Point Austin: Not Again
Who have ears to hear, let them hear
"And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard." – Martin Luther King, "The Other America," March 14, 1968
I can't claim any special wisdom on the ultimate meaning of the avalanche of events in Ferguson, Mo., but like a solitary marcher in a nationwide demonstration, I'll add my public voice to the collective outrage. What happened Monday night – what's been happening, really, for months in Ferguson – is yet another example of the intractable, endemic racism that infects far too many of our governing institutions. That racism distorts, as in a funhouse mirror, every attempt at "justice" that is isolated from the larger social and historical context of racial and economic inequality. Beyond that, is the ongoing militarization of police forces – not only in tactics and weaponry, but in the presumption, virtually reflexive to prosecutors and grand juries, that like soldiers, police officers are above the law they enforce, and not to be held accountable even for summary execution of unarmed people.
No, I have not read or reviewed all evidence, nor heard the scores of witnesses – literal or suborned – that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch paraded before the grand jury, seemingly for the purpose of avoiding his own discretion or else insulating himself from charges of bias. But I did listen to McCulloch attempt to justify, at great length, the grand jury's refusal to indict Officer Darren Wilson, by instead indicting the victim, Michael Brown, for the crime of stealing some cigars or, as Wilson claimed, for inexplicably running directly into gunfire, unarmed. And I've read the quite incredible testimony of Wilson, the armed person in this confrontation, who describes Brown as a "demon," a "Hulk Hogan," a fearless monster who keeps charging even after he's been shot – "like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots."
That's either an outright, self-justifying lie, or eyesight so distorted by racism that it's incapable of seeing straight.
Justice Needs a Hearing
We'll likely never precisely know what happened – the most important witness is dead. But we would have had a much better chance of doing so if the St. Louis County authorities, McCulloch chief among them, had allowed this matter to go to an open trial, with public testimony, public examination of the evidence, and public cross-examination of witnesses. Instead, in a curiously timed late-evening announcement, McCulloch blamed irrelevant non-witnesses, the victim, social media, and "the 24-hour news cycle" that he was even then taking advantage of, for what in fact appeared to be a heated confrontation and the angry overreaction of an armed man to an unarmed one.
In Austin, we're in no position to be smug about Ferguson; over the years we've had too many police shootings of young minority men, several of which evoke the Brown shooting, especially in the appearance of overreaction by panicked or angry officers. In most of those cases, Travis County grand juries predictably declined to indict the officers involved. The recent exception is the indictment of former Austin Police Department Detective Charles Kleinert in the shooting of Larry Jackson Jr., under circumstances eerily parallel to the Ferguson incident. Kleinert confronted Jackson on suspicion of some wrongdoing, and Jackson fled; seemingly enraged, Kleinert pursued and caught him. In their ensuing struggle, Jackson was shot and killed.
We still don't know the details, but because of the manslaughter indictment of Kleinert, we may eventually have a fuller idea. That should have been the outcome in Ferguson; instead, we're left hoping that the U.S. Department of Justice might in due course might bring some level of justice to Michael Brown's family.
Lift Every Voice
Although Martin Luther King Jr. remains best known as a peacemaker, he was also blunt. In his March 14, 1968 speech in Michigan, he told his audience, "There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism, until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation, and we must see racism for what it is." While some audience members loudly denounced him as a "traitor," King described at length the institutional racism and economic oppression that create the circumstances that repeatedly end in what has transpired in Ferguson.
Dedicated to nonviolent action, King yet acknowledged that "a riot is the language of the unheard," especially when citizens peacefully and resolutely petition their government for justice, as the residents of Ferguson did for many months: "the promises of freedom and justice have not been met ... [and] large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity."
It's truly a shame – a national disgrace – that in these matters, so little has changed. That March night, King reiterated, "We shall overcome – because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." On April 4, he was murdered.