Officer Darren Wilson is reportedly going through a "stressful time," according to one of his friends. "Stressed" is the least that the Ferguson cop who killed unarmed teen Michael Brown should be. He has reportedly been in hiding since riots first erupted in the St. Louis suburb in the aftermath of Brown's death 12 days ago. Now, a grand jury has convened to decide whether to bring criminal charges against Wilson.
Brown's family, members of the Ferguson community, and their supporters are calling for justice. And, for many people, justice would look like charges and a conviction being brought against the killer cop. I want to offer nothing but support for those who want the criminal justice system to deliver appropriate retribution to the teen's shooter. It is nothing short of noble that those close to Brown want a justice afforded to his killer that was denied the 18-year-old when he was summarily executed in the street.
However, there are a number of reasons to urge caution over conflating justice for Mike Brown with charges, and even a guilty verdict, for Wilson.
Firstly, to be bluntly empirical, if other killer cop brushes with US criminal justice are much to go by, the book won't be thrown at Wilson. Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle received one of the heaviest sentences handed to a cop in recent years for the January 2009 shooting of unarmed Oakland teen Oscar Grant. Video evidence showed Mehserle shoot while Grant was lying face down on a train platform. The cop was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and barely spent one year in prison. If this is what a cop being held accountable looks like, if this is the system at work, then excuse me for withholding my appeals to it.
Secondly, if, like me, you think that the energy and resistance on display nightly in the streets of Ferguson has been important, and deserves to spread and continue, then focusing on Wilson's fate in the criminal justice system will not serve that end. Reasons of timing alone make as much clear: Attorney General Eric Holder stated publicly Wednesday that even the grand jury process — deciding whether or not to even bring charges — could be lengthy. Manifesting our rage in the streets at police violence and systematic disregard for young black lives must not keep to the molasses-slow pace of a criminal indictment.
Thirdly, real justice for Michael Brown is, of course, much bigger than the individuals involved in this shooting. It's bigger than Ferguson. Police killing young black men in this country is so common that a man capturing just the latest of these incidents on camera in St. Louis this week said, on tape, "They just killed this man... Here we go again."
Here we go again: Kajieme Powell, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Kimani Gray, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and so many more. In 2012, one black man was killed on average over time every 28 hours by a cop or private security officer in this country. If we restrict our outrage to responding to every horrifying incident as and when it occurs, we fail to attack a system which will make certain that there will be more black youth dead by police bullets.
News cycles treat these killings as discrete events, even while nodding to underlying patterns, because that's what news does — it barters in the new. We needn't follow suit: we can see that police violence and racism is a constant problem deserving constant fight — and, in my view, consistent contestation in the streets.
One of the more disturbing responses to Brown's death, as we saw following George Zimmerman's 2012 shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, has been an outpouring of support for the killer. Members of the Ku Klux Klan in Missouri are even fundraising for Wilson's legal fund. "All money will go to the cop who did his job against the negro criminal," announced the New Empire Knights of the KKK.
Whatever Wilson's personal views on race, the support we see for him, in favor of the death of young black men, makes clear that a fight for justice here entails a fight against white supremacy. It's a struggle that clearly cannot inhere in the fate of one cop.
In focusing predominantly on Wilson, we risk either treating him as a scapegoat or a bad apple — neither of which is helpful. Even if Wilson receives a lengthy sentence and a murder conviction (again, unlikely), the argument that this will put an end to police impunity or will deter future cop violence is naively hopeful, at best. Equally, any arguments that defend most police as "the good guys" containing just a few "bad apples" like Wilson ignore the rampancy with which police around the country discriminate against minorities. Cops can't have it both ways. They choose to wear the uniform and enjoy the authority accorded to them as a group — a uniform whole — and then demand to be individuated. Police are a force. They can't choose exemption from that as and when they are recognized as a force for ill.
Young black men in this country are harassed, arrested, and killed by the police for no more than having black skin. If all cops are maligned for the violence their uniform has come to represent, I see no problem with that. No one has to be a cop.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard