The shorter version of this week's news out of Ferguson is basically this: Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. The grand jury investigation of the shooting of teenager Mike Brown, by the Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson has dragged on for weeks, from the hot summer afternoon when Brown's corpse was left to rot on the street for four long hours, to this week's polar vortex. This cold snap makes it even more likely that authorities will finally announce the decision they've been carefully grooming for weeks, that Officer Wilson will not be charged with murdering an unarmed 18-year-old.
Still, even with the way that officials have unlawfully and selectively leaked pro-Wilson tidbits from the closed door legal proceedings, the news conference held on Tuesday by the beyond-ironically named Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was a remarkable show of force...and I mean that in the worst sense possible. Flanked by six uniformed officers (most closely by two black lawmen, who never spoke), Nixon's entire purpose was to show zero tolerance for violence that hasn't occurred yet, to show he's ready for an "uprising" (a racially loaded term he used twice). The youth whose life was taken from him, Mike Brown, was never mentioned, not once. Meanwhile, CNN seems weirdly excited about what it claims is a spike in gun sales in and around Ferguson. I guess vigilantism is the new, Ebola.
People, we seem to have lost the entire thread of what Ferguson is all about -- the reasons this story has stirred the passions of millions of Americans. The so-called leaders of St. Louis County, the scene of the crime, have spent most of the last two months focused on these three things. 1) Stocking up, and I mean stocking up big-time, on the latest state-of-the-art riot control equipment, to the tune of at least $100,000. 2) Amassing a civilian army of 1,000 police, who've received, in total, at least 5,000 hours (costing God only knows what) of training in battling civil unrest, etc. and 3) Constructing an artificial, bogus narrative that will keep the focus on the possibility of violent protest (something there's actually been very little of over the last three months) and away from any culpability for the reckless actions of Darren Wilson...or the separate and unequal society that Wilson's department props up.
Politically, what Nixon, the zealously pro-cop St. Louis prosecutor Bob McCulloch, and the predominantly white power structure in Ferguson have accomplished has been nothing short of remarkable. Beginning in those four excruciating, humiliating hours when Mike Brown's bullet-ridden body was left face down on the hot Ferguson asphalt, the powers-that-be have worked the story line. They pushed against the "micro" story -- why did a police officer fire multiple rounds at an unarmed youth, some 100 feet away with (as multiple, credible witnesses report) his hands in the air? And they've done so much to vanish the "macro" story line -- the systemic discrimination against mostly black communities like Ferguson -- from City Hall to almost intentionally crappy schools to a slew of fines against poor people to keep corporate taxes low to the police harassment and brutality against communities of color, and a justice system that distorts all burdens of proof when the accused wears a badge.
Now, there's little talk of justice coming out of Missouri these days. Instead, the focus is all about preparing Ferguson and the world for a decision that seems like it was etched in stone just moments after the first shot was fired 94 days ago, that Officer Wilson will not be held accountable. It's kind of ironic that in the midst of all this, ABC launched a prime-time series called "How To Get Away With Murder." That's an entertaining notion for a fictional character, but in real life it's not hard to pull off, not when you have the power of the state, its ability to manipulate the many layers of justice, and to set the parameters of the narrative in the mainstream media. Let's look back on some of the critical plot twists on "How To Get Away With Murder: Ferguson."
Stonewall, stonewall, stonewall: The bias toward shielding critical information from the public, rather than informing citizens, started with the initial police report that disclosed zero information and included no account of what happened from Officer Wilson, presumably on advice of the police union or an attorney or both. The most basic information about the incident -- such as the name of the officer involved or the number of shots that struck Brown and the location of the bullets -- were not released until a week or more after the confrontation, if then.
Lie about critical facts: As thoroughly documented by the writer/activist Shaun King and others, the information that law enforcement did release in those critical early days of the case were often misleading at best and flat-out wrong at worst. A prime example: Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson told reporters that the police officer, at his police car, fired at Brown when he was just 35 feet away, a distance that made it somewhat more plausible that Wilson felt threatened. But the numerous photos of the scene prove that Brown was 100 feet away, a much greater distance that alters the narrative. This is just one blatant example of a fog of ever-changing information that have obscured the most basic truths -- such as why Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson were stopped,, and what transpired in the critical first few seconds of their encounter.
Smear the victim, and lie in the process: At the same news conference at which Wilson's name was finally made public, Ferguson chief Jackson released video that shows the dead youth, Brown, earlier on the day he was shot, apparently stealing a type of cigars from a convenience store and physically confronting a clerk. Jackson publicly claimed he was only releasing the video because of requests from the news media. If true, this would have been the only instance where local police eagerly complied with an information request -- but in fact it was shown to be a lie. There was no request. What's more, Jackson initially said the convenience store report was the reason for the pedestrian stop, but after that story went public Jackson again changed his tune. The damage to Brown's reputation had already been done, and the mission of shining the spotlight away from Wilson had been accomplished. And if Wilson were to be charged, the local jury pool would have been poisoned, against the victim, by the video release.
All but suspend the 1st Amendment. Local law enforcement went out of its way to make Ferguson a hostile work environment for reporters covering the story. The tone was set early in the citizen protests, when working journalists for major news organizations like the Washington Post were arrested by police without provocation. There were multiple episodes of journalists, some independent and some from prestigious news organizations, who were threatened, harassed, roughed up or tear-gassed by the cops. Authorities, including the Federal Aviation Administration, even created a no-fly zone over Ferguson and lied about its real purpose, which was to keep out journalists. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning rights group Amnesty International came to Ferguson this summer and found "legal and human rights observers as well as members of the media have repeatedly been obstructed from carrying out their roles and responsibilities by law enforcement in Ferguson" -- with 19 journalists arrested.
Abuse the grand jury process to spin a misleading narrative: Rather than charge Wilson with a felony offense in the immediate aftermath of the killing, the authorities decided to take all the evidence before a grand jury. It is arguable that this was a legally valid move, but it's important to understand that this was also a stalling tactic, to drag the case into the winter months when leaders hoped (wrongly, it looks like), passions would have cooled along with the temperature. Never forget that justice delayed is justice denied. What's more, prosecutors have enormous power to sway a grand jury in whatever direction they wish. Anyone who follows the law remembers the comment by New York justice Sol Wachtler, that a prosecutor could convince a grand jury "to indict a ham sandwich."
The decision to allow the supposed target of the grand jury's probe, Wilson, to come in and give his side of the story is a giant "tell" for which direction prosecutors were taking this. Is it any wonder why any and all requests for a special prosecutor to handle this investigation were rejected? But what's happening in St. Louis is even worse than that. The grand jury process is supposed to be a highly secretive one. (Just ask Woodward and Bernstein how that works.) But yet this supposed closed-door process has been riddled with news leaks -- all of them favorable to the narrative that Officer Wilson's allies want to take root. Reporters were parceled ambiguous -- and arguably misinterpreted -- autopsy reports of Brown's body, and were told only about Wilson's self-serving testimony and other grand jury witnesses who seemed to support the officer's account.
This fall, the public heard next to nothing about the slew of credible witnesses who say Brown was shot, at distance, with his hands up to surrender. What, for example, of the construction worker who was just 50 feet away who a) didn't know Mike Brown from Adam and b) saw the youth throw his hands in the air and say "OK, OK, OK, OK.." before he was shot to death -- an account that he gave that same day, speaking to his co-worker on video? These witnesses who saw Brown in posture of surrender, not attack, when he was killed have been increasingly tossed down the Memory Hole and the leaked, only-supporting-Darren-Wilson testimony has grabbed center stage.
This entire choreographed song-and-dance of social injustice is all pointing in one clear direction: Word that will come very soon -- maybe this week, maybe next, most likely on the coldest rainy or snowy day in the forecast -- that Officer Wilson will not face charges. In the meantime, the actions of St. Louis officialdom (with an assist from the Justice Department, which leaked at 5:01 p.m. on Halloween Friday that federal civil rights charges are unlikely) raise so many more questions than they answer. An indictment, after all, is not a finding of guilt, but a chance -- based on the probable cause that Wilson's shooting of the unarmed suspect was unlawful -- to adjudicate the matter in an open court, before a judge and a jury of the officer's peers.
Wouldn't such an outcome, with its public airing of the facts, be preferable to spending tax dollars and tying up hundreds of law-enforcement officers on a riot-control assignment that -- to be perfectly blunt -- probably invites violence as much as it prevents it? The only answer for all of this I can come up with is that the whole tottering structure -- of militarized police and mass incarceration, of lousy underfunded public schools and taxation-by-petty-fine, without representation -- is so wobbly that the authorities are afraid to remove even this one tiny Jenga block. But it's too late. The instability of Ferguson, of Missouri and of America's promise is already there for all to see -- regardless of what happens now to Darren Wilson.
Yesterday, the lawyers for Mike Brown's family urged calm in response to the looming decision. "We want to make it very clear that on behalf of the Brown family we do not condone any acts of rioting, looting or violence and that we want to encourage all of those that support the justice for Mike Brown to remain vigilant," attorney Anthony Gray said. I couldn't agree more. Violence is immoral...and more than counter-productive; this summer I toured blocks in North Philadelphia that still haven't recovered from riots that took place there in 1964. Conversely, remarkable victories have occurred from non-violent civil disobedience of the kind championed by Dr. Martin Luther King.
Forceful, but non-violent, protests -- sit-ins, boycotts, and the like -- would surely be warranted if this slow motion train wreck of injustice in the American Heartland plays out the way it surely seems to be playing out. And here's why: The authorities in Missouri are trying to write an ending to their fairy tale that what transpired there was business as usual -- when in the moral, reality-based world it's been anything but. And people should make it known that this is no longer business as usual, not just in Ferguson but in Philadelphia and in all four corners of this country.
Because the words that Dr. King uttered a half-century ago are as true today as they were then: that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The road back to justice in this case is a long one, and it doesn't begin when the grand jury's decision is announced. It starts right now, in taking back a narrative that the authorities have larded down with fiction. Because the killing of Mike Brown isn't their script to re-write. It's a nightmare that's all too real.