How Is Ferguson Preparing for a Grand Jury Decision?
The emotionally charged events that have been bubbling in Ferguson, Missouri, in the last few months are likely to see a resurgence of racial tensions and pubic outcry if the grand jury doesn’t rule against Police Officer Darren Wilson, charged with shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen. Events leading up to this trial have been rocky, to say the very least.
On August 16, a state of emergency was declared as a result of protests, peaceful and otherwise. The community in Ferguson has spoken out on its distrust of police forces there, who are largely white, with many residents voicing accusations of racial profiling and inappropriate police action in the past.
An autopsy was done on Brown, showing he’d been shot six times, and involvement at the national level in counseling and working on trust within the community was begun. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited the area and the Justice Department began an investigation into the police force in the area, the police chief made a public apology, and, all the while, protests continued. Now, with the eventual ruling from the grand jury soon to be announced, anything from criminal negligence to first-degree murder, a number of actions have been taken in preparation for any subsequent fall out, and these actions are worth considering critically.
State of emergency and the Missouri National Guard
Missouri’s Governor, Jay Nixon, has called for a state of emergency in preparation for the eventual decision, including 400 National Guard troops to help aid the local police against protesters. Given the history of overuse of force, concerns about over-arming of law enforcement, not to mention the previous unnecessarily strong police reaction to protests and the limitations on press coverage, this might not have been the most appropriate decision.
In examining this decision, FiveThirtyEight looked to Patrick Sharkey, associate professor of sociology at New York University, to see whether or not this sort of action would be a deterrent or spark further backlash. “In Ferguson, most of the actions taken by the police in the aftermath of Brown’s death have served to weaken their legitimacy, not to strengthen it,” he said, discussing the “brute force” of police.
It’s not about whether or not force is present and visible, it’s about whether or not those forces are respected and considered legitimate by the public. “I think the most compelling research is on perceived legitimacy and the use of violence,” he said. “When people feel like core institutions have failed them, and that representatives of these institutions do not have legitimacy, then they are more likely to resort to violence.”
Justice Department response
“The Justice Department encourages law enforcement officials, in every jurisdiction, to work with the communities they serve to minimize needless confrontation,” said a release from the Justice Department on behalf of Attorney General Eric Holder. “While demonstrations and protests have the potential to spark a positive national dialog and bring about critical reform — history has shown us that the most successful and enduring movement for change are those that adhere to non-aggression and nonviolence,” the statement read alongside his video statement.
This encouragement from the Justice Department doesn’t mean certain law enforcement tools won’t be put to use — for example the rubber bullets and tear gas that turned streets into distressingly violent scenes beside local homes and businesses. Ron Davis, a top Justice Department official in charge of working with Ferguson forces, spoke with Reuters, saying that “the chiefs have assured that they understand their priority is to protect people’s constitutional right to demonstrate,” but noted that “there is no assurance that certain equipment will not be deployed.”
Statement from Michael Brown, Sr.
Finally, on a more positive note, the father of Michael Brown, Michael Brown, Sr. made a video statement addressing the town of Ferguson. “My family and I are hurting; our whole region is hurting. I thank you for lifting your voices to end racial profiling and police intimidation, but hurting others or destroying property is not the answer,” Brown said. “No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change — change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”
Michael Brown’s father has also spoken before a UN Committee regarding events in Ferguson and violence there. “We live here together, this is our home, we are stronger united,” Brown said. “Continue to lift your voices with us, and let’s work to together to heal to create lasting change for all people regardless of race.”
Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS