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Facing reality in a racial society

Published: 
Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Missouri Grand Jury has found no cause for charging the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. In an unprecedented development, the local prosecutor revealed that he had refrained from urging the jury to come to any particular conclusion, leaving it entirely to them, unaided, to sift through what turned out to be contradictory evidence.

In short, the interests of the deceased did not appear to have been vigorously represented, if at all. Officer Darrel Wilson told the jury he was in his car when he encountered Brown and his friend walking in the middle of the road. Without provocation, Brown attacked him through the window, at times “swinging wildly,” attempting to relieve him of his weapon. 

Wilson managed to get off a shot. It hit Brown, who paused, but “ducked in” again and continued his onslaught. Wilson shot again, but missed. Brown ran off. Wilson alighted and ordered Brown to stop. It is clear that Brown was unarmed, but, by Wilson’s account, he nevertheless turned and charged Wilson, who had his pistol drawn and was taking aim. Brown made a “grunting noise” and had a “most intensive face.”

As he charged, Wilson continued, Brown put his hand to his waistband, a detail Wilson added no doubt to suggest that he feared that Brown was reaching for a weapon, which up to that point he had not brandished. Wilson fired “multiple shots,” but Brown kept coming. Wilson fired more shots, many of which struck Brown in the head. He slumped to the ground, dead.

Eyewitnesses corroborated Wilson’s account. One witness spoke of Brown charging Wilson at “an aggressive speed” and in “charge mode.” Others, to the contrary, spoke of Wilson opening fire as soon as Brown turned around and even though he had raised his arms in “a give up” mode. Brown’s friend said Wilson shot Brown in the head as soon as he exited the police vehicle, even though Brown had his hands in the air and said: “Please don’t shoot me.”

The evidence will be pored over by experts in the weeks to come and there will no doubt be rational views expressed on either side. Police officers frequently find themselves in life-threatening situations. Naturally, the law does not require an officer to be charged every time a citizen is killed by police fire. The law recognises that deadly force may be justified where an officer finds himself facing a threat of death or serious bodily harm.

The legal test seeks to balance the individual’s right to life with the officer’s right to carry out his duties safely. In its application, it is recognised that officers are sometimes faced with fast-developing events and must make split-second decisions. Many of the witnesses who supported Wilson’s version of the events were African American. President Obama was quick to urge calm and restraint and pointed to Ferguson as a symbol of the wider state of race relations in the country.

Yet still, people rioted, burnt and looted. It is not hard to understand why. Black men in the United States are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. That means that of every 2,200 men shot by police, 2,100 would be black. That is the stark reality of a deeply racially divided society.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani attempted to explain away the statistics by claiming that because the criminal element is more likely to be located in black communities, there would likely be a greater number of confrontations between black youth and white police officers. The larger picture is that black men are disproportionately represented among the general prison population and on death row.

But this has to be a specious attempt at rationalisation. Black communities are but a small percentage of the entire population. Giuliani’s argument could only withstand scrutiny if there was an equally disproportionate number of confrontations between police and black men as with white, which, given the proportion of the population black communities occupy, is hardly likely.

Rather, it is racism which explains why white police officers appear to be so ready to resort to lethal force when confronted by black youth. Brown is not the first young, unarmed, black man to be shot by a white officer, and, sadly, he is not the last. But Giuliani unwittingly provided the explanation why, despite the contradictory evidence, the appearance of due process and a presidential appeal for calm, there have nevertheless been sustained and violent protests.

The existence of a disproportionate amount of crime among black communities in the US is obviously the product of the fact that they are disproportionately poor. This is the legacy of the injustice of slavery and Jim Crow laws. 

It is no consolation to a people for whom injustice is a way of life that the law governing confrontations with police officers is on its face even-handed, and that an attempt at due process has been made. Fair laws cannot long command respect when they operate in a system which regenerates inequality and unjust outcomes.

All this also serves to explain a remarkable aspect of this whole episode. If Wilson’s account is true, an unarmed young man, already wounded, was so enraged that, seemingly unprovoked, he charged an armed police officer. It is not difficult to understand where that rage came from.

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