Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Both Right But Everything's Wrong: Darren Wilson, Michael Brown, Race, and Police Shootings

To the surprise of very few people, a grand jury failed to return any indictments against Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old black man, in Ferguson, MO. As has been widely reported, grand juries almost never indict police officers for shootings, for a host of reasons.

I am willing to believe the authorities that in this case, the grand jury carefully examined every piece of evidence available. I am also willing to believe that they were correctly instructed as to the law, and that a reasonable person would, given the law and the evidence available, determine that there is insufficient cause to believe that Officer Wilson committed a criminal act when he shot and killed Mr. Brown. In that sense, Officer Wilson's defenders and those who have lined up on his side (including a host of wealthy white conservative commentators) are right - within our system of criminal justice, no crime was committed here.

On the other hand, I also believe that both the shooting and the legal structures surrounding it represent a gross injustice not only for Mr. Brown and his family, but for a community of African-Americans living in Ferguson (and elsewhere). Mr. Brown was not armed, did not seek out a police officer for the purpose of attacking him, and had (so far as anyone knew at the time) committed no crime more serious than walking down the middle of a street. That anyone in such a situation should have to fear for his life gives lie to the boastful claim that America is a "free country", much less a land of equal opportunity. So while breaking windows is a terrible way to make a point, the protesters (most of whom have been peaceful) are right to voice their anger and their sense of injustice. They, too, are right.

So if both sides are right, why is everything wrong? Because we continue to ask the wrong questions. We build up a set of laws and practices and procedures for police that make it almost impossible for them to commit a crime, and then we continue to ask whether what they did was legal, as if "legal" is the highest standard. But laws are made by human beings, and can be flawed, skewed, stacked. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this well and spoke about it passionately. So did many before him. But today, we don't hear those voices much anymore.

We see the same debate taking place over immigration. The debate is about whether immigrants - 20 million, by some counts - are here in the US "legally" or not. TV pundits argue about whether President Obama had the legal justification to issue the executive orders he did. Nobody is talking about what is right.

I'm not arguing that laws are unimportant. Law that is truly fair and just and evenly applied is one of the greatest moral inventions of humankind. It holds out the promise of righting the wrongs that we have known about for as long as there has been civilization. Law promises to elevate the good over the powerful - something every civilization, in its highest moments, has sought for.

But we have made law an idol and enshrined whatever laws happen to be on the books at a given moment as the highest good. We forget that there were Jim Crow laws; that Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to camps in perfectly legal fashion; that only a generation or two ago, blacks and whites could not legally marry in many parts of this country. We look back on those laws now and wonder, how could we have done that? Wasn't the wrongness of those laws obvious? But apparently, it wasn't - not to the people who wrote them and lived under them and defended them at the time.

So arguing about whether something is or is not legal at a given moment in time misses the point. The overuse of force by police, while apparently legal by nearly all measures (vanishingly few cops are even tried, let alone convicted), is wrong. Racial profiling (setting aside whether that's what happened in Ferguson or not) is wrong. Looting and destroying shops because you're angry is also wrong.

As a culture we tend to turn to violence early and often as a solution to problems. Our public policies and our TV shows alike are full of attempts to force the outcome we want on the "bad guys". And we shape our laws to support the kinds of violence we want to use. On TV, this works great; in real life, much less so.

But violence itself is the problem, the question we should be asking. Why is it that the kinds of shootings we see here - police shooting unarmed, often minority, mostly poor citizens - almost never happen in other developed countries? Why do we permit our police not only to arm themselves with an array of weapons but to use them with impunity? What role should violence have in our society - when is it right to take the life of another, and when is it not? And when is violence not the answer? (hint: it very, very rarely is)

I doubt very much that any of these questions will be asked in the next few days or weeks. The protests will eventually die down and property will be put back together. Politicians and pundits will give empty speeches that accomplish nothing. Everyone will retreat back into their own corners, confident that they are right and ready for the next time when they can try to prove their rightness to others with shouting and threats and, yes, the use of force.

Is this what we would do if we actually wanted to change things? If we really wanted a society where people can walk the streets without feeling threatened? If we wanted to make sure that - "legal" or not - encounters like that between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown never happened again? Law cannot guarantee that - only we can. But that would involve setting aside our fetish of the law and our lust for force and trying something very different.

1 comment: