Because my father also was a police officer and had his share of charged, hair-trigger stand-offs, I imagined him as Darren Wilson and placed him inside the Ferguson PD cruiser that August night, and so I waited to find out what had happened, or at least as much as could be gleaned from the physical evidence and the testimony of eyewitnesses and Wilson’s story as told to the Grand Jury. Because I have taught lots of young men like Michael Brown, big men feeling the first power of their masculinity, often unwise but not cruel, soft in unexpected ways, I placed them on the Missouri street on that August night, and so I waited for more information to reveal what terrible confluence of events led to Michael Brown’s death.
The Grand Jury transcripts have been released. Wilson has spoken on the record. Read his testimony. Watch his interview with George Stephanopoulos.
This fact, of all others, remains with me: why was Wilson not cross examined by the prosecutor? Vetted by his lawyers, he would have had language drilled into him that best served his case. I understand; his lawyers owe him that service. In front of the Grand Jury he told his story smoothly, its rhythm unruffled by a prosecutor’s abrupt interjections or meticulous challenges. Watching him with Stephanopoulos, I saw a man whose story had hardened into a vision, one undisturbed by an outsider’s harsh testing (Stephanopoulos’ weakness as an interviewer did good journalism no favors). When Wilson said that he would do nothing differently, I heard his lawyer’s admonitions that he could not betray an iota of authentic uncertainty or regret. Show uneasiness and everything could fall apart. His mask had been applied and cemented into place — the mask of the conscientious, polite officer doing his duty, the mask of an officer whose life had been placed in danger by the actions of a man who reminded him of “Hulk Hogan”, by the “demon” Michael Brown. A trial might have shown us the man behind the mask.
A trial would have placed all the evidence and Wilson’s story within an adversarial framework. More would have been revealed. Contradictions would have been pushed toward clarity. More than one interpretation of physical evidence would have been offered. If Wilson chose to testify, his version of events would have been challenged. We would have come closer to the truth as to what happened in the ninety seconds of the confrontation. When all is said and done, I am not sure there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict Wilson of any crime, but my strong impression now is that the prosecutor did not want an indictment, that he conducted this Grand Jury with a cause in mind — that Wilson should not be indicted and that there should be no trial.
If you were a black man or woman, what conclusion would you draw? That your child’s death is not worthy of a trial? That the justice system in St. Louis County cares nothing for black lives?
If that had been your 18 year old white son whose body had all those police bullets in it, what would you want?
I do not think Americans much like History. We do not like to hear about intricate connections stretching over decades let alone four hundred years. We like the drama of the moment, the immediate Puritanical revelation of character, the iron law of actions judged by the instant alone. This element of our character has sometimes served us well — until recently, we looked to the future, to what might be made better, to fixing, not examining. Accept it or not, American History and its 396 year chain of racial cause and effect was present in Ferguson. Ghosts circled them when they met — Wilson, a big, young white policeman from a Department 94% white, and Brown, a big, young black man from a town 67% black.** Maybe the Greeks would have understood. They would have believed that Wilson and Brown could not have escaped this continent’s self-inflicted wound of Race, and that centuries old unalterable linkages positioned them for this tragedy.
We are not Greeks. The old Gods are dead. Martin Luther King, an American who rejected fatalism and the boundaries of racial tradition and hatred, said “silence is betrayal.” He broke the silence surrounding America’s racial memory and gave his life to the rending of what had been unalterable linkages. He knew that each life deserves the opportunity for justice. That must become the first principle by which we vow to live. *The New York Times **The New Republic