The rioting in Ferguson, Missouri in recent days and the mass demonstrations in 170 other US cities are testament to a deeply felt rage. That rage boils over in moments like this, when reality runs up against the continuous denials of black people’s humanity in a nation whose creed of fair and impartial justice is a sham. From its beginnings, the scales of justice in the United States have been tipped against blacks – who are often, too often, presumed guilty – and in favour of whites who are presumed innocent of nearly all matters related to race.
This week a grand jury in St Louis County decided there was no ‘preponderance of evidence’ to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot dead 18-year-old Michael Brown on 9 August in a predominantly black working-class suburb of St Louis. Wilson’s testimony corroborated aspects of the forensic evidence. But what was not corroborated was Wilson’s assertion that Brown was running at him when he killed him. Several eyewitnesses testified to the grand jury that they saw Brown turn around and raise his hands in surrender before Wilson fired the fatal shots. But Wilson’s story was given the benefit of the doubt and never contested by the prosecutors during his two-hour testimony.
Brown, according to Wilson, was transformed into a ‘demon’ and ‘charged’ at him in a fiery rage. Both men were 6’4”, Brown 290 pounds to Wilson’s 210, but the policeman said he felt like a ‘five-year-old’ holding onto the wrestler Hulk Hogan when he grabbed Brown’s arm through the window of his patrol car. Wilson fired his gun, Brown ran away and Wilson pursued him, the police officer told the grand jury. Then he said that Brown turned around and ran towards him like a monster – ‘bulking up to run through the shots’ – that needed to be annihilated. ‘The face that he had,’ Wilson said, ‘was looking straight through me, like I wasn't even there, I wasn't anything in his way.’
After Brown fell, his body baked in the St Louis August sun for four hours, in a pool of blood, while the Ferguson police gathered evidence, further infuriating people in the neighbourhood who felt that they had witnessed the aftermath of an execution, without the consideration of a judge or jury.
Robert McCulloch, the St Louis County prosecutor, told the grand jury on 20 August to ‘keep that open mind’. But a prosecutor isn’t supposed to be ‘neutral’; he’s supposed to make the case for the prosecution. Some witnesses during the hearing were treated by the prosecution as if they were being crossexamined by a defence team, asked to explain inconsistencies in their testimony or discredited because of previous run-ins with the law. One witness was even asked: ‘Do you know what the name of your medication is that you take for your mental health?’
The outrage to the verdict in Ferguson was not just about Wilson’s acquittal, or Brown’s death, but a reaction to the way black people are subject to police and vigilante abuse. According to CDC statistics from 17 states, in 2011 the police shot dead 71 black men out of a population of 7.2 million, and 102 white men out of a population of 36.5 million – i.e. the rate for black men was 3.5 times as high. Since Trayvon Martin was murdered by the self-appointed community watchman George Zimmerman in 2012, the ‘catalogue of disaster’, in James Baldwin’s phrase, reads like an updated list of victims of the lynch rope. Last week, on Thursday 20 November, Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed black man, was ‘mistakenly’ shot dead by police in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, a fate eerily reminiscent of the shooting-by-accident of Timothy Stansbury in Brooklyn in 2004. On Saturday 22 November, two days before the Ferguson grand jury reached its verdict, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot while holding a toy gun in a Cleveland park. The police on the scene called in to report that an officer had killed a man who looked to be twenty.
At times like these, we hold our children close and our boys even closer. In the face of a criminal justice system that perpetrates crimes against people of colour and the poor, we must once again, as we have done for centuries, remind our countrymen and women that our lives matter, and insist that we are not strangers in a nation built with the hands of our ancestors, that we too are human.