12/09/2014 03:07 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Anything But Florissant

A great many English words have their origin in French. According to Wikipedia, it is 45 percent. Most Americans are unaware of this or don't even think about it. Perhaps the most famous case in point is that of George W. Bush, to whom has been attributed, rightly or wrongly, the remark that the problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur.

Sprinkled here and there around the U.S. are place names in French that go unnoticed. How many have caught the irony in the word Florissant ("flourishing" or "flowering") in the strip of shops on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, that were trashed and looted on the night of November 24 after a grand jury declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of a black unarmed teenager, Michael Brown... as Brown's stepfather urged the crowd on with a string of profanities? (He later apologized.)

Another French word is "grand," as in grand jury -- the one on Staten Island that acquitted a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, for choking to death a black man named Eric Garner, who was suspected of illegally selling cigarettes. Unlike the Ferguson incident, where there was no record of the two six-footers grappling with each other (with Brown the bigger six-footer), the Staten Island incident was recorded on a cellphone as a group of policemen hurtled Garner to the ground. His cries of "I can't breathe" were there for all to hear.

The failure to indict was more puzzling in the Staten Island case than the one in Ferguson, as indictment does not pronounce guilt, it only decides on whether there should be a trial. It is, though, perhaps not surprising, as the jurors were all from Staten Island and were therefore likely to have a local point of view. In this regard, it is significant that there is on Staten Island a strong presence of present and former policemen and firemen and their families.

According to Rick Hampson, writing in USA Today on December 6, "The precise racial composition of the grand jury in the Garner case is not known. But a Garner family lawyer says it was roughly half white, with the other half split among blacks (who account for about 10% on the island) and Hispanics (16%)."

The strange outcome in the Garner case would seem to warrant a study by an impartial commission of possible defects in the grand jury system as it exists today.