A decision is expected any day in the grand jury investigation of Darren Wilson, whose August 9 killing of Michael Brown uncorked an endless wave of grief and anger among Ferguson's black population about decades of police abuse and violence. Rumors are thick that there will be no indictment, or an indictment on a minor charge. Meanwhile, the governor has announced he is preparing to call out the National Guard -- again -- to respond to anticipated protests, and the New York Times ran a story about the fears of white people. The KKK has also announced it is ready to use "lethal force," but with fear-mongering and threats of violence from state officials and mainstream media, who needs the Klan?
Like the shooting itself, the grand jury decision will be but a moment in a much larger, ongoing crisis for black and brown people in Ferguson and all over America. Even now, we are awaiting another grand jury decision on the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island.
Without accountability, there can be no rule of law. If Wilson is not indicted, or is under-indicted, the clear message is that it is open season on people of color, that St. Louis has declared that Darren Wilson is not a criminal but that the people who live under the thumbs of the Darren Wilsons of this country are. It would say to the cry that "Black lives matter" that, no, in fact, they do not.
But even if Wilson is indicted on a serious charge, then tried, and convicted (a lot of ifs -- who remembers Rodney King?), accountability for this crime is but a first step in addressing the problems Brown's killing highlighted. And that is because, as many others have pointed out already, the problem is structural, systemic, institutionalized racism. It is not one rogue cop; or one rogue police department, even if it took an order from the U.S. Justice Department to bar Ferguson police from wearing "I am Darren Wilson" bracelets.
The problem is that police violence against people of color isn't an aberration. Nationally, the data confirm what every person of color in America knows: Black teenagers are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than white. The methods of killing are broadening, from chokeholds to Tasers, and the apparatus of violence is widening, too -- think of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin, in addition to those killed by uniformed agents of the law. The national police killing epidemic rests comfortably on a pedestal of racially discriminatory police practices, including stop-and-frisk and "broken windows" tactics by local cops that traumatize millions of young men and sweep hundreds of thousands of them into the criminal justice system for offenses no more serious than having a loose joint. Bias in sentencing treats white offenders more leniently than people of color. The result is the mass incarceration of African Americans, and the legalized forms of discrimination that follow, from the denial of the right to vote, housing discrimination, ineligibility for government benefits and more. Last, the militarization of local police forces is also a systemic problem; it encourages law enforcement to act like storm troopers, not public servants, and contributes to both violence and violations of constitutional rights.
To address these problems we need more than one indictment of one police officer. We need a visionary shift in the way we think about police and black and brown communities. We must de-naturalize the police practices that criminalize entire communities at the same time that we recognize that police officers can and do commit criminal acts that are widely considered to be "just doing their jobs." Above all, in order to address systemic racism and make lasting change, we need empowered communities of color. Communities who can demand transparency and accountability from police forces and elected officials. Communities who can fight for community-based policing and who have the resources -- as we did in New York City -- to sue police departments for racially discriminatory practices. Communities who have a real voice in city halls, state capitals and Washington to demand an end to everything from minimum sentencing laws to military hardware yard sales that allow local cops to play dress-up while deploying ever more lethal weapons and militarizing our rights out of existence. In a word, communities of color need the democratic right to participate in government.
People of color are not the only ones failed by the decimation of our democratic institutions, but the effect on us is particularly devastating.
Riots are "the language of the unheard," Martin Luther King observed. Unlike Governor Nixon, the New York Times or the KKK, I expect the protests in response to the grand jury decision to be peaceful -- as they have overwhelmingly been all along, despite incredible provocation from the police. But if "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" continues to be met by tear gas and arrests, will it be any surprise if some respond through the only means they have left to voice those grievances, the disruption of business as usual through property destruction and possibly even violence? When non-violent avenues are foreclosed, King wrote from his jail cell in 1963, people "will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat, but a fact of history."