Ferguson, Mo., was a warzone the night of Nov. 24, after local prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch announced that a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. The police chief called the scene, “Worse than the worst night we had in August.” Viewers tuned to cable news to see cop cars and buildings on fire, hear gunshots and tear gas canisters explode and witness heavily armed police officers marching in line like an infantry against protesters. But this occupying army (as it appeared) let the city burn.
McCulloch, seemingly the army’s leader, announced the no-indictment decision at night, giving cover to some that he should have known from past experience would incite violence. He triggered more anger by making a case for Wilson’s innocence at the press conference. It is worth asking whether McCulloch and his office intended to fan the flames of unrest or are just flat-out incompetent.
The next day, we learned that McCulloch took a hands-off approach during the entire process, essentially guaranteeing that Wilson would not be indicted. He never ordered Wilson’s arrest, and he relinquished the traditional role of the prosecution, dumping all of the evidence on the grand jury rather than presenting an argument for indictment. Hence, Wilson’s story – which contradicted those of numerous eyewitnesses in its narrative of Brown’s alleged attacks on Wilson – was not cross-examined. The grand jury was given little to no guidance.
Protesters assembled on Nov. 25 in every major American city, chanting, “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” – not only because they thought Wilson should be charged for Brown’s death, but also because it became more and more clear that McCulloch gave Wilson special treatment during the grand jury process.
There is still hope for justice, though. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has the opportunity to bring criminal charges against Wilson and to overhaul the Ferguson Police Department’s training with regard to racial profiling and use of force. We urge the Justice Department to hasten their investigations in the hope that this will alleviate the violence and heartbreak in Ferguson. But we also insist that the Civil Rights Division expand the scope of its investigation to McCulloch and St. Louis County’s grand jury procedures.
There are still many steps that need to be taken to improve race relations and minimize police brutality in the U.S. Whether or not the Justice Department acts on Ferguson, we hope that protesters around the country continue to air their grievances peacefully and that police do not encroach on Americans’ right to assemble.