The Day After the Verdict: Is This a Joke?

Like many others, I have been asking this question for months.

First, back in August, when news outlets reported that Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor for St. Louis County, had a long history of siding with the police; that his father, a St. Louis cop, was killed on the job by a black man; that his brother, uncle, and cousin were cops as well; that his mother had worked as a clerk in police headquarters; that he himself had wanted to be a cop until one of his legs was amputated in high school.  His office would be responsible for presenting the case of Darren Wilson, a Ferguson cop who shot and killed Michael Brown, before a grand jury.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch said he would let the jury of 12 civilians figure out what charge to bring, if any, instead of making a case for a specific charge, as prosecutors usually do.  And instead of selecting a few key witnesses and experts to testify, he would give them “every last scrap of evidence” — essentially drowning them information that they did not have the skills to parse.  As former federal prosecutor Alex Little told Vox, “So when a District Attorney says, in effect, ‘we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,’ that’s malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.”

Is this a joke?

And then last week, when Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the grand jury’s findings — more than a week before the results were actually announced.  This announcement was one of many portents of what the decision would be; after all, if they thought an indictment was coming, they would not be anticipating riots, and they would not preemptively bring in the National Guard.  (As Michael Che said on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update, “Deploying the National Guard before the verdict is like your lawyer telling you to show up in court in something orange.”)  Not to mention that bringing in such force has a way of escalating tense situations — especially when said force takes a stance that’s aggressive instead of containing, as it did when it was first called to Ferguson in August.  (Many military veterans criticized their behavior.)  Not surprisingly, a self-fulfilling prophecy ensued, because when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  So everything, even peaceful gatherings, even journalists observing the situation, was perceived as an actionable threat.  So not only did the National Guard exacerbate the situation in Ferguson in August, but Nixon decided last week that it would be a good idea to preemptively bring them back.

Is this a joke?

And then yesterday morning, when news circulated about yet another African American child killed by police — this time a 12-year-old in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, who had been wielding an airsoft gun at a park.  When police arrived, he was swinging on a swingset.  Minutes later, they shot him dead.  The timing was ominous.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch finally took the podium last night and started his announcement with a longwinded, defensive preface, lashing out at the 24-hour news cycle and social media, as though concerned people wanting to know what happened were somehow culpable for Brown’s death.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch finally announced that the grand jury did not make an indictment — a statistical rarity, as grand juries almost always indict.  But prosecutors can get grand juries to do pretty much anything they want (as former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler said, a prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich”), so the fact that they did not — coupled with McCulloch’s tactics in presenting the case, as described earlier — suggest that he got exactly the result he wanted.

Is this a joke?

And then when McCulloch proceeded to drone on, in excruciating detail, why no indictment was made.  The prosecutor became a defense attorney, discrediting eyewitness testimony, declaring that no one should ever have to be in Wilson’s position.  Wilson’s position.  Not the position of the unarmed teenager staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun.

Is this a joke?

And then when the statement from Michael Brown’s parents, Michael Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, was released in the middle of the interminable announcement — already prepared, as they too probably anticipated the worst — which was infinitely more gracious and hopeful than I could have ever been in their shoes.  As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times said, their statement offered the most constructive words of the evening, that police officers should be equipped with body cameras.  Of the two parties center stage, the ones who made more sense were the parents of the deceased victim, who were probably beside themselves with grief.

Is this a joke?

And then when President Obama made a statement, looking nothing like the impassioned orator we know him to be, especially in times of distress; he looked tired and frustrated, making bland statements about how incidents like this are an ongoing problem in communities of color.  He acknowledged that, at least.  But the president has been a lawyer, a law professor, and a community organizer in predominantly black neighborhoods; surely he has more to say about this situation than that it’s an ongoing issue and “we have made enormous progress in race relations over the past decades” and “there is never an excuse for violence.”  I wanted him to rise to the occasion and be the leader that we need right now, to help us make sense of this, to tell us what we should do now.  At the same time, I felt sorry for him, that he probably has so much to say that he cannot — because if he brings up race, his opponents will accuse him of playing the race card, and because his administration has been beleaguered by troubles in the last few months and cannot really sustain any more vulnerabilities.  I felt sorry that directly acknowledging the realities of racism in our justice system would open him up to attack, but Hillary Clinton can do it and no one accuses her of playing the race card.  Because, you know, white privilege.

Is this a joke?

And then the hypocrisy of this:

And the hypocrisy of declaring it okay for Darren Wilson to use violence when he felt threatened but not for the community to do the same.

Is this a joke?

Yes, it is.  Our criminal justice system, for all of the well-meaning people in it, is a joke.

When black teenagers are 21 times more likely than white teenagers to be killed by cops — the system is a joke.

When Marissa Alexander is in prison for shooting no one while Darren Wilson gets half a million dollars but no charge — the system is a joke.

When 14 people have been killed by police in St. Louis County in the last decade and not a single one of the cops was charged — the system is a joke.

When black and white Americans have comparable rates of drug use but black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drugs and get 13.1% longer sentences, and drugs that are more often used by black people have far weightier punishments than those more often used by white people, and SWAT teams are more likely to target black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods — the system is a joke.

It’s been a gutting 24 hours, with these painful reminders that the world is a terribly unfair place, that W. E. B. DuBois was right when he said that “a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”  And I am one of the fortunate ones, that I can look at these facts and feel sadness and outrage instead of absolute terror.

Something has to change.

42 thoughts on “The Day After the Verdict: Is This a Joke?

  1. Another great, strong, thoughtful column, Liz. I take issue with one point. You said, or at least implied, that Hillary Clinton would be allowed to get away with talking about racism because of white privilege. While I do acknowledge white privilege (and other kinds of privilege), I think that is not the reason she could talk race, while Obama apparently felt he could not. I don’t think it’s because she has white privilege. I think it is because she is white. That is distinct from white privilege. Black individuals can sometimes say things that white folks can’t. That’s not because they are privileged. That’s because they are black. And it’s different. It’s always different. Good blog, though.

  2. bonnie: thanks for the kind words — i appreciate them a lot, as always.

    could you clarify for me the difference you’re making between white privilege and being white? i see what you’re saying here: “Black individuals can sometimes say things that white folks can’t. That’s not because they are privileged. That’s because they are black.” but i don’t entirely see the distinction here: “I don’t think it’s because she has white privilege. I think it is because she is white. That is distinct from white privilege.”

  3. Sure, Liz. I’m going to take a stab at defining white privilege. These are just my thoughts; not from any other source. White privilege refers to the unseen benefits of being in the dominant class (it could be white, men, straight, or any dominant class). It’s the things that got them ahead at the start (usually money or status), that happened long before they hit the scene. The almost imperceptible advantages. Being groomed to be confident is one such thing. This is opposed to the very visible things that some groups can do and some groups can’t (at least without criticism). Those things–those visible things–are due to belonging to one group or another. Sometimes they are enviable things, but I don’t think of them as privileges. It’s a subtle difference, at least in my mind.

  4. mmm, i see what you’re saying. thanks for clarifying that.

    the way i see it, being taken seriously when you talk about race — and not being written off as an angry minority or accused of playing the race card — is yet another example of white privilege. it would fit well on peggy mcintosh’s famous list of white privileges. it’s not that a person of color like me can’t talk race or power; it’s that in some circles, white people have a much easier time getting those messages across. so i think of that as more of a privilege thing, not an on-or-off-limits-on-the-basis-of-my-group-membership thing (like, say, making jokes about other races).

  5. BBBD: if the prosecutor had wanted an involuntary manslaughter indictment, he could have gotten one. before a grand jury, a prosecutor doesn’t need to prove guilt or innocence; they need only to prove that there’s enough evidence to merit a trial.

  6. If you don’t like what happened, change the law, so it never happens again.I just think it’s stupid that there’s now a jury to decide if prosecutors should charge–isn’t that what investigations are supposed to be about?

  7. If the grand jury was ill equipped to make a decision with statutes, experts, and witnesses laid before them with nigh unlimited time to discuss and question; how does a trial jury gain those analytical skills?

    Are trial juries more intelligent or somehow better equipped?

    They did have the opportunity to indict on first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter.

    A grand jury’s job is to decide on the facts on whether there is enough evidence to feasibly meet the much higher standard of beyond a reasonable doubt needed for a trial. To go to trial with the knowledge of a weak case would have wasted money and driven the perception of prosecutorial malfeasance further.

    It would likely have delayed and amplified the reaction everyone is having now about the evidence presented and the conclusion drawn by having a trial.

    I don’t think any trial jury or grand jury decision would be accepted unless it returned the verdict of guilty.

    This is not to say whether Darren Wilson is actually guilty or innocent, but a comment on, what I believe, was appropriate execution of the legal process. Actually, the legal process went above and beyond, providing much more witness testimony and all evidence therein.

    It is a tragedy regardless and focus should be placed in police training and cameras to ensure such ambiguity does not prevent more through vetting of similar situations in the future.

  8. Elizabeth! Let me first begin my extending a compliment. I can tell that you’re a scholar first and definitely rooted in research. Kudos to you! As an African American woman watching and waiting for an indictment to not come proved to be harder a pill to swallow than prepared for. Having an African American son added to this pressure and worry. Your facts mentioned above are true and it definitely pains me that the most publicized subsections of my culture arent the best. I do not condone Mike Brown’s behavior in that convenience store prior to his death. The video footage does portray him to showcase himself as being a bully in that instance. But I strongly feel that charges in some form were necessary in an effort to provide more accountability for Officer Wilson’s excessive use of force. As an African American I feel threatened regularly however that does not grant me the right to not be accountable for my actions. As I’ve encouraged others since the verdict it’s time to make change and sometimes that begins from within, especially for African Americans. As a culture we have been treated unfairly, but we cannot use that as an excuse to be or react angrily. Let it be directed toward more positive efforts to train others and our children to be more culturally competent of our fellow brothers and sisters of all races. Say hello… Extend a smile… Be more personable… Say thank you or have a good day… Get to know one another better. But your post was eloquently written and I thank you for your stance on all issues of race and culture. Peace and blessings to you.


  9. but… the point is that there’s not enough conclusive evidence for a trial. What’s so confusing about that? The amount of clashing stories and fragmented accounts of the event would ultimately just leave any jury finding DW innocent. Is that what we want? To drag out a case where we KNOW that it’s impossible to prove, given the information, that DW is guilty of anything?

  10. If he had been raised to respect authority, none of this would have happened. If he had been taught not to steal none of this would have happened. All the looting, burning & protests are squarely on his shoulders; and that’s no joke.

  11. Wow, thanks for this post! I hadn’t really realized what the prosecutor was supposed to do for the grand jury and how that hadn’t happened here. Thanks for laying everything out so clearly.

  12. Excellent! Thank you for highlighting and so eloquently clarifying the injustice from this situation among so many discordant voices.

  13. So, taking an isolated situation and turning it into a giant statistical racial matter is the solution to solving this problem? I still don’t get why the media isn’t to blame here. with headlines like, “White Cop shoots Black Teen” no, a police officer shot a person in which he was in conflict with. Great fact check article, but I don’t see how the “is this a joke” approach is going to bring any sort of racial divide any closer. Nice job.

  14. Justice Antonin Scalia, in the 1992 Supreme Court case of United States v. Williams, explained what the role of a grand jury has been for hundreds of years.

    “It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. Respublica v. Shaffer, 1 Dall. 236 (O. T. Phila. 1788); see also F. Wharton, Criminal Pleading and Practice § 360, pp. 248-249 (8th ed. 1880). As a consequence, neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.”

  15. This article details the discrepencies of the trial and behaviors of local, state, and national leaders in both the weeks preceding the outcome, and the aftermath. It also revisits many race-related statistics that are already suffocating the internet on websites like Thought Catalogue and Upworthy (both are great by the way). We (the general American population) already realize that race is an ongoing issue, and it’s not worth beating a dead horse. I see this as more of a “protest” article, and not one that inspires legitimate civil action. I would like to see analytical data on the circumstances and patterns of the “When…-The system is a joke” statements (I am not arguing against the statistics – I want to know the exact reasons why those statistics exists by closely examining historical data). This data can then be used to influence legislation in areas that need it the most. It will take a grassroots movement of experienced people to do this research. We can then help influence neighborhoods with customized education systems for the youth, social programs for single mothers, and microeconomic stimulus to create jobs (everyone knows that these are enduring issues so I won’t go into it).

    What can we do to stop the “Cops vs Blacks” issue that is plagueing many cities? We can limit the power of local law enforcement. For example, it would be great to do a study on the proportionate use of force in primarily African American neighborhoods. Is it necessary for police officers to actually carry lethal firearms? Can they use non-lethal methods? Do our police receive stringent screening – and are they rigorously trained and tested on their understanding of the escalation of force against a potential threat? I would tend to say that the answer is “no”. I digress – but it perplexes me that US armed forces in Afghanistan have much stricter rules of engagement when dealing with a threat. It can literally take hours and multiple levels of approval for permission to “engage” a possibly enemy. Our police officers don’t have a system in place to quickly assess and determine the amount of force needed in diverse situations. I would also argue that some of them do not possess the mental fortitude needed in order to stay calm and make proportionate and rational decisions under potentially life-threatening situations. It would be wise to lobby for limiting the lethal reach of law enforcement until the entire system is closely examined and restructured to support modern social dynamics.

    Liz, I would love to see a follow-up article that touches on current and proposed social programs in “at-risk” neighborhoods. What are people doing now to help bolster the terrible education system in these areas? What youth programs are in progress? Are there studies being done to assess racism and/or police brutality in predominately Black areas? I agree with you – “Something has to change”. What is our plan as a society?

  16. Liz, the points you made were points I never really thought of…This was a great read and I appreciate you enlightening us on how the jurors could have reached a no indictment decision…Makes sense now…

  17. The biggest threat to the black community is not the 14 officer involved shootings in the last decade. What about the 1,400 murders in St. Louis, 5,000 murders in Chicago, 3,000 murders in NYC just to name a few in the last decade. I wish people would have the intensity and emotion and protest the 140 murders that will happen in St Louis in 2015. Where are the protests? Is it OK for a black man to shoot another black man? If everyone would leave their guns at home, this wouldn’t have happened and neither would the most of the murders. Lets stop blaming and start fixing the problem together.

  18. Pingback: Touchstones of truth on Ferguson. | The Joy Underneath

  19. A prosecutor chooses which cases should go to trial. There was not enough evidence to merit a trial. But parts of the black community would’ve gone apesh*t if the prosecutor determined that. So that’s why the prosecutor didn’t make a case to indict because the evidence didn’t merit a trial. Just because certain members of the black community determined wilson was worthy of indictment doesn’t meant he was. And all your points about national guard showing up before makes no sense to me. Yes they knew there was a chance that wilson would not be indicted and if that happened there would certainly be riots. Riots where people burn down businesses owned by innocent people, and then such attacks are completely justified by criminal apologists. Apologists who also completely disregard a video where brown was blatantly in a horrifically belligerent mood, exactly the type of mood where you would believed he moments later attacked a cop

  20. Is this article a joke?

    This article is full of opinionated fallacies. FACTS ARE:

    – Brown robbed a store.
    – He used excessive force to steal from the store owner.
    – He disobeyed the police officer because he was about to get caught in his crime.

    Why aren’t we focusing on how he is a criminal? The police do what they do to protect society against dangerous people. When someone calls in a robbery, police need to do their job: show up, take down the criminal. If the criminal runs away, does not cooperate, or acts violently, he needs to be subdued before furthering causing harm onto others.

    This is the truth. I understand there are racial injustices in this world. However this is NOT the right case for everyone to rally behind. Mike Brown was not a hero, a savior, or an undeserving victim. He was a bully who happen to do his crime at an opportune time when the black society needed a new “Rodney King” to stand behind.

  21. Reblogged this on Chronicles of Serbia and commented:
    This has been on my mind so much in the last few days. Something does need to change. But I fear it won’t. Too much money and powere is involved on the other side. And the “white is right” mentality is far to strong of an undercurrent.

  22. I agree with the majority of this but have to say it’s not fair to judge by color. White or black it was wrong. I say this because 15 to 18 yeasts ago a family we knew lost their son to an act of violence. Their son “borrowed” their car with 3 friends and went on a joy ride. They knocked over mail boxes and at one point shot a rock from a sling shot through a houses window at night. We all agree they deserved punishment for it. But that house was owned by a retired Navy officer who was watching his granddaughter. He claims he woke to the sound of breaking glass cause some kids shot at his granddaughter with a gun he ran from his house jumped in his car and chased the teenagers. Once he caught up 7 blocks away the car was parked. The kids fled except for our friend who stayed with his mom’s car. He hid face down in the back floor. When the cops arrived they found the teenager dead from a gun shot wound to the back of the head curled up in the fetal position. The naval officer claimed self defense as the kid was reaching for a weapon. He also was the one who called 911 after the shooting and said he just killed an intruder 7 blocks away from his house. He gave up his gun and went to the station willingly. He also was not charged with anything by the jury. Self defense won this case. A black retired Navy officer shot a white privileged teenager in child blood because he was reaching for a weapon. The only object in the brand new car was a dealers license plate. The only thing my friend had better was that he never saw the gun! Yes I agree what happened was wrong and a trial should have happened even knowing what happened to my friends family was wrong.

  23. Bonnie, please explain what the difference is between “being white” and “white privilege”? Surely white privilege implies privileges gained by virtue of being white, therefore anything that can be done “because she is white” should be the same thing as white privilege?

  24. Have you considered that maybe Michael Brown was perhaps guilty of what they claimed, and that the evidence bore that out? Or that McCulloch left it to the grand jury and placed an emphasis on the physical evidence in order to at least try to be fair? Or that perhaps there is not a pattern of systematic racism and oppression but rather a pattern of aggressive and criminal behavior by some elements of the black community?

    The refusal to think about this issue in a fair and unbiased way is far more a problem found in Michael Brown supporters than the opposition. A symptom of that is the inability to look at this issue rationally, but rather seeing it as two competing narratives, with the truth, as found in the evidence, is not really important.

    That is the joke.

  25. Out of the dozens of Ferguson articles I’ve read in the last 72 hours, this one really struck home for me. Poignant without sentimentality or knee-jerking, incredibly well-written. Thank you.

  26. Reblogged this on 4HisGlory and commented:
    I’ve long been toying with a post to explain my 2 Americas hashtag (#2Americas). Liz Lin has saved me a lot of the work as far as the Ferguson part and so I’m reblogging her extremely well-written post.

    2 Americas – white or mainstream America vs minority America. This country is rooted in an inequity that was never corrected and will never be corrected unless it is addressed. Imagine running a 1,000 mile race. You line up and take off for the finish line. Unbeknownst to you, there is another starting line. However, this race does not begin until after your race is well past the halfway mark. At the conclusion of the race, it is announced that the majority of the black runners ran very poorly. A few of them made it to the finish line. Most of them got only halfway through. Many gave up and dropped out of the race altogether. Someone claims that the race was rigged because most of the black runners did not have a fair chance. You protest loudly – “That’s not true! I saw them running, they had the same chance as everyone else!” Then you see footage of the entire race, including the second start which was mostly black runners. But you’re proud of your accomplishments. And you don’t want that taken away. So again, you protest. You point out the blacks that did finish. “They should have all done that!”

    This is the picture of race and racial bias’ in America. In a country where blacks were systematically oppressed for years, segregation ended just over a generation ago (a generation is about 40 years by my definition), and research continues to prove that the odds are still stacked against most blacks. Yet instead of acknowledging this, too many people prefer to look at Ferguson as an isolated incident, characterize Mike Brown as a felonious thug and ignore the blatant injustices in the case.

    Instead, I encourage people to start with these ideas – very few people are saying Wilson was racist, nor are they alleging the incident was racially motivated. Talking about or acknowledging race does not make one racist. Ignoring the outcry of many who are aware of racial bias and diversity, again supported by a good amount of research, is self-seeking. Acknowledging that Darren Wilson acted outside of his authority as a cop and that the grand jury investigation was corrupted, does not mean all cops are bad or racist. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek understanding about these issues. It is far better to be curious than willfully ignorant. In another post, I will look at what I think this issue means for the church.

  27. Hi Liz, great blog post! I enjoyed reading it. With regards to the decision to activate the State of Emergency, I have seen and heard many arguments about why this was unnecessary, some of which I agree with. However, I wonder how you would respond to the many business owners and residents of Ferguson who actually blamed the police for not protecting their property, pointing to the burned building, lootings, and damaged properties as the police’s fault for not being more present. For me, hearing these responses makes me think that Governor Nixon had no choice but to do what he did, or else face the criticism of not doing enough to protect the people.

  28. You do know this unarmed kid assaulted Wilson while Wilson was in his own vehicle and even tried to take his gun. This unarmed kid was a threat and by law a police officer may shoot a person if theyre a threat. Leave officer Wilson alone he was doing his job

  29. Trust me cops and judges are freakibg buddies! There’s family/friend/coworker nepotism that’ll never go away. Cops are supposed to be our local saviors but I certainly trust the pizza guy to get to my house faster and help me! Way more than the police. And the fucking state troopers where I live are assholes! They give you a ticket no matter what! The system in America fabors cops. Even though so many cops are just scum. Seriously?!? Using your lights to get to the front of the line at the Carl’s jr drive through!! (True story btw)

  30. Pingback: The Day After the Verdict, Round 2: Yup, Still a Joke | my name is elizabeth

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