October 29, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: Race and Justice in Ferguson

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By JULIUS KAIREY

We are finally getting a better picture of what happened the day of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Recent witnesses and an autopsy report back up Officer Darren Wilson’s account of events: that Michael Brown was charging at the officer when he was shot, after an altercation in which Brown tried to grab the officer’s weapon. Brown’s gunshot wounds seem inconsistent with the theory that he was running away from the officer or had his hands up when shot. This new evidence gives us every reason to wait for the grand jury’s deliberations to finish, and for all the information to come out, before reaching a conclusion.

Unfortunately, some are determined to do the exact opposite. From day one, those with a racial agenda declared with absolute certainty that the police murdered Michael Brown because of the color of his skin. To date, there is not one iota of actual evidence demonstrating that race had anything to do with the killing of Michael Brown. But since the shooting involved a white police officer and a black citizen, we have been exhorted to assume a racial motivation. Now that certain commentators have insisted upon this interpretation of the case, they will spin the facts as much as necessary to justify their original conclusions.

Protesters have taken to the streets of major cities to call for the punishment of Officer Wilson, who has been thoroughly vilified as a racist and a cold-blooded killer. They have rightly called for justice to be done in the case. The problem, though, is that many Ferguson protesters define “justice” as the attainment of a pre-determined result: the conviction of Officer Wilson. They do not think they need actual evidence about what happened in this particular case, or that there is another side of the story that deserves due consideration.

We should not allow the meaning of justice to be perverted in this way. True justice refers to a process that ensures everyone is treated fairly under the law. This means that indictments and convictions must occur independent of political pressure, not because of it. If the evidence exists to show — beyond a reasonable doubt — that Darren Wilson committed murder, then he should be punished accordingly. But there is nothing “just” about being declared innocent or guilty based on the results of a referendum in the local community, or by who can shout the loudest at a protest rally. The accused should be brought to trial and face a process that is designed to elicit truth through an adversarial process that gives each party the ability to present its side of the story. A protest mob has neither the will nor the capacity to do that.

It seems that too many have failed to learn the lessons of the George Zimmerman trial. After getting his day in court, Zimmerman provided the jury with reasonable doubt of his guilt by presenting his case: that Trayvon Martin had leapt on top of Zimmerman and pounded his head into the pavement, forcing him to shoot in self-defense. We saw the same rush to judgment in that case as well, where George Zimmerman, a Hispanic, was made into a symbol of white racism to fit the existing racial narratives. The protesters decried the “assassination” of Trayvon Martin, but after hearing the evidence, a jury of six unanimously found Zimmerman not guilty.

And let’s not forget about the Ferguson rioters, who claimed that getting “justice” for Michael Brown entitled them to loot and destroy their own communities. Unfortunately, some political analysts and commentators even chose to condone these acts of violence as some sort of understandable rebellion against an unjust status quo. This has all happened before.

In 1992, following the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, parts of Los Angeles were turned upside-down by the same rioting and looting we saw in Ferguson. Communities were torn apart and set ablaze, and dozens were killed in some of the worst racial violence we have seen in decades. Korean-owned businesses were specifically targeted. There, too, some tried to make sense of the senseless. Representative Maxine Waters called the rioting “the voice of the unheard,” a result of the “righteous anger” in her district. To those who saw their livelihoods go up in flames, however, there was nothing righteous about it. So long as we think about cases like the shooting of Michael Brown in purely racial terms, we preserve a pernicious mindset that will inevitably lead to the further stratification of American society, or even to more racial violence. The Los Angeles riots were an extreme example of the principle.

Many of the issues raised in the aftermath of the shooting, including those about police brutality and racism, are perfectly legitimate. Yet, conversations about these issues should not come at the expense of justice for all parties involved in the shooting. We have an obligation to put the pursuit of truth over both politics and ideology. The political activists who have exploited this shooting seem to want racial bias to cloud people’s judgment and obscure the facts, making it impossible to take a fair and honest look at what actually happened. If we are ever going to progress beyond racial divisions, we have to challenge the voices of those who would exploit the death of a teenager just to make a point about racism in America.

Julius Kairey is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jkairey@cornellsun.com. Always Right appears alternate Thursdays this semester.