It’s becoming increasingly hard to resist the temptation to be an angry black man. All my life I’ve tried to straddle the line between objective fairness and Black homerism. This past week pushed my sensibilities to the limit. Tuesday was one of the most emotionally draining days of my life. What started Monday night, as an annoyance, ended Tuesday as full-blown disappointment. As people I respect, intelligent people, classmates, long-time friends, and other weighed in on the aftermath of the Darren Wilson grand jury announcement, many – dare I say too many? – were quick to point to the conclusion of the grand jury as evidence that no crime was committed. Proof, these folks said, that our justice system works!
But did the justice system work in this instance? There are a lot of questions about Attorney General Robert McCullouch, and whether he possessed the requisite credentials to properly try this case before the grand jury. I can’t escape the feeling that he should have recused himself – he having a well-documented, chummy relationship with local law enforcement, including serving as president of a local organization that fundraises for officers in Missouri and Illinois – from a situation that was bound to raise eyebrows no matter the outcome. What has become of prosecutorial ethics? During the press conference, McCulloch did everything he could to discredit witnesses who did not support the grand jury’s conclusion.
Yes we’ve made great strides in our attempts to become a post-racial America, however, it’s clear we still have a long road to hoe before we can celebrate equality before the law. The facts don’t lie: Black men (and other racial minority groups) are targeted by the criminal justice system. Black, Latino, and Asian Americans make up 26% of the general population, yet they represent 58% of the prison population. Black Americans are particularly susceptible to prison time. In Christopher Stone’s 1999 study Race, Crime, and the Administration of Justice: A summary of the Available Facts, Stone notes the prevalence of Black faces behind prison walls. Nationally, Black Americans accounted for fewer than half of the arrests for violent crimes, but they accounted for about 60% of prison admissions. A 2007 study conducted by Yale University College of Law concluded that Black defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. Furthermore, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.
Given the history of racial antagonism in Ferguson and McCulloch’s cozy relationship with local police, one can’t help but question the process and the evidence presented to the grand jury. Furthermore, the relationship between Ferguson’s largely Black community and its nearly all-white police force, is strained to say the least. According to Newsweek:
A recent report by the legal defense nonprofit ArchCity Defenders found that 86 percent of vehicle stops in Ferguson involved a black driver, although just 67 percent of the city’s 21,203 residents are black. These traffic violations, which sometimes lead to weeks in jail, are an enormous burden on the black community. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases—“about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household,” the report said. Fines and court fees are Ferguson’s second largest revenue source.
“We’re just used to raise revenue,” said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson Township. “On traffic day in these little municipalities, you usually find a white judge in the courtroom, white prosecutor, and you find lines of black people lined up around the corner that have been charged with these tickets.”
This constant low-level harassment of the black community has become the main point of contact between most black residents and the criminal justice system. And it always comes with the threat of violence. As multiple news reports since the Brown shooting have revealed, police in North County too often use excessive force against the black community.
Though the facts remain unclear, it appears Brown’s deadly confrontation with Officer Wilson began as a jaywalking stop. McCulloch isn’t involved in traffic stops, but the people of North County see the Brown shooting and the excessive traffic tickets as part of the same oppressive system. “To me, this is all police brutality, this is all excessive force, this is all racial profiling,” said Bynes.
When I speak of White Privilege, I talk about the unspoken advantages and lens through which many of my white brothers and sisters view the world. Often it’s due to ignorance and lack of exposure, other times it’s willful ignorance of the facts. White Privilege is real, and Michael Brown’s death allows us to reexamine how it shapes inter-racial interactions and how it challenges some of our deeply held beliefs about our country and justice system. Ferguson can not be analyzed in a vacuum. It must be viewed through the lens of 400 years of history, oppression, persecution, and fear-mongering. It should be understood through the eyes of a Black American citizen living in Ferguson, under the auspices of police practices that are suspect at best, and at worst, a blatant example of racial profiling. If a Black person is upset at the loss of life and the perceived lack of justice, you should be empathetic to their plight, understanding that it’s the latest in a line of slights, and perceived injustices. Those people deserve to at least have their viewpoints respected. Understand the end of slavery didn’t suddenly usher in an era of economic and political justice, it was merely the beginning of a fight for equality that continues today, and our broken justice system is proof of that; what happened in Ferguson is proof of that. The murder of Michael Brown was not the start of racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri, it was merely the spark that triggered the ire of a community at loggerheads with its police force. Those folks who are looting, burning buildings, and using civil disobedience to protest what they see as an injustice have apparently come to a conclusion: marches and rallies only get you so far, the political & economic justice they seek must be taken.
Its been a couple of days since the announcement, and I am still angry, still teetering between hopelessness, numbness, and the small space that separates each. But I am naturally an optimist, nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems. And that’s why I’ve chosen to be a lawyer, so I can impact people, and my community in positive ways, using mechanisms that bring people together, with justice as the overriding principle. I’ll leave you with the words of hope, and encouragement that Professor Myles Lynk left with me last Tuesday night:
[A]s law students now and as lawyers to be, you should engage with your communities as a public citizen to improve: the substantive law, access by all to the legal system, the administration of justice, and the quality of legal services. As a volunteer lawyer or an elected official or in a professional career as a criminal prosecutor or a criminal defense lawyer, you should work to help bridge the gap that often exists between minority communities and the majority-white police departments that police them. Does the community feel it is being served by the police, or being contained by them? There is so much that you as a lawyer will be able to do. We do not have the time or the luxury to be depressed or dispirited by what has happened. We are lawyers. “We Can Handle It!” What we need to do is help the communities and the individuals who cannot.
I love you all, and there’s nothing you can do about it.