Thoughts on Ferguson: Why America must wake up to the ugly reality of systemic racism

By John Irwin

The white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., avoided indictment by a grand jury on Tuesday. More from Bloomberg News:

[Prosecutors] said the teen attacked the officer in his car. The decision touched off new protests in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where the shooting took place three months ago.

The grand jury, composed of nine whites and three blacks, declined to charge Darren Wilson, 28, for the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown, 18, in a street encounter, St. Louis County Chief Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch announced today. The panel began hearing evidence Aug. 20 after days of protests triggered a police response that was criticized as militaristic and rekindled a national debate on race and law enforcement.

A crowd of at least 300 people gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department erupted into a collective moan as the decision was announced. Some members of the crowd began running down the street while others stood in the road blocking traffic.

Brown’s mother, Leslie McSpadden, spoke among the protesters after the decision was announced, crying as she repeated, “Y’all wrong, y’all wrong!”

Dozens of police officers in riot gear assembled in front of the station, at one point rushing into the crowd to arrest someone. A cardboard sign flew from the crowd toward the police, who wore shields and helmets. A series of pops that might have been gunfire or fireworks scattered the crowd at about 9 p.m. local. A line of about 50 police in riot gear moved behind cruisers in the department’s parking lot to take cover.

The violence that erupted in Ferguson following the decision is abhorrent and distracts from the serious and very real issues that surround the circumstances of Brown’s death, namely the systemic racism still prevalent in the justice system and law enforcement, and the militarization of police forces nationwide.

These are incredibly important issues that need discussion, and violent protests should not distract from them (although I suspect they will, unfortunately).

Before delving into those issues, I should say that I am far from a legal expert and, while I certainly have my opinions on the decision not to indict Wilson, it would be best for me to avoid discussing the specifics of this particular legal case because of that.

However, the larger economic, social and political issues that have been brought to light in the wake of Brown’s death deserve serious examination, regardless of whether the grand jury made the right decision. I’m afraid that discussion appears unlikely now that the violent protesters have looted and rioted, making perfect fodder for sensationalist news networks and Americans who would rather vilify than to seek clarity.

That’s a shame, too. After all, what the grand jury did last night was incredibly rare. More from FiveThirtyEight:

Wilson’s case was heard in state court, not federal, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable. Unlike in federal court, most states, including Missouri, allow prosecutors to bring charges via a preliminary hearing in front of a judge instead of through a grand jury indictment. That means many routine cases never go before a grand jury. Still, legal experts agree that, at any level, it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment.

“If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong,” said Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Cases involving police shootings, however, appear to be an exception. As my colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum has written, we don’t have good data on officer-involved killings. But newspaperaccountssuggest, grand juries frequently decline to indict law-enforcement officials. A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.

While it’s possible that this specific case was simply too weak for jurors to indict Wilson (or that they gave him the benefit of the doubt simply because he was a police officer), it’s still noteworthy and concerning that officers can apparently get away with more in the eyes of the law than a normal citizen would be able to. While officers are granted certain rights to protect and defend themselves and others, they must still obey the law. The numbers suggest that is not always the case. A careful examination into why that is and what can be done to change that is absolutely necessary.

Additionally, the police response to the Ferguson protesters has been reckless from the very beginning and has illustrated just how needlessly militarized U.S. police forces have become in the post-9/11 world.

Police officers in military and SWAT gear aiming guns at protesters and blockading streets, even as protests remained peaceful, does nothing except to incite violence. Announcing the grand jury’s decision at 8 p.m. local time last night for apparently little-to-no justifiable reason does nothing but to allow time for troublemakers to create chaos amid the peaceful protests. Launching tear gas, which is banned in international warfare, and using often overly aggressive disbursement tactics on numerous occasions does nothing but to add to the chaos the police likely helped to provoke in the first place.

That America as a whole has become so used to heavily-militarized law enforcement speaks volumes to just how little the nation now regards its civil liberties thanks to a vague idea of “security.” And that’s especially true if we’re talking about the civil liberties of a black man.

That brings me to my final, and most important, point that we as a nation, and especially as young people, must be discussing: Racial tensions in America.

Simply put, I, as a white, middle-class man born in Suburbia, USA, cannot possibly relate to the way minorities, and especially African-Americans, are treated on a regular basis by law enforcement and by many of their fellow Americans. I will never have to walk down a street fearful that simply looking in the wrong direction, saying the wrong words or choosing to wear the wrong clothes will cause a police officer to harass or intimidate me. I will never have to worry about being treated differently by my peers or authority figures simply because of the way I look. I will never have to worry about being trapped in a systemic cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity that plagues so many low-income black neighborhoods nationwide.

I will never understand just how truly exhausting and terrifying living as a black person in the United States can be for so many.

We fool ourselves into saying the United States guarantees equal opportunity and justice for all, but it doesn’t. If it did, the events in Ferguson likely would not have taken place. And in order to prevent the next Ferguson, we must wake up to that uncomfortable reality.

But how can it be, certain friends of mine have asked on social media, that America still has awful racial issues to confront? After all, we have a two-term black president! Things can’t be that bad.

They are. The tensions in Ferguson are the direct result of the United States sweeping its ugly history of racism under the rug and its refusal to make any serious effort to address it for decades. Ever since the passage of the Voting Rights Act (recently gutted by the Supreme Court), the U.S. has decided to collectively ignore the underlying issues facing non-white America. We, as a society, have even decided to make things worse in certain regards. From the racist and unjust policies of our 40-year Drug War to the passage of voter ID laws designed to discriminate against minorities and young people at the polls and more, we’ve made a disheartening amount of substantive progress on race relations since the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Twice electing a black president who frequently sidesteps issues of race does not change that.

President Barack Obama addressed reporters soon after the Wilson news broke. Frustratingly, he said little of note or substance, but one line did strike me as particularly powerful: “Communities of color aren’t just making these issues up.”

Everyone lucky enough to be in a privileged position in the United States, including myself, would be wise to remember that. These are issues that matter and are very real, and they will never go away until we decide to do something about it. Once the protests and outrage in Ferguson dies down, another unjust act against a black youth will inevitably cause another stir, and for good reason.

Violence is never an answer, but it’s virtually inevitable when people in power decide not to use it for the good of all. When leaders either ignore or, worse, work to sustain socioeconomic and political systems that work against minority and low-income Americans, what you get is Ferguson.

Therefore, it’s important for Americans, especially young people and those directly impacted by discriminatory policies, to make their voices heard. They should continue peacefully demonstrating nationwide, as the vast majority of protesters have. They should raise awareness of the issues surrounding the Ferguson case through social media. They should write to their congressmen, state leaders and local officials demanding change. Those up to the challenge should run for office and try to fight for change in a position of power. Most of all, they need to vote in each and every election for those who will make a difference once in power.

Changing anything in the United States is difficult, and that’s especially true today. Monied interests rule the political realm, and they typically have much to gain from keeping America’s rigged socioeconomic system in place.

But change must be made. How many more violent protests and deaths of unarmed youths at the hands of police must communities suffer before the U.S. owns up to its unjust policies?

My hope is none. And that can be the case if action is taken.

Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.

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