Protests have started in Ferguson, following the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson will not face charges in the August 9 shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. A police car was smashed, police are using tear gas, and reporters have said they heard gunshots.
Expect to see a lot of commentators respond to the Ferguson decision by arguing that the system worked. A randomly selected grand jury saw all of the evidence in the case and made its decision accordingly. Unlike an actual trial, an indictment requires just nine of the 12 jurors to agree on a charge—and, still, there wasn’t support to pursue charges. Meanwhile, the protests started immediately following the verdict, before journalists and lawyers had a chance to examine the hundreds of pages of evidence from the case.
There’s some truth to that. The evidence in this case is very murky. Did Wilson pull Brown by the neck into the car, as some witnesses allege, including Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Brown at the time? Or did Brown refuse to let Wilson exit his vehicle and punch him multiple times? When Wilson fired the fatal shots, did Brown have his hands up in position to surrender? Or was he making an aggressive movements towards Wilson? The witness statements and three autopsies that were performed on Michael Brown’s body—one each by the county, the Justice Department and by a private practice that Brown’s parents requested—don’t seem to answer those questions definitively.
Ultimately, we don’t know—and will likely never know—exactly what happened in the altercation between Wilson and Brown. Given that, it’s not surprising that the grand jury failed to indict Wilson. A conviction was always a long shot.
But if you’re criticizing the protestors in Ferguson because the murky evidence necessitated no indictment—and thus the system “got it right”—then you are missing the protestors’ main criticism. The evidence itself—and the entire criminal justice system—have lost credibility in their eyes. Due to years of racist policies, Ferguson residents have lost all faith that the case would be handled fairly.
Who can blame them? Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor in the case, refused to step aside, even though he is very close to the police department and his dad, a police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty by an African American man. McCulloch then chose an unusual strategy in presenting all of the evidence to the grand jury, instead of just the evidence necessary to get an indictment. Although consistent with the idea of a grand jury as investigative body, it’s not the way prosecutors usually treat them.
Other evidence has made Ferguson residents suspicious as well. In October, the Washington Post reported a number of leaks in the case, nearly all in support of Wilson’s story. The leaks seemed like such a transparent attempt to influence public opinion that the Justice Department said, “There seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.” The DOJ itself has also had leaks indicating that Wilson would not face civil rights charges. Over the weekend, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that a collection of prominent news anchors had met with Wilson in off-the-record meetings to try to get an interview with him. Such meetings are not unusual but in such a high priority case, the anchors have faced criticism for not divulging that the meetings took place.
Protesters shouldn’t engage in violence, of course. But most haven’t. They have expressed themselves peacefully night after night over the past three months and should continue to do so. The only way to avoid these riots in the future is to fix our legal system so that all Americans believe that cases, involving both black and white defendants and black and white perpetrators, are handled fairly. These protests serve as a stark warning for what happens when our criminal justice system doesn't have that credibility. We have a long, long way to go.
This post has been updated.