No Justice, No Peace: Beyond the grand jury, and why I’m still marching

By Jaclyn Archer, Eagle Life Editor

On Nov. 24 around 5 p.m., we all got the news: the grand jury chosen to review the facts of the shooting of Michael Brown decided not to indict the officer involved, Darren Wilson.

Ferguson exploded in legitimate protests and destructive rioting. Several cities around the country including Portland, Seattle and Spokane held protests as well.

[Maybe we could poach some news pictures for this? I don’t know what the photo ethics of this are.]

My Facebook feed also exploded and two familiar refrains arose which I feel driven to respond to.

The first refrain is usually in response to cries that justice was thwarted by the grand jury’s decision. It’s a strictly non-personal evaluation of the legal facts and it amounts to:

“The evidence wasn’t there.”

As far as I can tell, the people who say this have come to the honest conclusion that there was not enough evidence to show a crime had been committed, which is what is legally necessary for an indictment. While I do not necessarily agree with these people, I am not angry with them for their opinion. I’m still in the process of reviewing the facts and testimonies for myself, many of which are conflicting. First and foremost, I respect their willingness to engage the facts of the case.

However, I still feel the need to tell these people that for many, myself included, frustration over the failure to indict revolves around the fact that the process leading to this decision appears to have been manipulated.

According to the Free Thought Project, Assistant District Attorney Kathy Alizadeh gave grand jurors a copy of Missouri statute 563.046, which is the state’s “use of force doctrine.” Part of this statute permits police officers to shoot fleeing suspects, meaning even if it were established that Michael Brown was retreating from Darren Wilson, Wilson would still be legally justified in shooting him if he thought he was trying to leave the scene. The problem? This part of the statute was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1979. Yet false legal information was allowed to sit with the jury for nearly the entire testimony and deliberation process.

On Nov. 21, three days before the grand jury handed down their decision, ADA Alizadeh told the grand jury the statute they had been told to apply to the case was partially wrong. However, she never explained what, precisely, they were to disregard. Furthermore, when asked by one juror if the Supreme Court’s ruling superseded Missouri statutes, Alizadeh said: “As far as you need to know, just don’t worry about that.” According to the Free Thought Project, another ADA further muddied the waters by saying, “We don’t want to get into a law class.”

These answers almost seem intentionally confusing, considering that any Government 100 student could tell you that yes, federal court always supersedes state statute. This is a function of the “Supremacy Clause” found in Article 6, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

There. I just accomplished in one sentence and a quote what two Assistant District Attorney’s couldn’t in three months.

But this wasn’t the only suspicious element of the grand jury proceedings.

Several scholars and legal experts, including lawyer and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, Rachel Barkow, a law professor at New York University and Noam Scheiber, Rhodes Scholar and senior editor for The New Republic, have publicly criticized St. Louis Prosecutor Bob McCulloch for incompetence, misconduct and having “abused the grand jury process.”

Most telling is the statement released by the National Bar Association almost immediately after the grand jury’s decision was announced. While it never mentions McCulloch by name, the press release does state: “The family of Michael Brown requested that District Attorney McCullough step aside and allow a special prosecutor be assigned to the investigation. … The grand jury’s decision confirms the fear that many expressed months ago — that a fair and impartial investigation would not happen.”

No doubt the “many” in question also includes the official voice of the Bar Association. The same press release also said: “National Bar Association President Pamela J. Meanes expresses her sincere disappointment with the outcome of the Grand Jury’s decision but has made it abundantly clear that the National Bar Association stands firm and will be calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue federal charges against officer Darren Wilson. ‘We will not rest until Michael Brown and his family has justice.’”

The president of the Bar Association wanted indictment, lawyers and legal experts wanted indictment, the citizens of Ferguson wanted indictment. I wanted indictment, not because I wanted Darren Wilson to “pay,” but because I wanted a trial.

That the Bar Association is displeased with the ruling of the grand jury only affirms the suspicions of many concerned citizens that once again, justice has been thwarted for a member of the black community. Historically, this is all too common.

For those who want to examine the evidence for themselves, Google search “Ferguson Documents” and explore one of the links from the New York Times, CNN or NPR which provide all the testimony and evidence presented to the grand jury, including photographs. Dig in, make judgments, but keep in mind that when the grand jury saw this evidence, they were not charged with assessing guilt or innocence.

A grand jury is not a trial. It is a hearing that determines if there will even be a trial. To many people, myself included, the grand jury’s failure to indict sent the message that the death of Mike Brown didn’t even warrant the legal examination and complete argumentation a trial would’ve provided. Instead, Darren Wilson testified before the grand jury and he was never cross-examined. This means his testimony was never directly challenged by someone with legal training.

Personally, I would’ve been more satisfied had the case gone to trial and Darren Wilson was found not guilty. At least then I would know a complete airing of the facts had occurred, accompanied by full and capable arguments by both sides whose sole job it was to competently argue their case before a jury with ample time to deliberate. I would have reason to be more confident in a not-guilty verdict under those circumstances. I have no such confidence now.

When I explain this to family and friends, I am often met with a second refrain, one that sounds innocent at first, like a critique based in a genuine desire for the protests to succeed, but ultimately stinks of victim blaming. It usually sounds like:

“Mike Brown wasn’t a saint. Protesters should’ve waited for/chosen/focused on a ‘better case.’”

It may be true that Mike Brown wasn’t a perfect little child. However, I fail to see how an alleged petty theft, an urban sense of fashion and a little marijuana warranted his death.

Perhaps people could’ve chosen to rally around Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man who was shot on Aug. 11. Witnesses say he was lying on the ground when LAPD officers shot him twice in the back. Or maybe they could’ve rallied around Eric Garner, whose last words were, “I can’t breathe,” as NYPD officers held him in an illegal choke hold on July 17. Even more cut-and-dry is the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was playing with his BB gun in the park before he was gunned down by Cleveland cops on Nov. 22, no more than two seconds after they arrived on the scene.

Any or all of these cases may present “better victims” than Mike Brown for us to rally around. But people don’t get to decide their last straw. They don’t get to decide when the camel’s back is broken and the torrent of anger, frustration and feelings of helplessness pour out.

Given America’s history — and, let’s be honest, present state of injustice — it seems petty to demand members of a demographic, which are disproportionately incarcerated, be punished as harshly for non-violent crimes as whites are for violent crimes, and prosecuted ten times more often for drug offenses despite comparable drug use by percentage to the white population which outnumbers it 5-to-1.  Given all this and more, it is beyond insensitive to ask black Americans to “pick something better” to be the catalyst for a movement that extends well beyond any one case.

Don’t get it twisted. The movement that has inspired thousands of Americans of all colors to take to the streets in protest isn’t about one young man. It’s about the systemic racism that corrupts American justice. It’s about the routine abuses of power by law enforcement in this country. It’s about an entire demographic of American citizens who still do not feel safe in our borders because of a prejudicial culture that undervalues their lives.

This history will not go away and racial prejudice will not disappear overnight, but it’s 2014, so maybe we can get some body cams.

Professor Rachel Dolezal of the Africana Studies department put it this way:

“It is a sad refrain that in 2014 we are campaigning once again for the very basic value of life and survival of African American people through the #BlackLivesMatter rally cry heard in Ferguson and across the nation. In the 1960’s Black Power movement, under the influences of great leaders like Kwame Ture, Assata Shakur and Malcolm X, we moved beyond survival mode into a push for greater sociocultural balance by empowering Black families with unifying core values, education and economic advancement. With as many Black lives being lost weekly today by police brutality as were taken by white supremacists in the Lynching Period, we have been thrust in some senses back into the Jim Crow era of fighting for survival and human recognition. This is intolerable and unacceptable, and all Americans need to demand that their country do better than this.”

It’s easy to be angry, especially when that anger is legitimate. However, it takes discipline to channel that anger into informed responses and a movement for greater change. I see that movement forming now, and it excites me. I find myself hoping, desperately hoping, that as we move forward, we do not allow our passion to dissipate with our anger.

Protests are still going on in cities across the country and more are scheduled to take place into the future. Hashtags and status updates continue to extend these critical conversations, and I have been encouraged by unity and solidarity I have found amongst my friends of all races.

Despite the heated nature of the controversy, I have been lucky enough to find myself engaged primarily in thoughtful, sensitive discussions enriched by a variety of perspectives. If nothing else, this is an indication that I have surrounded myself with good people, but I think it could be a sign of something else.

Maybe our generation is helping to move the country forward. Maybe we’re a little more empathetic and a little more informed. Maybe we will embrace the passion for change that Ferguson has inspired and move a little bit closer to realizing an America that lives up to its claim of liberty and justice for all.