A friend on Facebook had a post a half hour before St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob P. McCulloch’s announcement that I think summed up how this whole grand jury inquiry went down: “Prove us wrong for once.”
Nope. No surprise. Darren Wilson is free to go on policing the streets of Ferguson, if he wants. Michael Brown is dead. This case will pass into history. Some magazine journalist will eventually write the definitive story of how these two humans came to be in the same place at the same time, leading to a horrible ending.
In the weeks leading up to the non-indictment I read and heard a most troubling meme: “Why don’t these people let the justice system take its course?” It was screeched by mostly white male commentators.
The new question is whether black people will lose faith in the justice system. Well, there has never been much faith in that system.
I wasn’t surprised. Indeed, the governor's decision to draw in the National Guard was the final pin in a picture of political and judicial bullshit that would lead to this non-indictment. My thesis was grounded in twenty years of journalism, decades of living in and visiting the seriously segregated, quite racist St. Louis metropolitan area, the word “justifiable” being a catchword for a police officer’s actions, and nearly 400 years of, well, black folks getting our asses kicked by the justice system—from corrupt cops to clueless juries to racist jurists.
Even when I was a kid growing up in St. Louis, the specter of the Dred Scott decision always had a place in the minds of black people I knew. St. Louis was epicenter of that case. At barber shops, churches, family grill-outs, b-ball chill-outs, whenever the subject of race would inevitably come up, someone would mention Dred Scott.
The 1857 case made it clear that neither Dred Scott, a runaway slave, nor any person of African ancestry, could be a citizen of the United States.
I saw my parents' generation in St. Louis hold on to that decision. It was a totem. It showed America's true hierarchy. At the very bottom were the faces of John Punch and John Casor, two African indentured servants whom the courts shoehorned into slavery.
In 1640, Punch and two other indentured servants—one Scottish, the other Dutch—escaped from their master’s farm in Virginia, but were eventually caught. All three were given 30 lashes. The two Europeans were given four years of additional servitude; Punch was enslaved for life.
A court system that treats the darker-skinned defendant differently than his white peers. It sounds so very 2014, when research shows black men and women receive excessive prison sentences for crimes considered far less serious when committed by their white counterparts.
In Casor’s case, a Virginia court ruled that Casor’s owner, Anthony Johnson, did have a right to keep Casor a slave for life, despite evidence that Casor was, in fact, an indentured servant with a term of service for seven to eight years. Casor was due “headrights”—40 acres of land for his service.
A court system that subjects the value of black men’s lives to an economic test rather than one of justice. A court system that prefers a white man’s word over the word of a black man. That is the underlying reality of the American legal system now, just as it was in the mid seventeenth century.
Michael Brown’s death ought not be forgotten. One way to ensure this is for the federal government, with the assistance of police departments, to create a database to keep track of deadly shootings by police officers. Outside of the efforts of a few organizations—including the libertarian Cato Institute and its National Police Misconduct Reporting Project—there has been little push to gather numbers are sketchy. It is not only reasonable, but necessary for individual departments to be duty bound to keep such records, and for the Department of Justice to set up a national database.
Such a database would allow criminal justice scholars, reporters, advocates, and citizens to research, draw conclusions, and push for policy changes.
Law enforcement agencies should not be afraid of facts. Corrupt policing and outdated policies won't go away on their own, just because they are hidden or ignored. Let's see some substantive action, rather than more rhetoric and vacant stares.
Image credit: Rick Majewski