The first Ferguson protests had two slogans: “Hands up, don’t shoot” – referring to Michael Brown’s final actions before he was killed – and “Justice for Michael Brown.” And when you asked protesters what they meant by “justice,” they replied with a plea for accountability. In their minds, justice could only come with an indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him.
On Monday night, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCullough told Ferguson that after three months of deliberation, the 12 members of the grand jury had its decision: Darren Wilson would not be indicted. None of this was a surprise. It’s extremely rare for a police officer to face an indictment for a shooting, much less criminal punishment.
The truth is that the law gives wide berth to the police’s use of deadly force. The Supreme Court allows police to use their weapons in two circumstances: To defend their lives and to stop an escaped felon. If Wilson believed that Brown was a felon – or committed a felonious offense – then he was justified under existing law. And if Wilson believed he was in danger of losing his life – a belief that only has to be “objectively reasonable,” not likely or even possible – then, again, he was justified under existing law.
It would have been powerful to see charges filed against Darren Wilson. At the same time, actual justice for Michael Brown won’t come from the criminal justice system. Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters – they exist inside society, not outside of it – and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a society that gives dignity and respect to people like Michael Brown. Instead, we’ve organized our country to deny it wherever possible, through negative stereotypes of criminality, through segregation and neglect, and through the spectacle we see in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area, where police are empowered to terrorize without consequence, and residents are condemned and attacked when they try to resist.