The media is full of noise today about the street violence in Ferguson, Missouri. How should we understand what is happening? Have people just gone mad or something?
Here is the background.
Back in August, a police officer (Wilson) shot and killed an unarmed man (Brown). Police officers are justified in doing that sort of thing if they have reason to believe that their lives are in danger. It should be standard procedure, therefore, to ask whether Wilson had reason to believe that his life was in danger from Brown in that situation. Otherwise, Wilson wrongfully killed an unarmed man. So far, everyone would agree.
County prosecutors invoked a grand jury to present the above question. Not to decide the ultimate justice of the case, but to decide whether there was sufficient evidence for a case to go forward against Wilson for the killing. That grand jury decided the other day that there was not sufficient evidence to go forward on any charge.
This is odd because the evidence that Wilson shot and killed Brown is undisputed. In a normal grand jury proceeding, that would be it. The prosecutor would ask for an indictment and get it. But in this case, the prosecutors did something different. They said that they were just going to give the grand jury all of the evidence and let them decide what to do.
Ok. So how would that change the outcome? The only issue in dispute is whether – — at the moment when Wilson killed Brown — there is any evidence that Wilson’s life was in danger. Not just if Wilson subjectively thought so, but if there are objective facts to support that belief. For the grand jury to reach its decision not to indict Wilson, that evidence had to be 100% solid. What was that evidence?
As far as I can tell, the only such evidence is that (1) Brown was facing Wilson. If Brown had been turned away, he could not have posed a threat and (2) Brown was moving towards Wilson. In light of what had transpired before, Wilson might have interpreted forward movement to be threatening. In other words, there were no words spoken by Brown threatening Wilson. Brown did not make a gesture that could be interpreted as dangerous. Just forward movement towards Wilson. And btw, the evidence about whether Brown was moving forward and the nature of that movement is in dispute. Different witnesses apparently saw different things.
Notice already that there is a conflict of evidence about a key element of Wilson’s defense. This should automatically trigger an indictment so that a jury can decide the conflict of evidence.
Ok. But there is more. We know that (1) Brown had already been shot 2 times before the above took place and (2) he had been running away from Wilson — as Wilson shot at him —- before he stopped and turned around. So Brown’s decision to stop running away could be interpreted in different ways. It is not 100% clear that Brown decided to stop running and turn to face Wilson in order to threaten him. Brown might have been trying to surrender.
We also know that (3) when the fatal shots were fired, Brown was some distance away from Wilson — not close. With distance between the two, Wilson had the opportunity to assess whether lesser force might have been sufficient to meet potential threat. This does not prove hostile intent on the part of Wilson for using deadly force, but that is not the point. It calls into dispute whether Wilson could have possibly been threatened from that distance. And (4) the fatal shot hit Brown in the top of the head angled down towards the spine. In other words, it is possible that Brown was fatally shot when he was facing the ground and possibly falling to the ground. If this were true, it is unlikely that this fatal shot could have been fired because of threatening movement.
The bottom line here is that the evidence that would exonerate Wilson — that his life was in some danger — is disputed. In light of the above, there was sufficient evidence to indict Wilson of a crime in order to allow a criminal trial to handle the above conflicts of evidence. A jury could still later on decide in Wilson’s favor. But it was not the grand jury’s job to find Wilson to be innocent if there was evidence of a crime. And it is inescapable here that there is such evidence.
Now add to the narrative that Brown was a young black man. Wilson is white. If you are a black person in Ferguson what should you think about that? When you add to this mix, perceptions that this is just more evidence of systemic bias against blacks, what would you think? More important for you — again as a black person in Ferguson — what is the solution to the above problem?
That is the narrative of the persons in the street. So far, the other side presents a “law and order” narrative. That goes like this – “Even if you are angry. Even if you have reason to be angry. You cannot cause violence in the street. So be angry. and protest. But that is all you can do.”
Fair enough. But … see the problem? Those who are angry have no way forward to address their underlying concerns. So, even if you don’t like or agree with these folks, you can understand why the violence in Ferguson is playing out. To manage this conflict, the authorities will eventually have to address those concerns.