St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that a grand jury determined that no charges should be filed against Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
During his 25-minute announcement, McCulloch did, however, provide his own indictments of the black community and the media, especially social media. In his opening statements, after expressing his condolences to the Brown family, McCulloch noted what he believed to have been factors that contributed to unrest regarding Michael Brown’s death.
“On August 9th, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Within minutes, various accounts of the incident began appearing on social media — accounts filled with speculation and little if any, solid, accurate information. Almost immediately, neighbors began gathering and anger began brewing because of the various descriptions of what had happened and because of the underlying tension between the police department and a significant part of the neighborhood,” said McCulloch.
McCulloch is right that social media played a significant role in disseminating information about Brown’s death, and as we have learned in the past few years with social media, information moves quickly regardless of the veracity of it. However, to point the finger at social media on the onset of this grand jury verdict announcement as the primary cause for community unrest is ridiculous.
The fact that another black man (barely a man, still a teenager) was dead in the street at the hands of a police officer just might be the bigger issue here. Twitter be damned. One thing that social media had right from the beginning was that a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man… again. That alone is enough to justify anger and frustration and to demand a full and fair investigation.
Also speaking to the tension between the police department and “a significant part of the neighborhood,” McCulloch should have just spoken in plain English. Black folks in Ferguson do not have a good relationship with local police officers. Period. McCulloch alluded to “solving the issues that lead to these sorts of things” (meaning Wilson shooting Brown) several times during his speech. The problem is that he only seemed to be referring to issues within the black community and not problems with the side of the justice system and law enforcement.
There is most certainly work to be done in the black community in terms of eradicating certain social ills. Some of those issues, however, are firmly rooted in and perpetuated by institutionalized racism and dangerous stereotypes. There’s work to do on all sides and in various ways that range from the practical (voting, for example) to the more difficult to measure such as general attitudes towards other races.
In Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, he recounted his interaction with Michael Brown and said the following: “At this point it looked he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I was shooting him.”
So, here we have a man with a gun who is charged with providing safety to the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri and he apparently believes that black men are some type of comic book super villains who are not only immune to bullets, but that the bullets actually make them stronger.
That is beyond problematic. Michael Brown was literally not a human being to Wilson at that point, and in fact, Wilson also said during his grand jury testimony that Brown looked like a “demon.” There is no way to foster a healthy relationship between different groups of people if everyone is not recognized as a person.
Before anything else, police officers have to stop shooting unarmed people who pose no immediate threat. It’s a simple idea. That would be a good way to start off this dialogue between police force and the citizens it is supposed to be protecting.
After that, recognizing humanity is Step One if we are to address the numerous and layered issues that lead to this growing number of unarmed black people being shot by law enforcement officials.
Another important step is to vote. Communities must arm themselves with accurate information and use that to make informed decisions at the polls. McCulloch is a Democrat who has been in office since 1991 and whose career is littered with major controversies, especially when it comes to cases where police officers are accused of crimes. Some of his critics characterize his record as being heavily pro-police officer as opposed to neutral, and there were calls to have him taken off of the Wilson/Brown case.
However, McCulloch ran unopposed for re-election, and on November 4, 2014 he won his “race” with 95.25 percent of the vote. A write-in candidate got the remaining 4.75 percent. Even though this was months after Brown’s death and months into criticism of McCulloch’s record re-emerging, he still skated to victory with basically no opposition.
Incumbents obtaining easy wins election after election regardless of job performance is a problem across the country, especially in city and county-wide elections. There needs to not only be voters in booths but political organizing so that viable candidates can be put into place. In terms of this particular issue, communities should make sure that their elected officials advocate for practical measures such as body cameras on police officers.
After the grand jury announcement. Michael Brown’s family issued a statement asking for peace and coming out in favor of body camera legislation. “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen. Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera,” read the statement.
Instead of acquiring gear that would be suitable for battling a super power overseas, local police departments should invest in body cameras and other means to record the law enforcement process (require cameras in interrogation rooms, for example). This type of practical measure could prevent future tragic incidents, and footage could serve as invaluable training material in addition to providing critical information in court proceedings.
Ferguson, Missouri, erupted into riots after the county prosecutor’s announcement. Some have suggested that a more useful reaction to the grand jury news would be to “blackout” Black Friday, meaning do not spend any shopping dollars on the day after Thanksgiving, which has historically been a big day for retailers in terms of sales.
While this is a well-intentioned call to action, I wish that there was as much fervor about getting to the polls this past election day as there has been about not shopping on one particular day. Voting someone into office has a lasting impact for at least as long as that person’s term and maybe beyond. Shopping on Saturday or on Cyber Monday instead of Black Friday does not amount to much. It’s one of those armchair activist type of notions that makes people feel good and part of something greater but does not result in real change.
If you want to participate in the Black Friday “black out,” by all means go for it. Just know that shifting your spending from one day to the next day will not be the catalyst for changes in corporate America or the lobbying business on Capitol Hill. While you’re not shopping on Friday, do a little research into your local politicians. Find out who has been acting in your best interests, work towards issues that matter to you and of course, get to the polls for the next election. Let’s use our actions to show that #BlackLivesMatter.