Michael Brown verdict ignites racial tensions that divide America

President Obama appeals for calm as grand jury clears officer of killing in case presented by pro-police prosecutor

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For all the anxiety and anticipation that foreshadowed the disclosure of the grand jury decision in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the moment when it came offered zero surprise. To many in America’s black community it represented a familiar conclusion to a familiar series of events.

The reasons they should never have expected the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mr Brown, were overwhelming. Some are based on an understanding of the law, which favours the policeman over the victim nearly always. Others are more visceral and less empirical: black lives are expendable in America, the judicial system is stacked against them.

Whether this notion of systemic discrimination is perceived or real, in this case it happened to be embodied in the figure of Bob McCulloch, the St Louis County prosecutor who sent it to the grand jury and who stood before the cameras on Monday to announce its findings. Even some in local government had questioned the appropriateness of his leading the process.


It is not unusual for prosecutors to be protective of the police. But it’s personal for Mr McCulloch. When he was 12 his father, a police officer, was shot on the beat. The killer was black. His brother, nephew and cousin were all on the St Louis force. Mr McCulloch has four times presented cases involving deadly shootings to grand juries and four times no charges were brought. In one, involving the killing of two unarmed black men by a police officer and an FBI agent in 2000, he referred to both victims as “bums”.

Language says a lot. There was outrage when early on in the first wave of protests after the 9 August shooting an officer with the Ferguson police department was caught on video yelling: “Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!” Soon after the department was replaced by state troopers to manage the protests.

Mr McCulloch released transcripts of almost all testimony presented to the grand jury. Within them are details that partly explain the decision the 12-member panel reached. Two US Supreme Court rulings from the 1980s give leeway to police officers to use deadly force without fear of prosecution in situations where they reasonably fear they or others may be hurt.

Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August (AFP/Getty)

Mr Wilson testified that the victim had lunged at him inside his SUV. He said he was thinking: “What do I do not to get beaten inside my car?” He went on: “I drew my gun. I said, ‘Get back or I’m going to shoot you’… He immediately grabs my gun and says, ‘You are too much of a pussy to shoot me’.”

So maybe the grand jury got it right. But the anger that once more has been ignited is about more than this case. Even if Officer Wilson deserves to be absolved, the Ferguson police department maybe does not. Or the police department in Cleveland, Ohio, who on Saturday shot dead a 12-year-old holding a pellet gun.

The protests have spread far beyond Ferguson. Angry crowds marched late on Monday from coast to coast – in Times Square, in front of the White House, in Denver, Seattle and Oakland. “This is an issue for America,” President Barack Obama said on Monday night. “We have made enormous progress in race relations… but what is also true is that there are still problems.” He added: “Communities of colour aren’t just making these problems up.”

They see them in the numbers. How is it that only eight per cent of all complaints of police brutality are ever investigated? That 87 per cent of all traffic stops in Ferguson involve black drivers when blacks make up 67 per cent of the community?

Police guard the Ferguson police department as rioting erupts (Getty)

They see problems in the 1991 beating by police of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and the killing of the last weekend in Cleveland. They believe they see one in the acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot Trayvon Martin near Orlando in 2012.

Yesterday, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein lamented “deep and festering” distrust between US communities. Mr Obama insisted that Ferguson gives America a chance to learn and correct. It just could be.

After the King beating, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act giving feds power to discipline police departments that have abused the civil rights of any group. It happened to the LA police department in 2000 and it is a much different force now.

The US Justice Department is weighing taking the same action against the Ferguson policed department. It will help return some peace to the streets if they do. As the Reverend Al Sharpton said last night of Monday’s verdict: “You have broken our hearts, but you have not broken our backs.”