Beyond Ferguson: Perspective on race and justice

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Beyond Ferguson: Perspective on race and justice

In our legal system, facts rule. In our societal system, perceptions rule. The challenge is reconciling the two in
order to achieve fairness and justice. Fundamentally it is this tension between the two that is at the core of the
current discord in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of Michael Brown. And it is our approach to the results that
will allow us to address the underlying issues.

The facts: Michael Brown has widely been reported as an unarmed teenager. Some articles have even referred to
him as a “boy” and a “good kid.” The fact is that Michael Brown was 18 years old – making him a young man,
and of age to serve in the military, vote, and be held as an adult in legal proceedings. Michael Brown was also 6’
4” and 292 lbs. Those facts show that although Michael Brown is young, he is far from a “boy” – and that
reference in any other context would be derogatory. While he may have been generally a “good kid” – good kids
can also do bad things. In this case, Michael Brown reportedly was in the process of committing a crime at a
convenience store. A videotape from the stores showed Michael Brown assaulting the store keeper. In addition,
Michael Brown reportedly also assaulted the arresting police officer, Darren Wilson, and allegedly even grabbed
for the officer’s gun. And at the time of the shooting, Officer Wilson did not know whether Michael Brown was
or was not armed. A toxicology report also showed Michael Brown has marijuana in his system. While there are
conflicting facts in this as in most cases, both the forensic report and the sequence of events seem to support
Officer Wilson’s description of the crime scene and events. That is likely why the grand jury did not indict. As a
legal matter, grand juries are a precursor to formal charges in that they review the facts at hand without as many
restrictions as in formal trials, giving the prosecution a sense of whether the facts and the evidence presented
would likely be enough to bring charges or stand trial. The decision of this grand jury indicates there was not
enough to do either.

The perception: Regardless of the facts at hand, the perception in Ferguson and other parts of the country is that
Michael Brown’s death was the result of a racially charged killing by a police officer of an unarmed teenager.
Without the above facts, this perception has resulted in a series of protests and violent acts in the aftermath. And
this perception is fueled by underlying racial tensions within the community and country that may not be directly
related to the current facts. While there are valid reasons for the perceptions given the history of racial tensions in
the region and country, the presumptions themselves can some times lead to flawed assumptions. Ferguson is a
predominately African-American, economically challenged area. Its police force is predominantly White. Given
the likelihood of both actual and perceived criminal activity, and actual and perceived racial disparity in Ferguson
(and other communities like Ferguson), there is also a likelihood of assumptions about the police and the
community members. Thus, the local and national assumption that when Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael
Brown, it must have been motivated by race, facts withstanding.

The sad truth is that in the United States race relations have always been an issue – particularly between white and
black Americans – from the slave era, to the Civil War/post-Civil War era, to the Civil Rights era, to today. There
remains distrust and misunderstanding on all sides. But the trouble is not only that there has been and may
continue to be disparity and discrimination – but rather that it is not being addressed in ways that are useful to
individuals, communities, or the nation as a whole – especially in the case of Ferguson. Looting, violent acts,
and general lawlessness does not result in an abatement of distrust, misunderstanding, disparity, or discrimination.
What is missing is a mutual value, mutual respect, and mutual dialogue within and among the various
communities and races.

In Ferguson and every other community in the United States, the rule of law must be respected — it is central to
maintaining peace, order, and rights. Lawlessness generally does not lead to better circumstances. But when the
rule of law is itself wrong – that is, when the laws deprive us of peace, order, and rights — we have an opportunity
to change them in ways that are beneficial to the community as a whole. For example, when Martin Luther King,
Jr peaceably sought civil rights, he did so with the understanding that overcoming racial discrimination and
disparity could not and would not come through disregard and violence. His civil disobedience came at a time
when our laws and system were unethical and wrong. The result of his and others efforts was the Civil Rights Act
and other protections again discrimination. But in Ferguson, the fight is not against laws that are wrong, but
about underlying perceptions of racial profiling. And the response of looting, setting police cars on fire, and other
criminal or violent acts does not address either the law or the underlying issue. Rather, it deepens perceptions and
misperceptions and results in destruction rather than protection.

In addition, the wave of protests from the Michael Brown incident seem to miss the significance of the facts at
hand, their relevance in our justice system, and on the issue of racial profiling. The Amadou Diallou incident, a
notable circumstance of racial profiling from 1999, provides some contrast. In that case, four New York police
were in hot pursuit of an African American who was fleeing a crime scene. They came across Diallo, an innocent
immigrant from Guinea who, when he saw the police, reached in his pocket to show identification. He was shot
41 times by the officers who thought he was reaching for a gun and mistook him for the suspect. In that case, the
officers were not charged because of the potential threat when they were in hot pursuit. Diallos’ death was a
tragedy, not only for what happened but that it happened to an innocent man. But even in that case, it was
difficult to determine with certainty that police were profiling unjustly. In the Ferguson case, Michael Brown
was not an innocent bystander, had attacked the officer, and the officer did not know whether he as armed – all
supporting a self-defense claim by the officer. Whether the officer had time to use other methods (such as a taser)
can be debated, but the self-defense claim can be supported. Thus, racial profiling is also difficult to determine
outright in the Michael Brown situation.

There is no doubt that the death of Michael Brown is tragic – his family has lost a son, his community lost a
young man, and he has lost his potentials. But the tragedy isn’t just about Michael Brown. Officer Wilson, who
has had an otherwise positive record for a relatively young career, has stepped down from his job and perhaps his
career, and his name and reputation are mired by these events. If his actions were racially charged, perhaps that is
understandable. But, if his actions were legitimate self-defense, as the facts seem to show, then he has suffered
tragedy as well. The shop keepers whose businesses and livelihoods have been ruined by looters, despite not
having anything to do with the circumstances of the case, have also experienced tragedy. And perhaps most
tragic is the community of Ferguson that has been overcome by protest, violence, and media.

Justice is not just about addressing tragedy – it as about considering the totality of circumstances, applying both
facts and principles, to determine what is true, fair and right. And the concept of mutuality is significant. While
there are protests on behalf of Michael Brown, there also needs to be an upholding of the rights of the police
officer in his role and through any legal proceedings. While it is a difficult to accept at times, the idea of
“convicting” a potentially innocent person by public opinion cuts fundamentally against our civil society and
system of justice.

Fortunately, in the United States we have the freedom to voice concerns, disagree, and even protest. But we don’t
seem to apply that freedom unevenly — where are the protests for the Bosnian immigrant man who was assaulting
and killed by a group of teenagers wielding a hammer? Where are the protests for the range of games, videos,
TV, and films promoting violent activity? And where are the protests for the underlying economic and social
circumstances that are creating a culture of lawlessness, violence, and criminality? Further, our freedoms do not
give us the right to disregard laws and legal proceedings that are meant to protect us – both the victim/perpetrator,
accused/convicted. As flawed as these laws and proceedings may be, they are generally more effective in
administering justice than the court of public opinion – and that general principle also applies in Ferguson.

Sosamma Samuel-Burnett is the Founder and President of G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice.

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