Society has failed Ferguson, Mo., not once, not twice, but thrice.
On Monday, Nov. 24, shortly after 8 p.m. local time, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced in a nearly empty courtroom that a grand jury had declined all charges for officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
This was the third failure.
To be clear, however, Wilson did kill Brown — that is not being argued — but he did not murder him (more on this later.)
There were dozens of eyewitnesses who gave statements to the opposite effect, claiming they saw Brown murdered in cold blood.
An eyewitness statement, unfortunately, is only as valuable as the witness is credible. There are infinite reasons for a witness to lose credibility, a credibility which is lacking to begin with in such highly a publicized case as this. A significant change in one’s story is just one of the ways a witness can be discredited – one that happened numerous times in the investigation of Brown’s death.
That’s not to suggest these witnesses lied. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, inaccuracies were given continuous and repeated airtime, to the point hearsay and rumour became the running narrative of the events of Aug. 9.
Anyone who has closely followed the development of this story in the media could not be faulted for “knowing” what happened that fateful day, even if they had not been present.
This was the second failure, the media’s failure in not carefully fact-checking and not carefully presenting the story of the events of that afternoon.
Like some kind of mass hysteria, a common narrative in a tense situation can quickly become irrefutable fact.
The problem is that no story is irrefutable without hard evidence backing and there were few eyewitnesses who provided such stories.
There was one point of evidence in Wilson’s defense that supports his not being charged with murder — behind Brown’s body was a trail of blood 25 feet long.
That trail started when Wilson’s bullet struck Brown for the second time. (His thumb had earlier been grazed by a bullet at the door of Wilson’s vehicle.)
If he had been shot and killed standing still or moving slowly towards Wilson with arms raised, the trail would have been much shorter, if it existed at all.
To leave a trail 25 feet long, Brown would have to have been moving much more quickly, perhaps “charging” at Wilson as some eyewitness alleged.
Put yourself in his shoes. If you had been in that situation, standing in a blocked-off street with your gun drawn, your adrenaline is pumping, you’re facing down a man — black, white or otherwise — a man you’re trying to arrest and have already shot once (albeit, again, just a graze) and he starts coming at you at anything more than a walk, how would you react? Could you keep your cool? Could you aim carefully for a non-fatal wound?
That is why the jury was correct in not charging Wilson with murder.
Where they failed Ferguson was in not charging him at all.
He should now be facing an indictment for involuntary manslaughter – involuntary because he did not set out with the intent to kill Brown, he was merely trying to arrest him, but it was manslaughter for one simple reason and that reason is the result of the first failure.
Wilson drew his gun.
He did not have to. Brown was one man, unarmed and the suspect of a non-violent crime.
There are innumerable other non-lethal options he could and may have been equipped with – a baton, pepper spray or a Tazer, for example – Wilson did not have to confront Brown on his own. He could have waited for backup, he did not have to block off traffic with his Tahoe, he did not have to pursue Brown on his own, but he did all these things and that is because police are trained to react a certain way to situations such as these.
And that is the first failure society has made for Ferguson.
The St. Louis police have been trained to treat any suspect as hostile, to treat people with suspicion and to carry an air of disrespect for all they interact with.
The public reaction, violence, arson and looting aside, is completely justified. Police across North America and the world should be paying attention and listening carefully to what is being said.
Michael Brown died far too soon. Let his death not have been in vain.