The much-anticipated grand jury decision in the case of Michael Brown was released yesterday evening inciting protests around the country. Darren Wilson, who shot the 18-year-old black male on Aug. 9, will not face any charges. The killing represents what the American Civil Liberties Union called “an alarming national trend of officers using excessive force against people of color.” The verdict is an insult to the concepts of liberty and justice on which this country is founded.
Before announcing the verdict, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch took the time to harshly criticize cable news and social media for hindering grand jury deliberations. His comments suggested that Ferguson is an isolated incident, which is simply not true. Many white officers have long been able to kill black men with impunity, and Ferguson is just the latest example of this — following in the heels of Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Rodney King and Trayvon Martin. In Union Square, protesters held up signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” which later became a trending hashtag on social media, but it remains to be seen when this sentiment will become true on an institutional level. President Barack Obama, who addressed the nation soon after the verdict was announced, spoke about broader challenges and “the lessons we should draw from tragic events.” He displayed a bizarre disregard for the severity of the situation, saying that negative reactions among protesters will “make for good TV.” His comments are the latest in a long line of limp, disappointing government responses. The subtext of Obama’s speech made it clear that his administration is only nominally interested in improving racial tensions between police forces and communities.
Particularly revealing is the divide of opinions on the situation in Ferguson between white and black Americans. This division partly stems from the fact that many white Americans have only discussed Ferguson with other white Americans. The discussion about the situation — especially on social media, where 91 percent of white people’s networks consist of other white people — is not as diverse as it should be. It is this division that feeds into dangerous misrepresentations of the protesters and further stokes the tensions, supporting the self-importance of officers over the safety of civilians. It is this division that keeps the people in power from seeing the urgency of the crises that their decisions create.
Aside from the present violence, the risk of the verdict is the perpetuation of unchecked police violence. McCulloch, delivering his monotone, tar-like slurry of a verdict announcement, certainly did not adequately understand the anger boiling beneath the surface.
The actions of Ferguson officials following Michael Brown’s death did little to quell unrest leading up to last night’s verdict. Gov. Jay Nixon’s comments in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which called for protesters to restrain themselves, were deaf to the protestors’ legitimate grievances. An Aug. 14 statement in which he affirmed “the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern” was directly at odds with the arrest of three journalists the night before. Regardless of intention, newspaper photos of white officers with military-grade weapons pointed at Ferguson residents only increased tensions. Instances of genuine sympathy seemed few and far between.
In the face of violence — both militarized police action and subsequent protests, few benefit and it can feel impossible to look into the future. The events of the last few months have all but snuffed out any hope for improving American law enforcement. And as conflicts between protesters and police increase over the coming days, those hopes can only grow dimmer. Heightening police militarization and racial tensions threaten the very idea of an open conversation. But more than ever, local governments need to address the increasingly neglected duty of police to protect citizens and not themselves. If we as Americans ever move forward from this injustice, and all those that came before, lawmakers and law enforcers need to keep a clear head and clear goals. Increased transparency between police and constituents through body cameras, laws regulating police use of deadly force and an end to Department of Defense sales of military equipment to local police units could all vastly improve police relations. Critics of these measures argue that they keep the police from doing their jobs, but in the aftermath of crises like this one, the police themselves seem to not understand what their job is.
The police and state government cannot afford to remain blind to the undercurrent of tension that the state troopers, simply through their presence, feed into the cycle of fear. As tensions bubble over when violence to combat violence becomes the order of the day and when the police have become the instigators of conflict, governments at all levels must rethink the role of law enforcement. No longer keepers of the peace, the police in Ferguson have become harbingers of anxiety and panic. After the Ferguson verdict, as tensions once again turn into physical violence, the deadly results of this panic become all too clear.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 25 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]