The grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., has reached the decision many of us dreaded, but fully expected. Now, we must forge our profound disappointment into determination to achieve lasting justice, in Ferguson and beyond.
The Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. In the coming days, Wilson will sit down for major media interviews, and Thanksgiving dinner with his new wife. Michael Brown’s parents will sit with his empty chair, and the knowledge that the man who killed him is not only free, but all over the media — perhaps even celebrated in right-wing media, which may or may not stop short of celebrating their son’s death.
We knew this decision was coming. It’s heartbreaking, but it is not a surprise. This decision was coming when prosecutor Tim McCulloch refused to recuse himself, and governor Jay Nixon refused to appoint a special prosecutor. It was coming when McCulloch referred the case to the grand jury, instead of filing charges himself. It was coming when McCulloch failed to recommend charges to the grand jury. It was coming when the governor declared a state of emergency, and law enforcement agencies purchased even more paramilitary equipment to use on protestors. It’s been coming since August 9, and now here we are.
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The wheels of justice have ground to a halt in the Michael Brown case, leaving us in sadly familiar territory. As I said on KFPA-FM’s “Saturday Morning Talkies” this weekend, African-American parents have always lived with the sorrow of sons who never return home, while the men who killed them remain free. Michael Brown’s parents are now members of a centuries-old, exclusive club that no one ever wants to join. It’s most recent members include the families of Trayvon Martin, Darrien Hunt, and John Crawford, among others.
On August 9, the same day that Michael Brown was killed, John Crawford was shot and killed by police officers in Beaverton, Ohio. A customer in a Beaverton Walmart called 911 after seeing Crawford walking around with a pellet gun he’d picked up in the store. Police said Crawford ignored commands to drop the weapon.
Ohio’s attorney general Mike DeWine refused to release the store’s surveillance video, asking the public to “Trust the system” and “let the judicial process work.” In September, a grand jury decided not to indict the officers who killed Crawford. Surveillance video released after the grand jury decision showed that Crawford was talking on his phone when officers entered the store, with the gun pointed at the floor. Officers shot Crawford on sight, within seconds of entering the store.
In Ohio, we were asked to “trust the system,” and that trust was betrayed. Now we are told we must “accept” the grand jury’s decision, and trust that “the system worked.” There is no doubt that “the system worked.” It ran its course, and it yielded the expected result.
“The system worked” quite well for those for whom it is designed to work. We should refuse, however, to call that “justice,” even if the process had resulted in an indictment. It would not amount to the kind of justice necessary to prevent the next city that’s “one dead black teenager away” from exploding into the next Ferguson.
- We must change the way our communities are policed. Law enforcement officers in every department in the country should be required to undergo racial bias training. These departments must prioritize diversity in the hiring and retention of officers, and be accountable to the public. We must demand an end to programs that give military weapons to police departments.
- We must demand an end to racial profiling. Law enforcement departments must be prohibited from relying on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion in its investigative practices, and required to cease or eliminate existing practices that rely on racial profiling.
- We must demand economic justice. Ferguson and other cities like it didn’t become hyper-segregated dens of economic despair overnight. Changing them requires undoing damage done by decades of federal, state, and local government policies that created segregated metropolises. We must demand investment in education, jobs, and training for young people, instead of surplus military weapons for police departments.
We do not have the luxury of time. With the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice — shot by police officers while playing with a BB gun — Cleveland, Ohio, may have already become “the next Ferguson,” for now.
Until no city is at risk of becoming “the next Ferguson” or “the next Sanford,” and no one’s child is at risk of becoming “the next Michael Brown” or “the next Trayvon Martin,” there can be no justice in Ferguson, or anywhere else.