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L'America: Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and Police Racism

2014-12-10 7 min read marco

A number of you have asked how it is possible that a police officer shoot an unarmed person and is not just not punished for it, but not even investigated. Such was the case of Darren Wilson, a police office in Ferguson, Missouri, who shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old.

I’ll go to say in general that I agree that police has a greater latitude on the use of force than an average person. Clearly, the people that have a sworn duty to protect others deserve the deference of respect from those they protect – which includes me.

Deference and respect, though, don’t mean a free pass. So why wasn’t there a court case against Darren Wilson? Wouldn’t that be necessary not only to establish the truth, but also to clear the conscience and future of the man that is now going to be free to move but forever confined by his history?

Technically, the reason is that the jurisdiction in which the tragedy occurred uses Grand Juries to determine whether someone should be tried. The local prosecutor, the District Attorney, convenes a Grand Jury to determine whether there is enough evidence to prosecute. The Grand Jury either confirms there is or denies the prosecutor’s request. In practice, though, the Grand Jury does what the prosecutor wants.

Incidentally, the name Grand Jury has nothing grand to it. It is a remnant of its origin in Medieval England, where the French-speaking Normans made the law. It’s the French grand here, which simply means “big.” Grand juries are usually (or used to be) larger than trial juries, which were then also called Petty or Petit Juries.

The key here is the statement, “the Grand Jury does what the prosecutor wants.” It’s been long established that prosecutors do not have a great incentive to prosecute crimes committed by police officers, since they rely on the police to do the investigative work that allows the prosecutor to charge.

This wouldn’t be an issue in other countries, but in America, the office of district attorney is elected. If police do not want to support a DA, they can easily crater her or his campaign by simply withdrawing support, extending support to the competition, staying out of the race, or otherwise.

Some crimes committed by police irk the general voter so much that the DA will prosecute. Police corruption (as in taking bribes) is one of those crimes. The consequence, of course, is that police in America is much cleaner than in other places.

Other crimes, on the other hand, do not bother the voter just as much. In the course of the past few years, we have learned that police and prosecutors assume that a white police officer killing a black person in the vicinity of a crime scene is such a non-crime.

The first inkling that this is a generalized thing, not just a police on civilian affair, came with the Zimmerman case. If you recall, a black teenager was confronted and ultimately killed by a white(ish) man on self-declared vigilante patrol duty. In that case, the jury found the man not guilty of anything, which seemed more than a little odd.

The case of Darren Wilson is completely different, yet there are striking similarities. Neither Zimmerman nor Wilson had the faintest shred of evidence that the person they were confronting had done anything wrong. While Treyvon Martin, the young man killed by Zimmerman, had done absolutely nothing wrong, Michael Brown had just stolen a bunch of cigarillos from a convenience store and roughed up the owner. Darren Wilson, though, didn’t know that.

In both cases, the confrontation was entirely unnecessary. The sequence of events in the Zimmerman case is muddled, much clearer in the case of Darren Wilson. In neither case, though, does it appear that the white person had a good reason to go on the offensive.

In both cases, it is undisputed that an altercation occurred. In both cases, the white survivor claims that the altercation was started by the dead black person, which we find not outlandishly surprising.

In both cases, the survivor describes the deceased as filled with rage. While that may simply be a gratuitous attempt at justifying the shooting (similar to the “jealous rampage” defense), it may also describe the perception of black people by white police officers more in general.

One giant gaping hole in the Wilson case, one that has been remarked on by many, is the distance between the dead body and the police car. The official statement is that it was 153 feet and 9 inches. For you metric people, that’s almost 47 meters.

For those of you who have a hard time imagining the distance, it’s about half a soccer field. If you’ve ever run from one side to the other of a soccer field, you know it’s quite a stretch to cover. Yet Officer Wilson claims that he could see that Michael Brown, at the distance, felt threatening, enraged, and was charging at him. That’s why he shot.

The thing is, when someone charges at you from half a soccer field’s distance, there really is no reason to shoot them multiple times before they come close. First of all, no matter what they look like and how angry they might be, they are no immediate threat. Second, it’s enough of a distance that you don’t really get a good shot.

And here we get the disturbing commonality between the two cases: the most powerful force in favor of the killer was nothing but the fact that the victim was dead.

George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson have another thing in common: being acquitted by the law doesn’t free you. The remainder of the world knows your name and for better or worse will take away opportunity or cause injury because of suspicion, founded or unfounded. Really, I doubt that the lack of an open trial made a real difference for either of them. George Zimmerman, in particular, seems to be leading a life of a haunted man.

So, how do racism and police overlap in this case? Are American police officers more prone to racism than the average American?

My sense, from my few encounters with law enforcement, is that there is a lot of stereotyping going on. I was for instance once stopped at an intersection as I was turning left on a yellow light. The officer claimed I had driven through a red light, which simply wasn’t true. I am not in a court of law and not gaining anything from saying this, so trust me.

I was driving a Mitsubish Eclipse Spyder, a convertible that turns out is associated with minorities (go figure). Once the driver saw my face, he immediately told me it was just going to be a warning.

I also received a ticket for speeding on my motorcycle. The officer was upset at me and gave me a stern lecture. When I took off my helmet and he saw I was a middle-aged man, it felt like he would have wanted to rip the ticket apart. He even tried to help me start the engine again (it turns out that the reason I had sped was that the battery was faulty, and somehow the speed gauge was malfunctioning – in particular, the left digit was stuck at 5 no matter what speed I went).

Stereotyping is nothing particular to American police, though. In fact, American police are light years better in all respect than their European counterparts. I have horror stories of note to tell, especially with German police.

So what is the problem? I think it’s that racism (and other isms) have been buried deep and made people uncertain. Frankly, I cannot understand why another police officer would come to the unquestioning defense of Darren Wilson, unless that officer thought he might have handled the case the same way.

How did Darren Wilson get away with murder, to use the common phrase? He did – if he indeed committed murder – because enough people like him thought they would have done the same thing he did under the circumstances.