Commentary: Ferguson And False Hopes


By Dan Carpenter

From a progressive political standpoint, the only thing worse than the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson might have been an indictment of same.

I’ve never cared for the hanging of mountainous social implications on a single, complicated, variously perceived incident, whether it be the Trayvon Martin killing, the Mike Tyson rape, the O.J. Simpson atrocity or a black-white fight in a school cafeteria in Louisiana that reaches CNN and the Rev. Al Sharpton. With Ferguson as well, I assumed neither that I knew enough about what actually happened nor that the behavior of the participants and response of the authorities were representative of history or system.

But alas. Because Ferguson became a laboratory test for critics of racism on the one hand and for apologists for police on the other, the outcome of the grand jury review had to be somebody’s vindication.

For my particular camp, which sees racism, classism, ghettoization, job-stripping and police militarization as American realities so deep-rooted as to be the opposite of headline material, official sanction against a cop who shot and killed an unarmed African-American youth would have sent a dangerously false signal that the system is just and responsive and blind to color and wealth.

Blacks and liberals would indulge in fist-pumping celebration – with the obligatory cautions about the larger issues – as young black males and their white and Latino economic peers continued to file into the world’s most populous penal apparatus.

Realities: Police, heavily influenced by military backgrounds and post-9/11 glorification of their profession, look upon young males in poor neighborhoods and nightclub districts with the jaundiced eyes of occupiers. With jail as the social control solution of choice and guns available to every knucklehead who wants one, a cop proceeds with one hand on the cuffs and the other on his weapon.

The guys he confronts, meanwhile, don’t help themselves a whole lot. Hard up for decent jobs, beset by alcoholism and drug addiction, taught violence all their lives from their house to the White House, young American males are to a wide degree a real mess. That shared failure, from family to society to self, doesn’t merit a death sentence for an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. But nor would a trial and conviction of the shooter – both long shots – have given the mess so much as a mop stroke.

Prosecutors generally can get an indictment from a grand jury if they are committed to such a result going in. Grand juries function as political cover. When I worked as a reporter in Milwaukee years ago, the district attorney went even further in dealing with a spate of controversial police shootings of young blacks: He had the coroner do inquests. After an unbroken series of “no crime” rulings, with predictable (and often justified) uproar, the coroner protested against being made to play the heavy. It also was learned that in some cases the publicly-exonerated cops were disciplined – in secret – by the police chief for their trigger-happiness.

Let’s play charades, in short. The “justice system” is responsible for maintaining and legitimizing a social order that ultimately serves power. Power of the people – power from the bottom – rises to attain justice from time to time. It may draw enough fuel from the Michael Brown episode to bring some reforms to a grotesquely racially-imbalanced police force in Ferguson, and perhaps nationally to move penal racism to the front burner for a while. Or, it may just prompt a backlash analogous to that which election of a black president provoked.

Is Ferguson big enough to bear progressive hopes? There are many Fergusons; perhaps, together, they are. For the people of all those Fergusons, and especially their young men, this Thanksgiving is a time for prayer, reflection and resolution.

Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, a contributor to The Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of “Indiana Out Loud.”