Friday, August 22, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson, Missouri

It would be easy to jump into the Ferguson fray over the past nine days, but we are taught that there are two sides to every story. No video exists, to the best of our knowledge, of the actual confrontation between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson. The facts still remain sketchy. This recent case of alleged excessive force is unusual. Apparently we do not have a real time video or audio of the incident. Thus, the initial image is one presented by eyewitnesses. The most important witness is Michael Brown’s companion, Dorian Johnson. We think we know one side of the shooting of Mike Brown on August 9. An unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson while Brown had his hands up seeking to surrender. Dorian said that Michael was turning around with his hands in the air, saying “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” That was the initial eyewitness account, and was accepted by the community and media. Mike Brown was shot in the back with his hands up while seeking to surrender. That awful image was portrayed as yet again a senseless shooting of an African-American teenager by a white, presumably, bigoted cop. That is the national image from August 9 in Ferguson Missouri. There are two sides to a story. Other eyewitnesses are telling a different story, and we have yet to hear the Officer’s account of the tragic incident. The Officer may have been severely injured in the confrontation, which brings up the issue of self-defense. Then we learn that Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson had strong-armed a merchant a short time earlier. We learn that Dorian has a rap sheet. Perhaps Dorian is not telling the truth. Media and civil rights leaders may have rushed to judgment. The Reverend Al Sharpton, an outside agitator, rushed to Ferguson. Regardless, the city of Ferguson erupted. One commonality about communities erupting after a police shooting of an African-American, such as in Ferguson, Cincinnati, or Lexington, Kentucky is that the shooting is the catalyst, the spark, that ignites a community ready to erupt, like the bubbling magma under a volcano. A history of unredressed police brutality, systemic discrimination, high unemployment, low paying jobs, lack of political power, a feeling the community is not being heard, leads to racial tension. Missouri is a border state with a long history of divisive racial relations. Michael Brown, the innocent, hands in the air, Michael Brown, became a cause celebre for the African-American community. He became a martyr for Civil Rights. The city erupted. The police may have overreacted at the beginning by using excessive force against demonstrators. Peaceful demonstrations became violent. The local police lost control of the situation. The Sheriff’s Office became the primary police force. Then came a showing of militarized police. Looting broke out at night. Governor Jay Nixon became hapless. First, he put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge under Captain Ron Johnson, an African American trooper from Ferguson. Captain Johnson did his conciliatory best to calm the situation. He got relative peace for one night. He mixed with the demonstrators during the day. These protests were peaceful. Then the looting resumed at night. One night Captain Johnson had the police stand by as the looting continued. “Standing down” is not an answer to looters. Instead, it emboldens them because they have a green light to steal for free and get away with it. The Governor announced a curfew. The rioting, looting and arson began again at night. The Governor called out the National Guard, but not to control the streets, but to protect the command center. Riots, looting, arson. Senator Claire McCaskill, not exactly a paragon of virtue, decried the presence of a militarized police force. Governor Jay Nixon Tuesday afternoon threw Officer Wilson under the bus. He demanded the prosecution of Officer Wilson as we “come together” to seek justice for Michael Brown and his family:” “Second, a vigorous prosecution must now be pursued. “The democratically elected St. Louis County prosecutor and the Attorney General of the United States, each has a job to do. Their obligation to achieve justice in the shooting death of Michael Brown must be carried out thoroughly, promptly and correctly; And I call upon them to meet these expectations….” So I ask that we continue to stand together as we work to achieve justice for Michael Brown….” He basically demanded that Officer Wilson be criminally prosecuted. Defense attorneys now have a wonderful argument. The Governor irrevocably contaminated the jury pool. Officer Wilson will be unable to get a fair trial in the State of Missouri. The former Attorney General of Missouri had to know better, but he also knows that if he runs for future office, then he must secure the large African American vote in St. Louis and Kansas City. The Governor’s press office walked back these remarks Wednesday, recognizing that the Governor experienced a quick backlash. Our first African-American President has not resolved the Black teenage unemployment policy. Young men, regardless of race, are volatile, especially when unemployed. England, for example, attempted to resolve the problem of unemployed Irish teens, by enlisting them in the British Army or Royal Navy, or getting them to migrate to the United States, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. A rising black teen unemployment rate correlates to a rise in the minimum wage. The long term victims in Ferguson will be the 20,000 residents. The looted stores will probably not reopen, and small business operators will be leery of opening up shop in the community. Ferguson’s citizens are not the rioters and looters. The residents are peacefully demonstrating during the day, as is their constitutional right. They help clean up stores after lootings. They are decrying the violence. Ministers and community elders attempt to forestall the criminal acts. They understand the long term costs to Ferguson. The perpetrators are not the peaceful citizens of Ferguson, but intruders from outside. Of the 51 recent arrests, only one was from Ferguson. Rioters may reflect rage, but looters are simply opportunistic thieves. A century ago, as in the looting immediately following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the military was given orders to “shoot to kill” looters. We don’t issue those orders anymore, but they do stop looting. Some community leaders and media are demanding that Robert McCulloch, the white District Attorney, step aside to ensure justice is done. They define “justice” in terms of Officer Wilson being indicted, convicted, and jailed with the keys being thrown away. We have a strong presumption in America of innocent until proven guilty. Many of the loudmouths believe Officer Wilson is guilty, even if he is innocent. DA McCulloch is allegedly biased because 1) he is tough on African-American defendants, 2) he works closely with the police, and 3) his father, a police officer, was killed in 1964 by an African-American when DA McCulloch was 12. These statements sound like talking points prepared in a political campaign – not the pursuit of justice. Prosecutors have a bias. They dislike criminally prosecuting police officers for the use of excessive force. They also know that criminal juries will often acquit the police officers. The drive to recuse DA McCulloch heated up when facts started appearing that could justify the shooting as a justifiable shooting. Officer Wilson apparently needed hospital treatment after the altercation. He may have a valid claim of self-defense, and a grand jury consequently unwilling to indict. President Obama on Monday was remarkably subdued and low-key as he addressed the death of Mr. Brown, almost as if he were disinterested. President Obama had twice before injected himself into black-white relations, and then backed off. The first was a confrontation between Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department. Professor Gates had trouble unlocking his house when he arrived home at night. A neighbor called the police, saying she thought that perhaps two men were breaking in the house. Officer Crowley was one of the responding officers. Professor Gates finally identified himself as the homeowner, but was highly confrontational. The officer finally arrested the professor for “disorderly conduct.” The President on July 22 in a news conference said the “Cambridge Police acted stupidly.” He subsequently backtracked when the full set of facts emerged and the public sided with the police. Then came the Trayvon Martin shooting by George Zimmerman. The President said “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” More facts came out, and the jury acquitted Zimmerman. The President again backed down, saying he meant he could have been Trayvon 35 years earlier. This time, with Michael Brown, President Obama was not going to get ahead of the facts. The President, true to form, will now lead from behind.

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