The tragic events surrounding the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the way in which authorities and public have responded raises a number of questions. Sadly, as we rush to judgment, few of these questions are being asked by those of us who feel touched by these events or otherwise consider themselves to be stakeholders with a valid opinion.
The preliminary, though not necessarily most important questions, relate to the case itself.
First and foremost, based on the evidence presented, was there probable cause for the grand jury to believe that officer Darren Wilson committed a crime as alleged by the proposed indictment in shooting Brown six times?
Second, was the related investigation and prosecution case conducted fairly, professionally and competently?
Third, was the grand jury compromised in any way, or can it otherwise be established that its determination was reached or tainted by a legally relevant error?
Fourth, has the media discharged its responsibility to educate the public about the relevant facts?
All four of these questions are extremely complicated and require some degree of expert knowledge, as well as a careful consideration of all the legally relevant facts in order to be answered. Moreover, it is inappropriate and irresponsible to second guess the grand jury, be it with or without a clear understanding of the evidence and how the related process works. People who do not do their homework about these matters have no legitimate right to express an opinion about the outcome of this case. That said, as tragic as these events have been and as unjust as the legal system may be, it is not terribly difficult to understand why the grand jury decided not to indict in this case.
The killing of Brown also raises a wide range of institutional, social, political and policy issues, opinions about which have sadly overshadowed and some would argue over-reached the events related to his death. These are fundamentally important questions which, as the public wrestles with them, have somehow been conflated in the assumption not only that Brown’s killing was a homicide, but that the related legal process was compromised by racism, bias, incompetence or corruption. Whatever we may feel about the wider issues, the four questions I have posed above raise matters which cannot be assumed.
Some of the wider, policy questions relating to these events include:
Are the procedural and substantive laws which determine the outcome of cases like this just and effective?
Does America’s criminal justice system and social structure prejudice minorities and people who are economically challenged?
Is the “system” responsive to the concerns expressed by the people and by individuals who feel they have some stake in the outcomes it produces?
Does law enforcement rely too much on force and coercion, thereby creating an underclass and out of control conveyor belt for the “prison complex” which, many people argue, thrives on creating a vicious cycle of injustice by criminalizing people who are systemically disenfranchised and predictably act out in a socially responsible way?
In a carefully constructed culture of violence which values self-interest, the pursuit of profit and the accumulation of wealth above all else, is it reasonable or practical to expect law enforcement agencies to be any less reliant on force and coercion than the individuals and groups they are expected to police?
Is it reasonable to expect relatively low paid and undereducated law enforcement officials to meet higher standards of morality, empathy and decency than are apparently manifested by the community as whole or its government?
Bearing in mind the growing perception that both the political process and the bureaucracy of government lack adequate mechanisms to receive and respond to people’s concerns, is a largely disenfranchised and under-educated public capable of expressing their individual or collective outrage at systemic flaws in a productive and responsible way?
What do these events tell us about American society and the principles which, practically speaking, today lie at the core of its collective consciousness, institutions and way of life?
Finally, bearing in mind the answers reached to all of these questions, is America a society which we want unilaterally setting and enforcing the standards for a global system of governance?
None of these questions admit of easy answers, although after a lifetime of professional involvement with legal systems, I would say that the problems we have seen come out of these events are a reflection of the fact that Americans understandably feel that their legal system is incapable of reliably delivering justice in their lives.
On a more positive note, the real heroes of this story are the family of Michael Brown who, despite their pain and their loss and who, despite the counterproductive and criminal way many people chose to use this tragedy an excuse to act out, have risen to this difficult challenge and consistently conducted themselves with dignity, responsibility and a deep sense of honor.
To those who point to overplayed images of civil unrest in Ferguson as somehow being indicative of how African American communities behave, I would suggest that they remove their “white sheets and pointy pillow cases” and explain to them the obvious by saying it only takes a few people to light fires and carry out looting sprees. I have no doubt that those who did are very much only a tiny minority defined by their actions rather than by their race.
I am quite sure that the vast majority of those who feel discouraged by what has happened in Ferguson over the past few months, whatever their race, have little or nothing in common with these hooligans and if anyone wishes to draw conclusions about the African American community, they would do far better to look at the fine example of responsible, community mindedness set by the Brown family.
I have no doubt the family of Michael Brown will continue to responsibly work to address the issues raised by all of the questions I have posed above. To them I tip my hat and say may God bless you and your noble mission.