It is tragically fitting that the week preceding the Ferguson grand jury’s decision ended with a police officer fatally shooting a 12-year-old black child in Ohio. Tamir Rice was playing with a fake gun when police reacted to an emergency services call by descending on the scene and shooting the boy twice when he reached for his ‘weapon.’
Rice might have survived, but all police officers present refused to perform first aid. This is just one of the 14 shootings of teenage civilians by US police since Mike Brown’s death this summer. During this time, huge protests have taken place in Ferguson, and across the US, to condemn this incident and the institutional racism it represents. Mainstream media outlets have, of course, focused on the violent behaviour of a few individuals and neglected to focus on the wider, peaceful, and much-needed Hands Up, Don’t Shoot movement.
On 24th November the Ferguson grand jury announced it would not indict Darren Wilson. The biggest protests yet followed this ruling, a reaction which becomes all the more understandable after examining the grand jury content. Many legal experts have noted the grand jury’s unusual and troubling nature, and highlighted the defensive framing of its verdict’s announcement by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. A grand jury is supposed to be an examination only of the case for making a charge, and not a two-sided dispute as with a trial.
This grand jury, however, was not only presented with exculpatory evidence but included a testimony by Wilson himself. It is extremely unusual for a grand jury to rule against indictment. Moreover, the evidence for indictment based upon witness statements and Brown’s autopsy blatantly oppose Wilson’s claim that he had reasonable cause to fear for his life, and therefore to use lethal force. The grand jury details are available online, and I would strongly suggest examining these yourself.
Obama, whose presidency is widely upheld as a sacred symbol of the ‘post-racial society’ myth, has remained rather quiet on these affairs. His speech after the grand jury’s announcement was a fairly limp affair in which he supported the verdict and joined with Brown’s parents in warning against anything other than peaceful protest.
It is of course politically advisable that he remain neutral on these matters; there was much speculation on the appropriateness of his expression of human sympathy for Trayvon Martin after his murder by George Zimmerman in 2012. He has since called for these issues to remain topics of consideration, and has met with civil rights groups in a move which Reverend Al Sharpton attended and described as promising, but warned against them being an isolated occurrence. It seems that there is a danger of the government focusing on this issue as purely a problem in the police/community relationship, and once again overlooking the fact that the events in Ferguson are symptomatic of an institutional, pan-social process of oppression.
Many have called for a rational response in Ferguson to these horrific events. Given that scientifically and anthropologically race within humanity does not exist, surely a ‘rational’ society would not so fundamentally rely on the discrimination of any ‘racial’ group. I am not sure I can take seriously the leaders of such a society telling those who are systematically and violently oppressed to retain a sense of decorum. I do not condone violence, but nor can I condemn some of the protestors for channelling their anger into destruction. After all, in the words of Martin Luther King “a riot is the language of the unheard”. I would like these cool-as-cucumber politicians to spend a full year at the receiving end of individual and institutional racism, then multiply this by all the years they have lived, and still tell these protesters to keep their heads.
America seems able to acknowledge the atrocity of racism only if it occurs in a historical document. This is no accident; wilful blindness is endemic in a country built brick-for-brick on hypocrisy. I hope however that this is the final straw, and that the blindfold might soon be lifted – or if necessary burned away – by the fallout of Ferguson.