As rioting returned to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of a Grand Jury decision not to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, so too a fresh edge has been given to questions about the balance of justice in America – and how it seems to tip away, in particular, from poor African-American communities. All that the people of Ferguson want, according to the Brown family’s lawyer, is the “police to be held accountable”.
It is a complaint that resonates across America – reflected in the rage which saw protests break out from New York to Seattle. And yet, tragic and awful as the Brown case no doubt is, and stacked as the odds appear to be against white cops being brought to book for killing young black men, it is not immediately obvious that a wholesale miscarriage of justice has taken place. Or at least, not with US law as it stands.
There was overwhelming evidence to support Officer Darren Wilson’s claim that Mr Brown had reached into the police car to grab his gun, and the two men had wrestled for possession of it. Nevertheless when, after taking a volley of bullets, Mr Brown turned to face Mr Wilson, was it to surrender or to charge him? Whichever was the true explanation, the gesture ended in a mortal bullet wound to Mr Brown’s head – and, at least in the eyes of the jury, Mr Wilson’s actions could not be called unprovoked.
What is painfully clear nonetheless is that the American legal system is too light on officers who use lethal force. It makes it much too easy for officers to resort to fatal force if they claim to fear for themselves or other innocent parties, or if they believe a suspected violent felon is escaping. As a result, only a handful are indicted. Mr Wilson was also in possession of mace and a baton at the time of the shooting; reaching first for either might have averted all this.
Mr Wilson may have been miscast as a straightforward villain, as he was in the shooting’s aftermath. But if policemen less scrupulous than Mr Wilson are not to continue getting away with murder, the law needs to be tightened – and officers made to fear for their own future when they draw a pistol on a civilian.Reuse content