Last night Ferguson burned. There were 29 arrests, over 150 shots fired (according to police), and more than a dozen buildings set on fire. It may or may not be over. The anger is over the fact that the prosecutor declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown: his action was judged to be such obvious self-defense that it didn't even warrant a trial.
Were They Right To Make That Decision?
The Omnivore is not a lawyer but his gut reaction is: No--They should have had a trial. If we're going to countenance like six investigations into Benghazi because, hey, you can never be too sure, we could at least have a trial for Wilson. Trials for police shootings are, apparently very rare (unlike for the rest of us where they are very common): Those numbers need some adjustment. Police officers need to feel they can do their jobs, yes--but The Omnivore thinks we're past a tipping point (Police in Utah kill more people than gang members).
Was Wilson Guilty of Murder?
The Omnivore is neither an expert in trial law nor has he even reviewed all the evidence shown to the Grand Jury--but his guess is that Wilson would not have been found guilty of murder.* While the testimony is contradictory (see this witness vs. this one) the material facts of the case seem to be:
- Brown was not shot in the back.
- His arms were not raised above his head in surrender when he was shot and killed.
- He had already been shot once from within the police car and had not surrendered.
- Wilson was punched several times, albeit he was not wounded in a life-threatening manner.
The upshot of this is that, in contradiction of the story as it broke, it seems likely to The Omnivore that Brown escalated the confrontation at the vehicle and turned with intent to do violence to Wilson when he was killed. This is by no means a sure thing--but it seems to match the physical evidence presented by the Brown-family autopsy that The Omnivore has reviewed.
The Omnivore is unclear on whether a wounded Michael Brown at some distance would constitute a 'reasonable' lethal threat to Wilson--but The Omnivore's take is that as Newsweek asserts, that if, in fact, Brown had reached for the gun and then later charged, the officer would have the building blocks of reasonable self-defense claim. The Omnivore suspects there is sufficient evidence for this case that Wilson would have been acquitted (this opinion is based on reading various legal sources: The Omnivore has no direct expertise in this matter).
Of course we'll never know now, will we?
So The People Are Wrong To Be Angry?
No: The people of Ferguson have a valid compliant--completely apart from the Wilson Grand Jury. Firstly, while The Omnivore suspects Wilson would have probably gotten off, we at least need to see the two sides make their case. Secondly, while Brown may not have been a great standard-bearer for the issue of police overreaction, the Ferguson Police Department's overreaction to the protests certainly was. If you are issuing No-Fly Zones to keep the press out and tear-gassing news-crews the problem is not a handful of stolen cigars.
The Ferguson municipality weaponized the legal system's judicial fines to make thousands and thousands of dollars off of the populace. The racial divide between the police and the policed is stark (if, uh, not abnormal). The militarized authoritarian reaction to the initial protests was reprehensibly excessive.
Basically, Brown was the rock that got turned over and exposed the problems. The problem wasn't explicitly the rock.
The Omnivore is, most days of the week, a Technological Utopian. The Brown family's position that police officers be made to wear cameras is, The Omnivore thinks, the right one. Certainly they won't clear up everything but they'd clear up a lot (let's put those camera systems on guns too--and what about those no-one-can-use-it-but-the-officer locking bracelets while we're on the topic of officer's weapons being taken away?).
If we are right to be afraid of the surveillance state, the NSA, and Orwellian traffic cameras, why don't we turn that shit around and put the lens on Big Brother? We might be a half-decade away from this technology being seamless and ubiquitous but The Omnivore just doesn't see a downside. If we're afraid that shining a light on their work might make the men and women in blue a little more nervous, let's remember that COPS has been airing since 1989 (yes, that's edited to make sure the Cops never lose--but it's not like the men and women doing their jobs with the camera crew right there are suddenly unable to function).
* Vox finds Wilson's story literally unbelievable. The Omnivore agrees with the general "bullshit" assessment (i.e. that Wilson was all polite when he first spoke to Brown--and continued to be). Yes: The Omnivore doubts that Wilson was all speaking the Queen's English. However, it's also difficult to see a scenario where Wilson escalated to shooting inside his own vehicle without some intermediate step.
Wilson is carefully (and knowledgeably) building a case for self-defense (the reaching for his shirt, the connection to the robbery, the first use of harsh language, the direct dare for Wilson to open fire). He doesn't say Brown threatened to kill him (and he, legally speaking, doesn't have to)--his assessment of specific hand positions and dialog is likely all invented at this point anyway--even in his own mind.
The Omnivore expects Wilson to paint himself in the best possible light: That's why you rely on physical evidence and multiple witness' statements. While we're looking at the Vox article, let's also be clear that their fairly benign character assessment of Brown also doesn't account for Brown's on-camera shakedown of the much smaller cigar-store clerk.