Law and Cultural Morality: Indictment is Not the Only Question in Ferguson

It seems that the nation is on the edge of its collective seat, awaiting the outcome of the grand jury proceedings in the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. The odds seem to be running high that Wilson will not be indicted. I understand why the indictment has become such a focal point, but I'm concerned about the conflation of the indictment with a determination of right-and-wrong. 

Our culture often mashes up these two concepts -- law and morals -- with very odd and often very contentious results. For example, many people in this country do not have appropriate immigration documentation, and many people in this country do not have appropriate motor vehicle registration documentation. Segments of our citizens declare those in the first category to be morally wrong bad or even evil people and brand them with the label 'illegals.' Yet few would deem any American with an expired inspection sticker as an evil person, even though they, too, are breaking the law. 

There are many crimes we are willing to forgive, like the kids selling lemonade in the driveway who don't have their food vending permits and aren't paying business taxes. And there are many wrongdoings that are not considered crimes, like all the crap corporations put in our food, or  cosmetic companies putting lead in our lipstick, or the damage fracking does to drinking water supplies, or Walmart making its minimum wage employees buy uniforms for work. It seems the bigger and more institutionalized the evil, the less likely it is to be considered illegal.

If the grand jury were to indict Darren Wilson, it would comprise an official statement that our criminal justice system found there was a base level of illegality AND wrongness in Wilson's actions. Yet, an indictment is only a charge -- the matter would still have to go to court, and another jury would still determine his criminal culpability.

But, if the grand jury does not indict him -- the more likely scenario -- this is merely a statement that the evidence of the shooting itself did not meet the parameters to be charged as a crime. It is NOT a statement that it was the right thing to do.

The moral questions surrounding this tragic death embrace a far larger context than the instant of pulling the trigger. The moral questions -- the questions we should all be asking of our communities, our police, our public officials, our selves -- involve the whole interaction between Wilson and Brown, both on the immediate concrete level and on the larger symbolic level. 

In the realm of the immediate and specific, I have many questions. The primary one is, How did we get from two young men walking down the middle of the street to a heated confrontation at the cruiser? The officer may not have done anything illegal -- but I suspect this must have involved issues of attitude and communication on the part of both the young men and the officer. Now, young men (of any race or ethnicity), and for that matter, young women, can certainly engage in teenagerish disrespectful behaviour to anyone in authority from parents to teachers to police officers. This is not, however a shooting offense, and the adult in the situation has the responsibility to roll with the attitude and let it go or turn it into a positive moment. Of course I don't even know whether these young men did demonstrate attitude or not -- nor do I really care, because the officer surely should have the communication skills to cope with two young men walking down the street without turning it into a national incident. In that regard, obviously, he failed utterly.  Why was that, and how can we change it for the future? 

The second question I have in this same realm of the concrete is, How did we then get from arguing at the cruiser -- assuming that's what happened -- to being shot in the street? The confrontation has been broken at that point. There's no further threat. There's an unarmed individual walking or running away. Surely, again, the officer had the skills and resources to address this in a non-fatal manner; to control his anger over whatever was said or done. Surely the officer should have had the skills to realize that he was making decisions in anger, and to call for backup in containing an unarmed teenager.  But apparently he didn't. Again, why was that, and how can we change it for the future -- not only in Ferguson, but everywhere? 

Then their is the realm of the symbolic. This incident was both an actual tragic event where Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, and a transcendent incident in which a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed young black man, and in so doing became perceived as emblematic of race relations in America. Why are so many young black men incarcerated, arrested, or shot? Or, going beyond the criminal justice system, Why did far more black farmers and homeowners lose their land during this recession? Why do some many more black women die in childbirth, and why do black women die 5 times more frequently from breast cancer than white women? Here is where the deepest evil of the situation lurks -- in the painful and blatantly obvious multi-tiered reality that is our nation, in which the risks, perceptions, and rewards of living in America are drastically different for one set of people than they are for another set of people. This is injustice and inequality in a pure and painful form -- all the more so for the fact that it is ignored until a bullet crosses from one of those tiers to another and leaves a wake of (very understandable) rage and frustration.

None of these questions -- neither the concrete questions of policy and community policing practices and personal communication and anger management skills, nor the larger questions of whether we are ever going to make good on that bad check Dr. King referred to in the speech at the civil rights march on Washington -- will be answered by the indictment or the anticipated lack of one. 

But these are the very questions we need to address head-on. We should not let the focus on one particular thread in that discussion -- the grand jury indictment -- dissuade us from the overarching questions that will shape the future of equality and justice in America.