A grand jury’s decision not to indict the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown may be explainable within the confines of Missouri law that gives law enforcement officers wide latitude to use deadly force if they feel their lives or others’ are at risk.
But Monday’s announcement that officer Darren Wilson will face no criminal charges does not make the Aug. 9 death of the black teenager any more acceptable.
Evidence shows that Brown and Wilson had some kind of struggle that involved Brown reaching into Wilson’s vehicle. But Brown was unarmed, and he was 150 feet away from Wilson’s vehicle when the officer fired the shots that killed the teenager. There had to have been a better possible outcome than Brown’s body, shot multiple times, sprawled on Canfield Drive for four hours while crowds gathered and anger mounted.
That anger has not subsided, and we don’t argue that it should. Brown’s death quickly came to symbolize the shared conviction among black Americans that they have reason to fear when a police cruiser rolls by, and that their lives in the eyes of the law and much of society are of lesser value than the lives of white Americans.
Those are legitimate beliefs honed by a long history of racial profiling, overly aggressive policing in black communities and the funerals of too many sons, brothers and fathers killed mostly because of the color of their skin. The decision by police in St. Louis County to counter demonstrations following Brown’s death with rubber bullets, tanks and tear gas only served to lend certainty to those perceptions.
It is time to hold these wounds to the light and work toward a fairer and more inclusive nation.
“We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson. This is an issue for America,” President Barack Obama said following the announcement.
In a statement that came across as unnecessarily defiant and accusatory toward Brown’s supporters, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch summarized the evidence the grand jury used to make its decision. He talked about conflicting witness testimony, but said most witnesses said Brown was moving toward Wilson when the officer fired the fatal shots.
“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact and fiction,” McCulloch said. “No probable cause exists to file any charges against Darren Wilson.”
A different grand jury, guided by a different prosecutor, may have regarded the case differently. But the task now is to make Brown’s death count for something good.
Whatever went on in the confrontation with Wilson, he deserves for his legacy to must be something better than unfocused rage, misdirected violence and, God forbid, more deaths.
It was dismaying to see protests quickly turn violent in and around Ferguson after McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision. Demonstrators were throwing objects and police were responding with tear gas even as Obama was on television calling for calm.
Protesters in Ferguson and elsewhere must find a way to challenge authority and demand equal status in the eyes of the police and the law without tearing apart their own cause or a community that is already at a breaking point. Law enforcement must give them the space to do that.
And then, we go forward. Work is underway in the St. Louis area to learn from the tragedy of Ferguson and build a stronger region. Let’s hope it succeeds. The next few days will be crucial.
But Kansas City and every corner of America have work to do on race relations. It begins with honest dialogue and an examination of unfair systems and attitudes that breed hardship, dispair and resentment.
Because resentment, as the world has seen in Ferguson, can spark into rage in an instant.