The Ferguson Riots are not just about the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson. Yes, that particular tragedy is the trigger. But it’s not the whole cause. There are two immediate causes; the first being the shooting of an unarmed black man by a cop, The second being the second. Hands Up, Don’t Shoot is not exactly a new thing. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was making darkly funny jokes about it in the early 1990s. (At the time I, as a middle class WASP living in a country where we seldom armed our cops despite an ongoing terrorism campaign thought the joke was entirely on the overreaction to the presence of the cop; I wish that I’d been right rather than not yet even a teenager and growing up in a family where I’ve heard someone unironically claim “British Police are the best in the world“)
But the cause of the protests and riots were the Grand Jury, after being given all the evidence, proclaiming that there wasn’t a case against Darren Wilson. Something which sounds reasonable, after all, they were a Grand Jury and they were asked to look at all the evidence.
Grand Juries are, however, a specific type of jury for a specific set of circumstances. In a Grand Jury there is no defence. This means that they only have one version of events to rely on – and they vote based on Probable Cause. Which is why Grand Juries almost never find in favour of the defence; of 162,000 Federal cases in 2010 Grand Juries did not indict just 11 times. (Does this lead to problems in the justice system that leads to no other country using them? Why yes it does – but that’s out of scope) The famous quote is that a good prosecutor coud persuade a jury to “indict a ham sandwich”.
But why? Juries are ordinary people. And I’m fairly sure you don’t believe cops should be above the law any more than I do. And neither do most juries. The weak link here is the prosecutors. Prosecutors work closely with police and consider them friends and part of their team. Also any prosecutor who puts away a cop would be cut off by the police. Buh-bye career. This is screamingly obvious in the case of McCulloch (the prosecuting attorney). How close is McCulloch to the cops in St Louis? He is president of a charity called Backstoppers.org for the families of killed cops. This isn’t anything I am claiming is other than a good cause, merely indication that he may be not the right person to prosecute a cop. The links are close enough that a charity t-shirt for Darren Wilson explicitly said that it was going to split the proceeds between Darren Wilson and Backstoppers.org. Once again this is not a claim of corruption and bribery. It’s a claim that McCulloch is friends and partners with the police.
So. The Grand Jury trial itself was a pretty obvious farce. Not the first McCulloch has pulled off by the way. It wasn’t entirely about the race of the victim; even with bodycam evidence and a white victim the cop still gets off. As mentioned the Grand Juries almost always let cops off. But black people are killed four times more frequently per capita than white ones. And with a black cop and a white victim who survived in Ferguson? Suspended without pay, facing criminal charges.
So this wave of protests has been triggered by the complete failure of the rule of law. The police are not subject to it.
The previous major fuel for the protests was not even the shooting. It was the police response to the protests against the shooting. The photo below is iconic. But there is one thing that immediately stands out to me. The police are aiming their guns at an unarmed person.
Also just before the shooting a different group of police had just shot a twelve year old black boy. And count how many seconds after their car arrives it takes for them to shoot him. That fanned the spark. The other trigger was the supercilious press conference about the Grand Jury was in the afternoon. In the morning there would have been time for it to calm down while people were at work. Late in the afternoon, with everyone at a loose end has everyone in place to react and lash out.
But fundamentally people riot for two reasons. A few are sociopaths who find it fun. To the rest there is simply little to lose other than their lives – and with police seemingly able to shoot them at will without consequences even that is questionable. To put it bluntly they are rioting because they feel they are occupied by a hostile paramilitary group of interlopers which can steal what it wants with impunity. (Both links well worth watching). Compared to that even the rioters are an improvement on the police.
Hostile paramilitary group of interlopers who can seize what they want with impunity is a very strong charge. And even against a group with a history of Kafkaesque charges like beating someone up in the cells and charging them for bleeding over their uniforms they need strong evidence.
Hostile paramilitary interlopers is three parts. Interlopers; you can see exactly how well the police get on with their community. Ferguson is 66% black, the police are 6% black.The Palestinians are standing in solidarity with them. That they are Paramilitary is easy to show. Just look at the pictures. And they carry more equipment and hold their weapons more aggressively than real soldiers actually in Iraq. And hostile? Other than recent incidents like shooting people,tear gassing them out of their homes, is there evidence the police are hostile? Racist in their policing practices? It is possible to be too racist for the Ferguson PD by saying things like “Let’s have a black day” and “Let’s make the jails cells more colourful” – but that he thought any of that would be acceptable is telling. And black people in Ferguson are stopped and searched almost twice as often as white people, despite contraband being found 50% more often on white people.
Stealing with impunity goes far beyond their current thefts. Approximately 20% of the municipality’s entire operating budget comes from fines; in 2013 the total income was $12.75 million of with $2.57 million came from fines. Almost all against black people. And Missouri is a state with Civil Asset Forfeiture, meaning that property can be seized with only Probable Cause – and then the suit is brought against the property (which always does a spectacular job of defending itself). Fortunately this isn’t quite as bad as it could be; unlike in many states the assets seized don’t go to the police (creating horrible incentives to steal). And an average of three arrest warrants were issued per household – an utterly ridiculous rate. Especially when the court system apparently cheats, starting half an hour early and locking anyone late out.
And I’m only scratching the surface here.
So how should the protesters have reacted? The justice system has been shown to be utterly risible. Police can shoot people with impunity and the prosecutors are going to collude to ensure they aren’t guilty. Indeed one of the protesters was shot in the head, and the police first claimed it wasn’t them and “lost” the bullet. But it took until it was demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the police are above the law and can kill people with impunity for the real rioting to start. (How different a cause from Jerry Sandusky – or even winning the superbowl – or many many other incidents).
And why riot? Some of it is interlopers in for fun. And the locals who are rioting? What else are they meant to do. They are effectively in occupied territory held by paramilitaries. People riot like this when there’s no point doing anything else. If they work to own something nice the police can take it. There’s no point investing. The police will only steal it if they want to. They can shoot you if they want you. So what do they do? Why not riot? There’s nothing within the system for you. And if you get anything out of it it can be taken away up to and including their lives. Without consequences as the Grand Jury showed.