What would justice for Michael Brown look like?
By Will Falk
Let’s be clear: The decision not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown Jr. was inevitable.
I do not write this to undermine, in any way, the justifiable rage being expressed around the country. I write this in the hopes that we can accurately diagnose the cancer characterized by the symptoms we have seen – symptoms like the death of another young black man at the hands of a white policeman, the failure of a grand jury to indict that policeman, and a mainstream media determined to paint acts taken in retaliation as somehow too extreme. Once we have accurately diagnosed the cancer, I want us to locate the tumors and remove them.
In the days leading up to the grand jury’s decision, I felt a certain amount of unease in the general message from the left. It seemed to me that the message went like this, “The Ferguson grand jury better indict or else.” This message, while completely justified, suffered from a lack of analysis and was the product of a misguided faith in the so-called criminal justice system to act in the best interest of the people it purports to protect.
The consensus seems to be that we want justice for Brown’s murder. But, what does that look like?
I am encouraged by the displays of anger being displayed across the country, but I want us to be clear about what it is we want. The consensus seems to be that we want justice for Brown’s murder. But, what does that look like? Does it simply mean throwing Darren Wilson in prison? Does it mean a public statement from the Ferguson police department that they were wrong? Or, does it mean we convict an entire system for producing the murders of thousands of Michael Browns and sentence that system to the death it so clearly deserves?
In order to understand why the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson was inevitable, we have to dig to the very roots of our society. The philosopher Neil Evernden, author of the brilliant work The Natural Alien, explained that unquestioned assumptions are the real authorities of any culture. One of the unquestioned assumptions prevailing in our society is that police officers are here to protect and serve us.
It might be true that police officers get kittens out of trees, direct traffic, and sometimes even investigate crime, but is this why they exist? Is this their main function in society or do police officers fill a more sinister role?
It might be true that police officers get kittens out of trees, direct traffic, and sometimes even investigate crime, but is this why they exist?
One way to answer this is to trace the formation of police departments in American history. Noted police historian and Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska – Omaha Samuel Walker identifies slave patrols, emerging in the early 1700s, as the first publicly funded police forces in the American South. North Dakota State University’s Carol A. Archbold writes in Policing: A Text/Reader that these patrols – or paddy-rollers as they were called – were “created with the specific intent of maintaining control over slave populations.” Archbold describes the three major actions conducted by these slave patrols as searches of slave quarters, keeping slaves off roadways, and disassembling meetings organized by groups of slaves. From the outset, police forces have existed to enforce an unjust order.
Another way to examine the true role of police forces is to ask yourself: What would happen if you were starving, noticed the large quantity of uneaten food piled at Wal-Mart, and decided to eat some of it? The police, of course, would arrive to take you to jail. The police would protect Wal-Mart’s right to stockpile food over your right not to starve. On your way to jail, the police officer will probably tell you that the law is the law, stealing is a crime, and if the officer has a heart, he (I prefer my villains to carry the male pronoun) will apologetically explain that it feels unfair to him, too, but he is after all, just doing his job. In court, the judge will shrug and tell you this is a nation of laws, not of men (never women, of course) and enforce the abstraction of property rights over the reality of hunger.
Another way to examine the true role of police forces is to ask yourself: What would happen if you were starving, noticed the large quantity of uneaten food piled at Wal-Mart, and decided to eat some of it?
Before I go any deeper, I know I must address one of the most common objections to my line of reasoning. The objection goes like this: “We understand, Will, that the police often do bad things, but what about enforcing rape laws? If there were no police, who would protect women from sexual assault?”
The problem with assuming that the police are actually protecting women from rape is that they aren’t. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that only 10 out of every 100 rapes will ever lead to an arrest and only 3 of these rapes will lead to a rapist spending even one night in prison. Even worse than this is a national epidemic where police officers are being convicted at an alarming rate for on-duty sexual assaults. Rape victims are calling the police for protection only to be raped when the police show up.
My shovel has not reached the roots of our society yet.
Derrick Jensen gets to the heart of the matter in his work Endgame. He writes, “Our way of living – industrial civilization – is based on and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.” Civilization, for Jensen, is a culture that leads to and emerges from the growth of cities. And, cities are people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life. Civilization eventually strips a land base of its ability to support life, so the civilized resort to violence when people in the next watershed over will not or cannot provide the civilized with the resources they require. This is easily seen in the atrocities the American government is willing to commit to gain access to a resource it requires: fossil fuels.
Jensen supports his statement that our way of life is based on persistent and widespread violence writing, “Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.” The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson is an example of how violence done by one higher on the hierarchy – a white police officer – to one lower on the hierarchy – a young black man – is fully rationalized.
Change implies this system was designed for justice. It was not. We do not live in a broken system. We live in a system that was designed this way.
Jensen goes on, “The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below…If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.” These words illuminate exactly what happened to Brown. Brown was accused of taking a $48 box of cigarillos from a convenience store and was killed because of it. Brown was lower on the hierarchy than the convenience store, and his life proved to be less valuable than a $48 box of cigarillos.
This is the system we live in. Michelle Alexander writes in her game-changing book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.” I do not, however, believe that the so-called criminal justice system has changed. Change implies this system was designed for justice. It was not. We do not live in a broken system. We live in a system that was designed this way. The question is not, “How do we fix this?” The question is, “How do we destroy this system that is murdering so many?”
Finally, I do not need to prove that any one is intentionally driving the current system to perform the horrors it is to support my claim that this system needs to be destroyed. I do not need to prove that Wilson held hatred in his heart when he released a flurry of shots into Brown’s body.
As a public defender in Kenosha, WI, I saw first hand how terrorization by police officers benefited those in power. On November 9, 2004, Kenosha Police Albert Gonzalez shot 21-yeard old Michael E. Bell through the temple while two other officers were restraining Bell in the front yard of Bell’s home while his sister and mother watched on. No one knows why the police followed Bell to his home, but Bell was killed and Gonzalez was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Kenosha is not a large county and many of my clients knew Bell or the details of this story. On more than one occasion, I asked clients why they ran from the police when they were doing nothing wrong and were answered with incredulous stares and questions like, “Do you know what they did to Mike Bell?” I do not need to prove any police officer is personally hateful because the police operate to instill fear in the public.
Those of us engaged in resistance often look around, see the mess the world is in, and wonder why more are not joining us. Why are more of us not fighting back? The truth is most people are horrified of the police, of soldiers, of the government, of men – and I can absolutely understand why. The system will not correct the behavior of police officers like Wilson and Gonzalez in any meaningful way because it cannot. The system depends on the fear Wilson has instilled in all of us.
If we are going to achieve justice in the wake of Ferguson’s failure to indict Wilson, we must understand why this failure was inevitable, we must overcome our fear, and we must undermine an inherently hateful system.
It does happen the other way around sometimes (link).
I’m not a fan of The Federalist website, but the fact is that not all white cop black male shootings are racist in nature. I’m not saying Darren Wilson is not guilty, but I don’t know for a fact that he is either. I’m very confident that the black officer who shot and killed the unarmed white male in the link I posted here is not guilty of black on white racism.
Regardless of Darren Wilson, while the protesters have every right to protest (and they should) I have no regard for the rioters who burned down businesses and took away the livelihoods of the owners and employees.
bob dorn says
I’m not a radical, but not all police forces drag out riot gear and armored vehicles in neighborhoods like Ferguson, and not all young black men are viewed as suspects by the nation’s police forces. And I’m not saying that St. Louis County manipulated when its prosecutor vigorously attacked the testimony of those who saw the event as it unfolded, then let officer Darren Wilson testify a total of four hours, then teased the crowds in Ferguson by missing its own deadlines repeatedly before finally issuing its reports.
Goatskull, I normally appreciate your positions on today’s outrages, but on this matter you seem to be straining something to appear impartial. I wonder why your takeaway from that black cop, dead white guy shooting in Utah — the one you’re referring to — wasn’t that police are simply not indicted at all in shootings, whether they’re brothers or they’re pale guys.
I certainly agree that the armored vehicles and riot gear or just the complete militarization of police some forces is overkill x 10 and is just making things worse.
My point with the link is that not all police shootings between two different ethnicities is racially motivated. I grant you that doesn’t make it justified. A quick Google search shows here are no shortages of police brutality issues white on white, Asian on Hispanic, Hispanic on black, etc.
If you’re asking me why I’m not outraged that all police officers are not indicted after shooting an unarmed civilian that’s a whole separate issue (to me anyway). When that happens I like to see all the circumstances. The situation a couple years ago here in SD when a Boarder Patrol officer jumped on the hood of a vehicle and shot the female driver even though she was trying to get away is one thing, but not all situations are as simple and cut and dry as that. My opinion anyway.
bob dorn says
Well… look, a higher percentage of African Americans are in jail on minor drug possession in this country’s jails than any other ethnic group. Ferguson is a majority black town and the Grand Jury of 12 included but 3 people of color. The medical examiner assigned in M. Brown’s death in Ferguson listed the victim as the police officer.
You can’t win this argument about who’s suffering and dying at the hands of police and local government by citing one case of one white teenager shot by a black cop in Utah. And are you sure your rightwing source got it right? Do you trust too much?
No one is trying to win any argument Bob. I still believe that more often than not there are two sides.
On a separate note, thank you for saying you normally appreciate my positions (even if you don’t necessarily agree with them). I appreciate reading that from you.
Will Falk says
My point is that the police protect a system that produces and is produced by racism. To end racism means stopping the physical forces producing racism. The police are one of these physical forces.
The fact that there are black police officers killing unarmed white people doesn’t change this anymore than claiming the American government isn’t racist because we have a black president authorizing the bombing of poor people of color.
I wonder who pays the salaries of the Ferguson Police Department if not for taxes from the businesses there? Many of the businesses targeted including a Little Caesar’s and Walgreen’s are large corporations who steal labor from the communities they operate in. Paying minimum wage is nothing more than theft of labor.
I think it’s only through great privilege that one can criticize rioting as a tactic. The truth is – as the conversation around Ferguson has demonstrated – police killing an unarmed black man is simply not news. Rioting is.
Come on Will. First off plenty of the businesses there were not corporate owned. Many were independently owned by non white proprietors (that are now gone). Regardless of who was independent and who was corporate you can’t possibly think rioting is ok and justified (at least in terms of burning down their own neighborhood). And don’t tell me it’s only through privilege that one can criticize rioting as a tactic. I have a hard time believing you really think that. Plenty of commentary from local residents who are devastated by the violence and looting and burnings of local establishments.
Will Falk says
goatskull: Jacobin article
Will Falk says
this one’s pretty good, too: Time article
I read both links you posted and that hasn’t changed my opinion so all I can say is we have very different views on this and we’ll just have to leave it at that. Still you should consider the fact that not all black residents of Ferguson took part in the riots. I’d be willing to bet that most didn’t. Also I’m sure the black business owners (not all of these were white corporate owned) who lost their livelihoods to this would also disagree with you and the authors of these links.
Will Falk says
re: Police and Prosecutors
One thing I’m not seeing talked about is how through the court system prosecutors and police are often best friends. They work together constantly on normal, non-controversial court cases all the time. Whenever a case goes to trial prosecutors spend hours with police officers working on their testimonies. I don’t know this, but I’d bet that prosecutor knew Wilson pretty well, was probably on friendly terms with him, probably worked with him a number of times.
Most of the time, police and prosecutors’ agendas match up perfectly. It’s one of those day-to-day human things that stands in the way of fairness when the police or even other prosectors (I’ve seen that, too) are implicated.