I watched with increasing incredulity as an elected official expressed to a cable interviewer how there was already probable cause to indict and try police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The state legislator further strongly implied Wilson would be convicted. The moderator was MSNBC's Chris Matthews, and I subsequently watched as Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, Jr., expressed essentially the same views to him. Indeed, the principal goal of protestors in Ferguson is to have Wilson arrested, tried, and convicted, as though this would be a fait accompli.
This isn't going to happen, despite Attorney General Eric Holder's visit to Ferguson. As a precedent, recall that Sanford, FL police refused to arrest George Zimmerman after Zimmerman--a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain--shot unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. Florida Governor Rick Scott picked a special prosecutor to try Zimmerman--Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury of murder charges. Responding to pleas from prominent public and media figures like MSNBC's own Reverend Al Sharpton, Holder gave a press conference in which he said he was considering bringing federal hate crime and civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
That never happened. Proving motive, in addition to the underlying crime, as required by the hate statute was nigh on impossible, since proving the straightforward 2nd degree murder charge was impossible--or at least unsuccessful.
In the Brown case, a large youth is now thought to have pummeled the officer in his police car, then run off, followed by Wilson, who shot and killed the unarmed teen, who may or may not have been surrendering/charging the officer. (This scenario, of course, is subject to extreme change as new evidence and witnesses are uncovered and investigated, a process protestors seem entirely unfamiliar and/or impatient with.) The shooting/killing would seem to have been unnecessary. But, then, Brown seemingly did assault an officer. Will a jury convict a law enforcement officer of murder who has been assaulted and who then fires on his assailant?
I don't believe that's possible. Moreover, there are legal and political problems with such a case. Manslaughter might be the best charge to seek, but would protestors, politicians, and media spokespeople like Sharpton be content with such a minimal charge? And would even that charge be sustained by a jury?
Here are some more questions. Would communities like Ferguson be well served if such charges were sustained? Brown was caught on film earlier in the day ransacking a local grocery and then intimidating and pushing the proprietor who tried to stop him. Would most residents in Ferguson be happy if this kind of behavior were made more likely by police reluctance to use force to stop it, which would be one probable consequence of a Wilson trial (let alone a conviction)? Considerable evidence shows such communities to be on average MORE concerned with police ignoring their needs and failing to protect residents relative to police being overzealous in their law enforcement.
But let's set all of this aside. Why do protestors and politicians and commentators alike all need to have such an instant--not to mention unlikely and possibly unjust--resolution to this case? Is this the kind of community building that Ferguson requires to get out the social and economic trough in which it and its young black residents find themselves? A variety of claims are thrown out on cable news, like "This incident has made residents more concerned about African-American civil rights and involved in their communities." Has it really? Will citizens proceed forward peacefully, constructively to do the kind of community building they must do to actually reinforce the social fabric of Ferguson and similar communities?
I don't think so, and I don't believe anyone has made a serious case that it will. That kind of action takes an entirely different mindset than that which has been demonstrated thus far in Ferguson. It, first of all, requires long-term planning and effort, not seeking immediate gratification. It requires soliciting and accepting help from outside the community and from the government in non-confrontational, collaborative ways. It requires identifying strengths and strong positive people and institutions that already exist in the community (for example, successful education programs and committed educators) and giving them support and a larger role in community matters.
Nothing about the dynamics of the Ferguson protest and political and media responses thus far gives any sign that that these things will happen.
Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. His website is peele.net.