After a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Daren Wilson for fatally shooting unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the wave of demonstrations –both violent and non-violent – across the United States have been the talk of the media. The testimonies from both Officer Darren Wilson and witness Dorian Johnson too have been the subject of much heated debate, particularly the rather zany account given by Wilson where he even at one point used the word “Demon” to describe Brown.
Although it’s difficult not to become enthralled with the human story that has inspired these demonstrations, no one can in good conscience peg the verdict regarding one event to the greater problems of racism and police brutality in America. Still, we do it all the time.
Michael Brown’s death, like the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, has come to represent something more than the events that led to a single tragic and untimely death. They represent an all too familiar archetype in American society of the young black male who faces inexcusable police brutality because of the color of his skin. It’s an archetype that is also completely based in reality. Just about every known police statistic in the US from arrests, to incarcerations, to shootings shows that black people are clearly singled out by overwhelmingly white and increasingly militant police forces.
We need more police diversity
In Fergusson alone, while 63% of the population is black, 94% of the police are white. This St. Louis suburb of roughly 20,000 also purchases a lot of their vehicles and other police equipment from private military contractors. With conditions like these, it’s no surprise that people in Ferguson have been reporting racial profiling and police brutality against the black community long before the death of Michal Brown. If his death had been an anomaly, we would not be seeing such anger and backlash in this community. Brown was not just a tragedy, but also the final straw for a town that was already fed up with ongoing discrimination from the police.
Whatever happened that day in August, the black community, as well as others in Ferguson and across the United States, has been empathetic to Brown partly because of all the other times when police have clearly mistreated or nonchalantly killed black people, and nothing was done about it. That and the knowledge that a family has lost their son is what make these cases so emotional. Archetype or no, it remains important for what happened to Michael Brown (and the countless other stories like his that don’t earn media coverage) to be heard.
That being said, this ruling should not be grounds for more violence, but instead greater civic action. America needs police forces that represent the diversity of their communities instead of ones that divide and classify them. It’s not only possible, for example, but likely that Wilson truly did believe his life was in danger when he pulled out his gun, even if it probably wasn’t. That doesn’t make Wilson a bad person. It certainly doesn’t make him a good one either, but it’s worth acknowledging that racism, especially among police, isn’t always deliberate. The question that remains to be asked then is not whether or not racism exists in police forces, but rather how it can be mitigated?
Doing this requires increasing personal accountability among police officers. There are lots of suggestions on how to do this, from slapping go pros on police vests to mandating more civic oversight. In truth, the most important thing in decreasing racial profiling is increasing racial diversity among police. Today’s painfully white, weaponized police forces are accountable to virtually no one but other white people, which breeds a culture of profiling. Changing this fact is going to be a long and incremental process, and one that will take more than the immediate outrage of this most recent grand jury ruling to fix.
A guilty conscience
No matter where our sympathies lie, the truth of the matter is that we don’t know what happened between Brown and Wilson. Even in the unlikely chance that Brown had been acting like the utterly irrational aggressor that Wilson describes, it doesn’t change the larger trend of police officers harassing, incarcerating, and fatally shooting black Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic level, at rates far higher than whites or any other racial group in the United States. That still needs to be changed. There’s no evidence that sending Darren Wilson to jail would address this larger problem at all.
That being said, it’s worth noting that there is one element of Wilson’s testimony that should disturb anyone, whether they believe him guilty or innocent. He has reported having a “clean conscience” about what he did. Michael Brown’s mother very rightfully responded to this statement by saying “how could your conscience be clear after killing somebody, even if it was an accidental death?”
Americans of all races should not be focused on the question of what happened August 9th in Ferguson Missouri, but instead should ask themselves what kind of people they want serving them as police officers. Anyone who doesn’t regret killing a teenager is someone I would suggest is better off in a job where they don’t carry a gun.