Whether or not he would have been convicted of anything, Officer Darren Wilson should have been indicted in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Or at least that seems to be the consensus view among legal experts from across the political spectrum, including many who are normally sympathetic to the authorities. As the old cliché goes, a prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich if he wanted to. But though Brown died in a hail of bullets under disputed circumstances, the grand jury apparently found no reason to believe a crime might have been committed. Indeed, instead of vigorously outlining the case for charges against Wilson, prosecutor Robert McCullough appeared at times to assume the role of Wilson's defense attorney in the context of what amounted to a secret trial. You don't need to be some wild-eyed radical to suspect that something went deeply wrong somewhere along the way.
So why was McCulloch—whose father, mother, brother, uncle, and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department—permitted to carry out such a bogus legal charade? ("Darren Wilson Got a Private Trial Run by Friendly Prosecutors" is how Reason's Jacob Sullum put it.) Well, extraordinarily odd grand jury proceedings don't just occur naturally. Elected officials consciously instate them. There were multiple actors along the rotten chain of command who could have intervened to create a different outcome, and these people were virtually all Democrats.
McCulloch is a Democrat with deep ties to the St. Louis County political machinery. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon is a Democrat. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri—Democrat. Local Congressman William Lacy Clay Jr.—Democrat. The St. Louis county executive and the mayor of St. Louis are both Democrats. And of course, the federal response in Ferguson was orchestrated by Attorney General Eric Holder, who was appointed by President Barack Obama—both Democrats.
And yet those same Democrats will no doubt go before the voters next time an election rolls around and insist that blacks could have no better friend, and that in order to improve their community's material wellbeing, the candidate with a "D" next to his or her name must be empowered. Time and time again, this is the routine. Consequently, the black community's political leverage is weakened, and Democrats have little incentive to actually accommodate their interests once in office.
When the Ferguson story first blew up over the summer, Senator McCaskill promised to get to the bottom of why police showed up with so much outlandish military gear, which seems to have no other use than to frighten citizens into submission. She even held a hearing into the Department of Defense's "1033 program," which transfers high-powered weaponry to local cops nationwide, and heralded the prospect of bipartisan cooperation in bringing back fair policing practices to our nation's streets. Well, that prospective reform is now dead on arrival, and a cynic might retroactively interpret McCaskill's grandstanding as merely an election-year ploy to turn out the black vote.
Would it have been possible for McCaskill to achieve some different result? Given the structural constraints of Congress, maybe not. But the point is that she almost certainly won't face any electoral repercussions for her failure.
Much as they may bristle to admit it, the police are supposed to serve the communities they patrol. They are bound to policy set by public officials, who are in turn elected by the people. Police departments might operate like their own little semi-autonomous fiefdoms, but this is not how it's supposed to work. And when things get especially dysfunctional on a local level, the federal government is supposed to be able to intervene. The president could have directed his attorney general to urge the appointment of a special prosecutor and effectively forced McCulloch's removal. Instead, Obama chose to remain characteristically aloof throughout the entire ordeal. (When Governor Nixon first deployed the National Guard in August, Obama was literally partying on Martha's Vineyard and sent Al Sharpton in his stead.)
Then, as Ferguson burned Monday night, Obama went on TV to admonish the protesters to respect the will of the grand jury and "rule of law"—never mind the fact that the process that led up to the grand jury's decision was manifestly corrupt, and the rule of law had been subverted. There is no "rule of law" when the prosecutor supposed to be investigating a fatal shooting instead actively smears the victim and appears to be looking for ways to avoid a trial.
If anyone still has illusions about the provenance of the law enforcement response in Ferguson, please refer to this ABC News report from last Friday evening, which relayed that 100 FBI agents "and other federal agencies" were on the ground there, presumably taking a proactive role. As chief of the executive branch of the federal government, Obama has jurisdiction over these people. (And if in practice he doesn't have jurisdiction, that's a whole separate problem.)
The federal law enforcement apparatus bore down on the citizenry to ugly effect this week. The failures began in earnest Monday evening, when McCulloch went on his meandering, snide, contemptuous rant on live primetime TV that seemed deliberately provocative. They continued that evening, when the local authorities seemed utterly unprepared for violent protests despite the much-hyped "state of emergency" that had been declared. And all this culminated at just before midnight yesterday, when fully outfitted National Guard personnel were observed making arrests. This directly contradicts multiple assurances by Missouri officials that the Guard would merely provide supplementary assistance and protect private property, not engage in ordinary policing duties. The sight of military troops piling onto US citizens, then hauling the poor saps off to God knows where, should be seen as deeply troubling on numerous fronts, not least being that it is the commander-in-chief who has ultimate authority over these Guardsmen.
In other words, Democrats did Ferguson.
One person who seems to sense an opening here is presumed Republican presidential contender Rand Paul. With varying degrees of success, Paul has spent the better part of the last two years making overt entreaties to voter blocs long perceived as intrinsically unreachable by Republicans—namely black people. He's loudly denounced the war on drugs, called for the re-enfranchisement of felons, and on Tuesday—rather dwell on looters and rioters, as Obama did—he asked, "In the African-American community, folks rightly ask why are our sons disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and maimed?"
It's a good question—and for an answer in Ferguson, we should look to the Democrats who are in charge.
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