Law vs. justice: A grand jury declines to indict a police officer in racially charged Ferguson, Mo., shooting

November 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 26, 2014

Legally speaking, the Missouri grand jury that declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown may have made the right decision.

But the fact is that another man — another white man — another white man with a license to carry a deadly weapon — won’t face charges for the killing of another black man — another unarmed young black man. Morally speaking, this episode seems to reinforce an unwritten, unofficial American hierarchy that values white lives over black lives.

This is the same power dynamic that we’ve seen play out over the past several days — in fact, over a number of decades — in the case of beloved comedian Bill Cosby, a talented, successful entertainer who appears to have drugged and sexually assaulted more than a dozen women dating back to at least 1965. In Cosby’s case, a number of his alleged assaults were white, while he is black.

But make no mistake. The entertainer’s ability to escape most consequences of his apparent misdeeds is an extension of the same societal structure from which Wilson has benefited, and George Zimmerman before him, and Woody Allen before him, and Bill Clinton before him, and countless others before them. This structure habitually favors men over women, the rich over the poor and the powerful over the powerless — even if its beneficiaries occasionally sport darker skin, as in the case of Cosby.

The key word in that last phrase is occasionally. Last month, an analysis of three years of data conducted by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica found that a black man aged 15 to 19 was 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than a white man in the same age range. Over a 33-year period, police killed 41 individuals who were 13- or 14-years-old; of them, nearly two-thirds of the victims were black.

Some of these police shootings were certainly justified. But in too many cases, the killers walk away, like Wilson, without spending a day behind bars. Often, the killers aren’t even indicted.

Recall that George Zimmerman, the self-appointed vigilante who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, wasn’t even arrested until more than six weeks after the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting. A jury later acquitted him of the shooting, which occurred after Zimmerman got out of his truck and confronted the younger man.

Think of Sean Williams and David Darkow, the Beavercreek, Ohio, police officers who fatally shot shopper John Crawford III while he walked around a Walmart with an unboxed BB gun that he’d picked up from the store’s shelves. A grand jury in that case declined to indict the officers in that killing. It was the third time in five years that officers in the county were not charged for their involvements in fatal shootings.

Or take the case of Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island cop who was seen on video putting 43-year-old Eric Garner into a chokehold that ultimately claimed his life. Garner died in that July 17 incident, but a grand jury has yet to decide whether or not to indict the officer.

I found myself drawn to the words of Jamelle Bouie, who wrote on Tuesday for Slate:

[A]ctual justice for Michael Brown—a world in which young men like Michael Brown can’t be gunned down without consequences — won’t come from the criminal justice system. Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters — they exist inside society, not outside of it — and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a society that gives dignity and respect to people like Michael Brown and John Crawford and Rekia Boyd. Instead, we’ve organized our country to deny it wherever possible, through negative stereotypes of criminality, through segregation and neglect, and through the spectacle we see in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area, where police are empowered to terrorize without consequence, and residents are condemned and attacked when they try to resist.

In the months since his Aug. 9 encounter with Brown, Wilson has married, conceived a child and been given more than $400,000 in donations by sympathetic Americans. Brown has been lying in a grave while many of those who voiced support for his killer — as well as the killer himself — employ vile language defaming the dead teenager.

The law may have been well served by the decision not to indict Wilson. But it certainly doesn’t seem to me that justice has been rendered.

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