I haven’t wanted to comment on the recent events in Ferguson Missouri, where rioting followed the refusal of a grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson after he shot and illed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. I’m not African-American, not a police officer nor an expert on police procedure, not an attorney, nor any kind of expert on race relations. I’m just a middle-aged white playwright. Still, the commentators who have resonated with me were those who have called for a renewed ‘national conversation on race.’ So I thought I would offer a few thoughts, in no particular order.
1) I watched the press conference in which Ferguson DA Robert McCulloch presented the decision by the grand jury not to indict Officer Wilson. He stressed the even-handed way in which the evidence was presented, the careful cross-examination of contradictory witnesses, and he released all the relevant documentation (a decision for which he should be applauded). I thought it was a very strange press conference. I would love to be corrected if I’m wrong on this, but my understanding is that prosecutors aren’t supposed to be even-handed and objective. They’re supposed to aggressively push for an indictment. Even stranger, Officer Wilson’s testimony was not subjected to cross-examination, apparently. It’s as though the grand jury was being led to regard his account as the one definitive narrative about the event. Prosecutors are not supposed to represent the police; they’re supposed to represent the larger community. Justice required an indictment; all testimony needed to be subjected to careful, thorough cross-examination, in the adversarial setting of a court of law.
2) As this article in Vox.com described, Officer Wilson’s testimony was literally unbelievable. That doesn’t mean that he lied, or that the events didn’t happen pretty much as he described them. Reality is often unbelievable, inconsistent with our usual standards for a plausible narrative. But that testimony cries out for rigorous cross-examination.
3) There are two specifics of his testimony that strike me as particularly strange. I don’t doubt that Officer Wilson was scared by the situation, and that his training then too over. But if he felt threatened, he doesn’t seem to me to have been actually threatened. Brown’s body lay 150 feet from Wilson’s car, and the shell casings that show where he was standing when he fired. Brown and Wilson are about the same size, and Wilson had a nightstick and a taser. Brown was unarmed. Even if Brown was charging him (something virtually none of the eyewitnesses saw), he couldn’t pull out the taser? Also, apparently Officer Wilson was allowed to retain his weapon for over an hour after the shooting, and was the officer that placed it in an evidence bag. This is significant, because Wilson claimed that Brown had hold of the gun in their initial skirmish in the car. No DNA or fingerprints were found on the gun, but its evidentiary value was essentially eliminated by this police mishandling of it.
4) Several news stories have detailed McCulloch’s close ties to the police department; he served on the board of a police charity, his father was an officer, ect. This is hardly surprising. Prosecutors work closely with the police; that’s their job. That’s why it was essential that McCulloch recuse himself from this case. In many communities, this is automatic; special prosecutors are routinely assigned to cases involving police shootings. Justice was ill-served by not having such a policy in St. Louis County.
5) The role of Dorian Johnson, the friend Brown was with, has not received as much attention as it deserves. By all accounts, Brown was a good kid, a bit of a goofball, but excited to start college in the fall. Johnson is a few years older than Brown, has a checkered past, but was getting his life together. He saw himself, apparently, as a kind of mentor to Brown. Brown’s initial robbery of the convenience store, though irrelevant to the question of his subsequent shooting, is a puzzling episode, inconsistent with his record or reputation. But Michael Brown was 18 years old. Was he trying to impress an older guy with a criminal past? Isn’t that exactly the kind of stupid thing a teenager might decide to do? (I know that there are certain inconsistencies in Johnson’s story, but the basic narrative seems pretty clear–he was hanging out with a younger kid because he wanted to encourage him to make something of his life).
6) Without question, the coverage of this event on Fox News has been, for the most part, disgraceful. Jon Stewart basically eviscerated it here:
7) There’s something sadly comical about older white guys lecturing the black community on the subject of race. As an older white guy myself, I will desist. I will simply say that something quite obvious: the everyday experience of life as an American is different for me than it is for people of color. When we say that racism is an omnipresent reality of the world today, we’re not saying that all white people wear Klan robes. Racism today is more liely to manifest itself as cluelessness than violence. I would simply point out this reality: minorities riot when their basic rights are routinely and systematically violated. White people riot when their favorite sports teams win a championship.