Outrage over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown is giving way to anger that the white police officer who pulled the trigger might never face justice.
Several dozen protesters gathered on Wednesday outside the St Louis county prosecutor’s office, calling for Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson (28) to stand trial for the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Inside, a 12-member grand jury began hearing evidence in the case. Potentially, it could invite Wilson to appear, county prosecutor Robert McCulloch told St Louis news media.
Grand juries in the US meet behind closed doors to determine if there is sufficient evidence for an indictment leading to trial. Nearby, US Attorney General Eric Holder, on a day trip from Washington, mingled with Ferguson community leaders and residents, as a federal justice department civil rights investigation into Brown’s death rolls on.
But so deep is the lack of trust among African-Americans in their nation’s criminal justice system, that many dread the idea that Wilson – a police officer for six years – might get off scot-free.
“I honestly believe this is the beginning of a cover-up,” said Jerryl Christmas, a well-known African-American lawyer in the St Louis area, amid growing calls for McCulloch – whom critics say has a track record over two decades in office of not going after police wrongdoing – to be pulled off the case.
Wilson has not been publicly seen or heard since Brown, a suspect in the liquor store theft of a box of cigars, was shot at high noon on a residential street on August 9. But colleagues and friends said he opened fire after a struggle with the beefy college-bound youth – while other witnesses claim Brown had put his hands up in surrender when he was shot six times. Brown’s family has led calls for Wilson’s arrest, saying he “executed” the youth, while street protests in Ferguson have repeatedly degenerated into violence.
Kids told ‘how to deal with police’
Nationally, “although black men made up only 27.8% of all persons arrested from 2003 to 2009, they made up 31.8% of all persons who died in the course of arrest, and the majority of these deaths were homicides,” the American Civil Liberties Union has reported. “It’s hard for a community to have confidence in a system that only prosecutes them,” said Christmas, a one-time prosecutor and a leader of Wednesday’s orderly protest.
“As African-Americans, we have to tell our kids, when they get to a certain age, our male children, how to deal with the police” – a conversation not heard in white American families, he said. Christmas pinned part of the blame on a significant lack of African-Americans in key positions throughout the criminal justice system, from police officers to prosecutors and judges on the bench.
“Look at all these police officers here?” he asked, gesturing to the dozen or so Clayton city officers deployed for the demonstration. “How many African-American officers do you see?” The answer: one.
According to a justice department report, blacks as well as Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched during a road block than whites, and four times as likely to experience the use of force in encounters with police.
Bias against blacks in legal system
Statistics also indicate that one in three African-American males can expect to spend some time in prison, while black high school students are far more likely to be arrested than white classmates, the liberal Centre for American Progress think-tank has noted. Father-of-two Lawrence Jones turned up at Wednesday’s protest with his two young children, and close-up colour photos of injuries he said he sustained when he was pulled over by Ferguson police while returning from a birthday party.
“I was racially profiled at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he said, describing how he was bitten by a police dog, then handcuffed, thrown onto his stomach and kicked. Middle class Ferguson’s police department is overwhelmingly white, even though its population over two decades has grown to become two-thirds African-American.
Young women of colour say they encounter problems, too. Jess Luby, who came down from Minnesota with fellow activists for the Ferguson protests, said she was 23 years old when she was pulled over late one night for alleged careless driving. She said she spent two years fighting the charges, which were finally dropped last month. “They try to suck you into the system,” she said, “and that’s why people don’t want to fight it.”
Kevin Murphy, chief of police in Clayton, a town of 16 000 that doubles as the seat of St Louis county, said his own officers perform their duties “with integrity and respect”. He said that African-Americans account for 12% of his force, “which is consistent with the community”. (If not better: the 2010 census puts Clayton’s black population at 8%.)
As for recruiting more African-Americans, Murphy said it’s tough finding good men and women whatever their race or ethnicity. “It’s hard to find good applicants who are interested in law enforcement because of the demands placed on any officer,” he said. “That’s across the board.” – AFP