The events unfolding in Ferguson surrounding Michael Brown’s death, the investigation and the Grand Jury procedure brings back a time when the credibility of African Americans were brought into question in court proceedings. Historically, there were periods in American history when a black person could not by law testify for or against a white person. A white person’s credibility was deemed superior to that of a black person. Blacks were not reliable persons to testify. And at many other times since then, the deck has often appeared stacked against a black person when faced with going up against the word of a white person. In the Brown case, several black eyewitnesses say they saw Officer Darren Wilson shoot Brown while surrendering with his hands up.
There has been from the beginning what appears to be a case of black testimony as juxtaposed with the majority white police force and Prosecutor McCullough. In a community that is majority African American, the witnesses who viewed the killing were African American. The Ferguson Police Department is mostly white. And therein lays the problem for an indictment before a majority white Ferguson Grand Jury panel. Memories of the Rodney King case come to mind when thinking of Ferguson. Despite having a videotape of white police officers brutally beating Rodney King in 1991, a mostly white jury with no blacks on it deadlocked and failed to convict any of the officers in the first trial in 1992.
And in the Brown killing, the Pew studies in August shows the issues surrounding the Michael Brown case including race issues are divided along racial lines. What seems fair to some differs to others. PEW research conducted during the period of August 14 – 17 shows the racial divide on Ferguson. When asked if the shooting is a racial issue, 80% of African Americans who were polled responded “yes” while only 43% of whites believe the shooting of Michael Brown is a race issue. Very few African Americans consisting of only 18% have confidence in the investigation into the shooting death of Mike Brown. Over half of white Americans surveyed have confidence in the investigation. St. Louis court officials say the Grand Jury consists of one black man, two black women, six white men and three white women.
In the hours, days and weeks as the case unfolded, there was an attitude of white law enforcement and Darren Wilson against the community of Ferguson. Contrary to police protocol, initially there was no name of the officer involved in the shooting publicly released. Law enforcement inferred it was done to protect the police officer. A police incident report was not released detailing how the killing occurred. Although, the police did not initially release the name of the officer or supply an incident report, they somehow found and released a videotape of allegedly Michael Brown in a convenience store taking cigars without paying for them. Calling it a robbery, the videotape was released and broadcast as the investigation unfolded. While nothing was revealed about the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, it appeared the Ferguson Police chief was attempting to smear the name and reputation of the 18 year old victim. Brown was characterized as a potential Defendant instead of a victim by the Police. When questioned as to why the videotape was released, the Police Chief indicated that he had received freedom of information requests from the media. However, to date, no one from the media has acknowledged sending a freedom of information request regarding the video.
To support the case that Officer Wilson’s shooting was justified, information leaked that the officer was involved in an altercation with Michael Brown prior to the shooing, at the patrol car. Allegedly Officer Wilson was reported as having an orbital eye socket fracture. As video of the Wilson later emerged following the killing of Michael Brown. The officer appeared without injuries and no eye injury.
The Grand Jury is expected to release its decision any time before the end of November. Michael Brown’s fate for justice was sealed long before the Grand Jury was convened. Even though he could not testify, the law authorities found a way to bring his credibility into the Grand Jury proceedings with the convenience store videotape of him. Today as in years past, a black victim is still treated as a defendant. And the credibility of black eyewitnesses is still brought into question. And a white police officer who committed a killing of an unarmed 18 year old teenager is treated as doing his duty and supported by his white peers.
President Obama gave a statement on Ferguson on August 14 saying “We are a part of one American family.” But many African Americans are not treated like they are in the same American family when faced with justice issues. In America, every African American is Michael Brown. And every town and city in America has a Ferguson, Missouri.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, former prosecutor, legal analyst and speaker on race and gender issues. She is often seen in the media on Arise TV, BET, C-Span, RT-America, Sky News, Fox 5 – DC and the local DC affiliates of CBS, NBC and ABC.