when the killing of Michael Brown – and the subsequent uproar – took place. And so I’m both unqualified and qualified to offer my two cents on the case. I’m unqualified because I didn’t go through the collective experience of others as this unfolded; I’m qualified because perhaps for the same reason: I can look at the case with a little more distance and a little less emotion. And the best piece I have read on this remains Radley Balko’s report from Saint Louis, where he describes in great and persuasive detail how racial dynamics and a police force financing itself from petty fines from the poor make any idea of equal justice in that area a pipe dream:

Locals say the cops and court officers often come not only from different zip codes, but from completely different cultures and lifestyles than the people whose fines and court fees fund their paychecks. “It was always apparent that police don’t usually have a lot in common with the towns where they work,” says Javad Khazaeli, whose firm Khazaeli Wyrsch represents municipal court clients pro bono. (Disclosure: Khazaeli is also a personal friend.) “But I think Ferguson really showed just how much that can be a problem.”

A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch survey of the 31 St. Louis County municipalities where blacks made up 10 percent or more of the population found just one town where black representation on the police force was equal or greater than the black presence in the town itself. Some towns were shockingly disparate. In Velda City, for example, blacks make up 95 percent of the town, but just 20 percent of the police. In Flordell Hills, it’s 91 percent and 25 percent respectively. In Normandy, 71 and 14. In Bellefontaine Neighbors, 73 and 3. In Riverview, 70 and 0.

Residents of these towns feel as if their governments see them as little more than sources of revenue. To many residents, the cops and court officers are just outsiders who are paid to come to their towns and make their lives miserable. There’s also a widely held sentiment that the police spend far more time looking for petty offenses that produce fines than they do keeping these communities safe.

Another critical piece of context:

Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

Not a great deal makes sense until you have absorbed that context – and know that Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot multiple times and killed. He became a symbol of something real – even though the exact details of the altercation between him and a cop were as yet unknown. As to the case itself, I found the prosecutor’s press conference almost laughably tone-deaf, as the man seemed to be more concerned with impugning social media than indicting an accused murderer. It was a small sign of a vast cultural and social disconnect.

But do I believe the Grand Jury was out to lunch? I don’t fully know without having attended the trial and absorbed every piece of evidence now released. But the autopsy confirms at least part of the cop’s testimony – that there was a scuffle inside the car, in which the cop’s gun was fired. And when a person attempts to grab a cop’s gun away from him, or reach into a cop car in order to physically intimidate the cop, we’re not talking about an innocent bystander. We’re talking about an assault on a police officer by someone who had recently stolen from a convenience store. This is not a 12-year-old shot dead for waving a BB gun around. He’s a person who – as the video from the convenience store reveals – can use his weight and size to intimidate and physically threaten those trying to stop him from stealing.

The proximate question, of course, is why Brown was shot multiple times after the altercation in the car.

Brown could have pulled a gun during the original altercation – but didn’t, because he didn’t have one. Couldn’t the cop have surmised that? Wilson, for his part, had several other options available to him:

I considered using my mace, however, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my left hand, which is blocking my face to go for it. I couldn’t reach around on my right to get it and if I would have gotten it out, the chances of it being effective were slim to none. His hands were in front of his face, it would have blocked the mace from hitting him in the face and if any of that got on me, I know what it does to me and I would have been out of the game. I wear contacts, if that touches any part of my eyes, then I can’t see at all.

Like I said, I don’t carry a taser, I considered my asp, but to get that out since I kind of sit on it, I usually have to lean forward and pull myself forward to the steering wheel to get it out. Again, I wasn’t willing to let go of the one defense I had against being hit.

That might explain the sudden resort to lethal force in the car – but doesn’t explain why a gun was the only weapon he chose to subdue Brown outside the car. He claims Brown charged at him with his hands up, but also reached down inside his waistband. He could have used mace at any point in ways that would not backfire as they might have in the car. And the cop cannot explain the multiple bullets he fired into Brown’s body. But he does revealingly describe him as a “demon”: “when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” And the entire episode lasted only 90 seconds.

I suspect it was overkill brought on by any number of factors racing through Wilson’s mind in those frenzied, panicked seconds. And yes, primordial racial feelings may well have been part of the mix. But I can also see why a Grand Jury would have trouble indicting him. A wanted criminal who picked a fight with a cop, struggled with his gun in the cop car, and then turned to face down a man he allegedly called a “pussy” for not shooting at him, is not easily turned into a victim of excessive police violence. The rarety of failures of Grand Jury’s to indict people for murder becomes a lot less rare when you’re talking about a cop confronting a known criminal, especially when the criminal has just tussled with a cop in his car and grabbed his gun.

Which makes this a tragedy. There was no need for Wilson to shoot Brown multiple times; but there was absolutely no justification for Brown assaulting a cop and trying to grab his gun. Once you do that, a jury will not second-guess a member of law enforcement defending himself.

Which leaves us with the endemic problems of trust in the police force that Balko examined.

Which have just gotten immeasurably worse.