Perhaps the rioting that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, after the grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was inevitable. There were certainly enough protestors spoiling for a fight to ensure that trouble was likely to erupt. But the local authorities played into their hands by committing a series of mistakes that added fuel to the incipient fire.
The decision to announce the grand jury’s finding late in the evening was horrible, giving crowds even more time to assemble. Then, word of the finding fell on them like a spark near a powder keg. An earlier, daytime announcement might have produced a different dynamic.
The parents of 18-year-old Brown, who have repeatedly appealed for calm and condemned violence, had been told that they would be informed beforehand about the grand jury’s vote, giving them time to compose themselves and prepare to face the public. Instead, TV cameras captured the shock that registered on Brown’s mother’s face as she stood amid the crowds and learned, along with everyone else, that the justice she had wanted would not be forthcoming.
Local and state officials won’t win any plaudits for the public-security arrangements, either, despite earnest declarations that they would be ready to stop rioting before it began. For all the vaunted presence of state and local police officers and units of the National Guard, business properties in the likely zone of trouble were apparently left unprotected, including fast-food outlets and a liquor store.
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None of this is to excuse the counter-productive violence that swept Ferguson after the grand jury’s action became known. Some of the businesses destroyed by the rioters were probably owned by black residents, who make up the majority of the city, or had black employees, now left jobless. The residents of the riot zone, in this case the people of Ferguson, are the ones who suffer most from lasting harm after the rioters leave.
But the main issue is the criminal justice process in this case, particularly the decision to hand the matter over to a grand jury, thus ensuring that secrecy would prevail in a high-profile case. Taking the case behind closed doors only served to raise doubts about the ultimate outcome.
Officer Wilson may well have been acquitted in an actual jury trial. The evidence appears to point in that direction. But only a public trial that allows the evidence, the questioning of witnesses and the entire process of justice to be openly seen and weighed can provide the kind of catharsis that was needed in this case.
The larger issue is the history of racial inequities that plague the criminal-justice system. In this instance, an unarmed black youth is shot six times by a white police officer, and the case does not even rise to the level of “probable cause” that is required for a jury trial.
It’s hard to second-guess a grand jury — its members were the only ones to see evidence and hear testimony. But it is certainly not hard to see why many observers think that the prosecutor, unwilling to file charges against a police officer, steered the grand jury to the verdict he wanted all along — then declared justice done.
The Justice Department should continue its civil-rights investigation of the incident, and of the Ferguson Police Department as a whole.
America promises “justice for all,” but episodes like the killing of Michael Brown fall far short.