12/04/2014 10:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Matters Now in Ferguson?

What matters now?

It's four months since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer, after a 90-second daytime encounter in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo.

There have been passionate but essentially non-violent protests and demonstrations of one sort or another almost daily.


Participants have been intense young activists; concerned women and men, teens and children, from all over the St. Louis region and beyond; acolytes of countless interest-group coalitions and clergy members with a community-wide consciousness, all monitored by state and local law enforcement agencies.

There was a peculiarly structured months-long probe by a St. Louis County grand jury, which ended November 24 with a decision to not indict Wilson on any criminal charges. Testimony by some 60 witnesses was wildly inconsistent, and, physical and forensic evidence notwithstanding, there was no authoritative account of the crucial details of the shooting.

And there also have been a few nights of destructive rioting, opportunistic looting, organized thievery and arson by locals and outsiders whose priorities have little to do with Michael Brown's death and even less to do with justice of any sort.

So what matters now?

Not the grand jury. Its members did the work assigned to them by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch and have gone back to their regular lives. Protesting or arguing about their decision will change nothing.

McCulloch certainly doesn't matter, at least with respect to Michael Brown's death. He has rid himself of the case, although perhaps not as deftly as he might have believed. There is continuing speculation about whether his handling of the grand jury was a monument to transparency or a transparent ploy to escape official responsibility while still stage-managing the result. But either way, debating McCulloch's approach is just meaningless sport -- unless voters decide otherwise the next time he needs their support.

Darren Wilson, who resigned from the Ferguson police force last week, doesn't matter any more, either. However preposterous parts of his testimony to the grand jury were, his actions will not be subjected to the adversarial scrutiny of a criminal trial. Depending on the results of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into possible civil rights violations, Wilson might face federal sanctions, but if there were any at all, they almost certainly would be civil, not criminal.

It's also possible that Wilson could be penalized financially if Brown's family pursues and wins a lawsuit against him and the city of Ferguson. But that could take years. At this point, Wilson is just a controversial ex-cop.

Michael Brown continues to matter profoundly to his mourning family and friends, to other mothers and fathers who have lost children to violence or who fear they might 2014-12-04-Daddyandbaby.jpgand to anyone else who empathizes with the family's loss.

Beyond that, the hard reality is that the disputes over essential details of Brown's death are irresolvable, putting the whole truth forever out of reach. One truth, though, seems clear. It's the same truth writer/director Spike Lee wrote in a snatch of movie dialogue for the character M.L. in Do the Right Thing: "They didn't have to kill the boy."

What does matter now is something bigger than Brown, Wilson and McCulloch: the astonishing degree to which Brown's death has inspired, galvanized and energized outcries against long-standing institutional violations of fairness, decency and dignity in the daily lives of minorities -- blacks in particular -- and Americans living in and at the precarious edge of poverty.

The glaring transgressions, known all too well by those who live with them, have become familiar to the rest of us over the last four months:

Blacks, especially young blacks, die in confrontations with police in greater proportions than whites do. Police forces rarely reflect the racial makeup of the jurisdictions they're supposed to serve, exacerbating cultural conflicts and misunderstanding. African Americans are stopped for traffic and vehicular violations disproportionately more often than whites and are searched disproportionately more often when they are.

Many of the municipal courts in the St. Louis region use arrest warrants and compounded fines and penalties as tools of harassment and fund-raising, turning cops into collections enforcers and heightening community resentment, distrust and antagonism toward police and local government.

So what matters now? Activists of all colors and backgrounds and ages -- with a heavy emphasis on young people -- need to focus all this attention and energy on achieving significant change. Because significant change is possible.

It is possible to change police policies and practices in ways that reduce the frequency of civilian injuries and deaths, including those of young people. It is possible to increase the percentage of minorities serving in law enforcement, which improves understanding and trust between cops and the people of their communities. It is possible to rein in racial profiling in routine traffic stops and lessen the sense of harassment and alienation it fosters. It is possible to reform municipal court systems to prevent the exploitation of people who can least afford to lose any of their scant resources and are least able to protect themselves.
These kinds of changes would improve the everyday lives of real people -- parents, for example, who have to home-tutor their children today, particularly their African-American boys, on how to stay alive in encounters with police; and struggling working people who get caught today in the scams of municipal courts.

"Possible," though, doesn't mean "easy," and making change happen will be difficult; timing and judgment will be crucial.

Take the Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon. Judging from the diversity in age, race, experience and talent of its members, the commission could become a powerful force for change as it investigates issues raised in the wake of Michael Brown's death. The commission's introductory meeting earlier this week -- rigid and plodding for three hours, raucous and unstrained for the balance -- was probably a better start than it might have seemed. At least the members got a much-needed, first-hand lesson in deep-rooted, real-world frustration.

Activists, however, might well ask how much more investigating the commission needs to do. Isn't there already a substantial body of knowledge and experience about proper and improper policing and appropriate and inappropriate court activities? Are the people pushing for change supposed to keep up the pressure but also accept that the commission will not move as fast as they'd like? How patient are they supposed to be? How long before change actually happens?

And what about the even bigger picture? Problematic policing and abusive courts are rooted in persistent racism, income and wealth disparities, disappearing low-skilled jobs, inadequate job re-training, and poor access to affordable health care, to name just a few. Is fixing the cops and courts supposed to wait until society figures out how to eliminate poverty and racism? That sounds less like a strategy than an excuse to do nothing, something power structures inherently prefer.

These are tough, fair questions, and I don't know the answers. But I suspect they will emerge from a balance of real and ideal.

A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light.