Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The stunning rush to judgment in Ferguson

Just like that, it was a racially motivated police execution of an innocent black man.  Or so we’re assured.  Trouble is, not all the facts are in.  Doesn’t that bother anyone?

Whatever happened to the principle, “Innocent until proven guilty?”  Until this month, it seemed to be a bedrock of American jurisprudence.  But if anyone is inclined to afford Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson that right, such sentiments have been hard to find in the last week and a half of political jockeying and media reporting.

The facts at our disposal are damned scant.  We know officially that Wilson got into some kind of confrontation with two Ferguson residents.  At the end of it, 18 year old Michael Brown lay in the middle of the street, shot dead at the hands of that officer.

Rumors began flying immediately.   A bystander’s cell phone video taken immediately after the shooting and posted on You Tube tells the tale.   If you’re willing to wade through all the f-bombs and mf-bombs those on the street were casually tossing out that afternoon, you’ll hear them telling each other that they’ve “heard” that Brown had his hands up and was trying to surrender when the officer shot him.  But this same video also provides another interesting point:  not every witness told the same story.  One describes having seen Brown run back toward the officer, after initially fleeing.   As we’ll see in a moment, that could be significant.

From the start, the Ferguson Police Department has completely bungled its handling of the crisis.  Its explanation to date has left huge holes in the official story.   Police Chief Thomas Jackson even withheld the name of the police officer until he could find something nasty to say about Brown, and then gave the public both bits of information on the same day, stating that Brown was a suspect in a convenience store strong-arm robbery.  Jackson’s reading of the prepared statement was so inept that he momentarily left the impression that Brown was a suspect at the time the officer stopped him; Jackson issued a clarification to the contrary later.  The community saw this selective release of facts for exactly what it was, which did nothing to increase the level of trust.  The furious backlash that followed was entirely predictable to anyone and everyone except that police chief.  It’s hard to imagine what the police department could have done to make the situation any worse for Ferguson.  (And for the record, no, I’m not suggesting the convenience store angle should have been kept secret.  I am saying that releasing it as one of the few carefully selected facts we’ve been allowed to know didn’t pass the smell test and was guaranteed to fuel, rather than calm, tensions.)

To date, the vast majority of facts on the table are those that have been put there by non-official, private persons and entities, starting with people who told the media they saw the shooting.  Authorities even have kept the official autopsy under wraps, for no obvious good reason.  That left the family to do its own private autopsy and release those results to the public, which it did.  

Was Brown trying to surrender when the bullets hit him?  The results were not conclusive.  The private autopsy did find that one bullet had entered the top of Brown’s head.  “It can be because he’s giving up,” the New York Times quoted Dr. Michael Braden as saying, “or because he’s charging forward at the officer.”   Note that those two scenarios are vastly different.  In one, Brown is trying to disengage and surrender.  In the other, he’s attacking, possibly in an effort to hurt or even kill Wilson.  But family attorney Benjamin Crump applied selective listening.  “It verifies the worst that the family thinks happened,” he told USA Today, “that he was executed.”  He called for the officer’s immediate arrest.   (So did at least one news organization that should have known better, The Huffington Post, which threw all traditional journalism values to the wind and ran a huge headline that screamed in big block letters, “ARREST HIM!”)

It’s not surprising that the shooting would spark such outrage, even without the full facts.  Simmering tensions between police departments and some of the communities they patrol, especially economically depressed ones, are a sad fact of life in this country.  Certainly, poor police practices are to blame for some of that.  So is the nation's failed war on drugs, which study after study has shown affects minorities disproportionately and unfairly.  Nor is it surprising that professional race activists like Al Sharpton, who rose to prominence on the Tawana Brawley lie and has never looked back, would pile on.  Sharpton made it clear when he parachuted into town that he’d heard enough to know the shooting was improper.  “Deal with the last sign he had shown,” he told a church crowd, referring to the claim that Brown had his hands in the air and was trying to surrender when Wilson shot him.  “We want answers why that sign was not respected.”   Fine—it’s no shock that even without having heard the other side of the story, certain people are willing to flatly accept the “Brown was executed” version of events.

But here’s what is surprising.  The state police captain who took over security of the area appears to have accepted it too.   Speaking to a packed unity rally at Greater Grace Church, Ron Johnson apologized to the Brown family for the shooting, stated that he was “ashamed,” and held Michael Brown up as a martyr for racial progress.  “We need to thank him for the change that he is going to make in America,” he said to a standing ovation.  Media reports on the speech were universally favorable, as far as I’ve been able to see, with headlines using words such as “amazing,” “riveting,” “heartfelt,” and so on.

While expressing solidarity with the community, Johnson could have taken the opportunity to repudiate those who are burning and looting.  He didn’t.   But absolutely no one seems to have noticed one glaring issue with the speech.   It proceeds from the assumption that police officer Darren Wilson committed a murder.

Well, maybe Wilson did.  Perhaps Captain Johnson knows something we don’t.  After all, he is a top law enforcement official.  He may well possess damning facts that have not yet been released to the public.   Let’s hope that he does.  There hasn’t been a whisper of criticism of Johnson’s position from other leaders or law enforcement officials in that community that I’ve been able to find.  Maybe that’s because they know the Brown family really is due an official apology, and that his killing really is a matter of shame for others who wear a law enforcement uniform, and that Brown’s death was unjust and really could pave the way for reforms needed to make a better America for black men and women, as Johnson said in his speech.  Let’s hope that’s the case.  And let’s hope everyone still feels good about that speech once all the facts are in.

For the sake of that hopeful vision of a better future, let’s pray that an interview released this week on KFTK radio in St. Louis does not indicate that problems may lie ahead for the “Wilson is a cold blooded racist killer” narrative.  A woman claiming to be a friend of the officer’s gave what she said is his side of the story—the side authorities haven’t let you hear yet.  According to her, the officer had indeed pegged Brown as a possible suspect in that strong-arm robbery.  Brown tried to grab the officer’s gun, she said, and it went off in the struggle.  According to her version of events, Brown ran off but then ran back, charging the officer.  

There’s no way of determining at present whether she knows what she’s talking about or even who she is, but CNN reported that her comments match what they’re hearing behind the scenes from investigators about Wilson’s story.  If that really is what Wilson is saying, and if he has any evidence to back it up, that would paint a very different picture of events indeed, especially if Wilson can show that Brown went for his gun, might have been going for it again, and that Wilson feared for his life.  Police manuals and procedures vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in my experience an attempt to wrestle an officer’s weapon from him usually does provide legal justification for the use of deadly force, even if the suspect is not otherwise armed.   According to some media reports, that is the law and policy in Ferguson as well.

There can be no doubt that the death of another black man at the hands of law enforcement speaks to one of our nation's great ongoing tragedies.  We should not have lost Brown.  We shouldn't lose any of our youths in this manner.  Certainly, it's a time for grief, and strong emotion, and soul-searching.  But that does not mean it's time for a rush to judgment.  It's precisely because people tend not to make good decisions in an emotional crisis that we have well established legal processes and traditions in place.

Since Wilson remains muzzled for now, we’ll all have to wait and see what all the facts actually are—those of us who are willing to do so, that is.  Sadly, the list of people showing any inclination to patiently withhold judgment, wait for the full facts to come in, and allow time for our legal systems and procedures to work through this doesn’t appear to be particularly long at the moment.


©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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