Justice for Michael Brown?

Update 7/15/2015: Since I first wrote this blog entry, countless new cases of police brutality and proven overreactions have surfaced online, on YouTube and on various media outlets across the nation. It has become clear that the Michael Brown incident is not an isolated event, but rather a small piece of accumulating evidence that our nation’s law enforcement agencies suffer from, perpetuate, and deny systemic racism and procedural overreactions and excessive force against our fellow citizens of color with alarming frequency. As such, I have often thought of deleting this entire blog post, but I have chosen to let it remain as a reminder to myself how my white privilege and alleged intellect can cloud my own judgment, a judgment I previously believed to be excessively well-reasoned and fair despite my own biases. I failed. This “update” is a slice of humble pie, and I will eat it. I no longer believe that Michael Brown received anything that could be mistaken for “justice,” and I am sorry for not having arrived at this conclusion sooner.

Sincerely, -C. Lambeth 7/15/15

Original Blog Entry Below:

I sign a lot of petitions for many different issues. Most of these are for environmental causes and cases of human injustice, especially those concerning women and children. As a Christian, I take injustice very seriously and strive (although not very well at times) to treat others how I would want to be treated. Similarly, as part of my desire to remake the world in a better and more equitable place, I sign up to get emails from various organizations who support such causes. One of these is the petition hosting site, MoveOn.org, and more often than not, I’m not particularly discerning in which petitions I sign. I rarely see one that doesn’t deserve my signature. That was not the case last Tuesday, however, when I received a request to sign a petition urging the President and Attorney General, Eric Holder, to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, and to do so regardless of the findings of a grand jury assembled to weigh the matter.

Here is what the leading portion of the petition saidYesterday, a St. Louis grand jury refused to indict Mike Brown’s killer—police officer Darren Wilson. On Aug. 9, the nation was horrified to learn that Mike Brown was targeted and killed by police as he walked down the street with a friend.”

As the carefully worded petition reads, people are lead to believe that officer Darren Wilson specifically picked Michael Brown as a target for his unbridled prejudices, and for his part, Brown was merely sauntering down the lane with a friend and minding his own business. Moreover, everyone in “the nation” was “horrified” at the fact that a grand jury “refused” to bring charges against the police officer who shot Brown.

What a load of misleading and manipulative nonsense. As per the known facts, here’s what the petition should have stated: St. Louis grand jury determined that police officer, Darren Wilson, did not violate the law when he defended himself with lethal force against the violent assailant, Michael Brown. However, we think we know better, so please sign this petition advocating circumvention of due process and forcing a decision that accords with our personal feelings rather than law. 

The Real Question

I want it known that I am troubled by the incident between officer Wilson and Mr. Brown. It should not have happened at all. Had Mr. Brown not robbed a convenience store and not been holding up traffic as he walked in the middle of the street and not attacked officer Wilson when given a reasonable directive by the officer, he would still be alive. In fact, he would be alive even if he had robbed the store and held up traffic IF he had complied with the officer’s reasonable request for information and appropriate pedestrian behavior. And IF officer Wilson had killed Brown for Brown’s peaceful compliance, THEN a grand jury WOULD absolutely have reason to indict and convict the officer.

As it stands, officer Wilson did not pick this fight. He approached Brown only after he witnessed some odd behavior from Brown. In fact, Wilson was only in the vicinity because a police dispatcher had sent him to the area for a different call. Wilson did not “target” Brown in the sense that he was looking for a reason to kill an unarmed black man. Yes, he technically aimed at Brown (with his gun) when Brown was attacking him, but not before. The petition conveniently left these details out, and it used the verb “targeted” in a sense that does not immediately indicate using a site on a gun, but rather an intentional and unmerited desire to persecute Brown because of some prejudicial condition.

While the petition sent to me thankfully did not mention this “prejudicial condition,” it has nevertheless been identified as race. Time and again I have heard that, “white police officer, Darren Wilson, gunned down unarmed, college-bound, black student, Michael Brown.” All of these descriptors are technically accurate, but just like the petition’s wording, they are designed to evoke certain themes in the mind of the viewers/ listeners. I think they are also designed to elicit thoughts of police brutality.

Let’s face it, some people want this to be about race, and therein lies a huge problem. The shooting death of Michael Brown is not necessarily a case of violent, white-on-black racism. That may (or may not) be an issue worthy of investigation here, but it seems to me the real question concerns what happened between officer Wilson and Mr. Brown? To make this incident only about race can completely obfuscate that obvious question.

Unarmed”?

It should be noted that an assailant doesn’t have to possess his or her own gun in order to have a “weapon.” A fist, a car door, and even an officer’s own pistol are all options that a criminal can opt for in the midst of an altercation. Officers have the right to defend themselves by force when attacked with any manner of weapon. We see this all the time when a criminal tries to ram a cop with a vehicle. By the evidence made known to the grand jury and the public, Mr. Brown did not comply with the officer’s requests and ultimately responded violently (although not with a gun) to officer Wilson. This ended with Wilson firing his weapon and Brown’s death. The real question is not, “Is Wilson a racist?” but rather, “Did Wilson use his weapon lawfully?” The grand jury found that Wilson did, in fact, lawfully use his weapon.

Before I go on, we should consider a few important questions. For example, should a police officer not address wayward pedestrians who are intentionally holding up traffic and putting themselves at risk? Should a police officer not defend him or herself when attacked by an assailant? If a cop cannot even ask citizens to comply with the most basic of traffic laws, much less defend him or herself from a violent perpetrator, then what would we suggest cops do with their time? Have we not opted for some sort of anarchy when we prevent cops from doing their jobs? What would we have had officer Wilson do?

Or, what if Brown had succeeded in his attack against the officer? What if Brown had killed Wilson with a weapon and then a grand jury determined that Brown was merely acting in self defense? Would the residents of Ferguson Missouri and other municipalities automatically declare that a grave injustice occurred and march in the streets, sometimes violently to show their displeasure? Would a petition rise up on the internet to ask our President and the Attorney General to step in and ignore due process and make an armchair decision without the weight of measuring all the evidence or even considering a jury of citizen peers? No. There would be no marches and no mass outcries of injustice. In fact, I doubt most of us would have ever even heard the story.

And that raises an equally important question, namely: “Why do some folks immediately assume (without having access to the facts and testimony that the grad jury did) that this incident is an example of injustice, racism and police brutality?” Have these protesters even considered that perhaps the grand jury reached a logical and accurate decision? Could it be that, as the grand jury determined, officer Wilson was defending himself from a violent attack? And if this could NOT be the case, then we must ask, “Why not?” Could it possibly be that the various protesters (and petition creators) are leaping to the wrong conclusion because of some gut-level feeling they have (rather than facts)? Could there be a level of anti-white racism afoot in those feelings that merely presumes that anti-black racism is to blame, and that Michael Brown was just walking down the street with a friend as an innocent and hopeful college student? These are questions that must be considered.

Is Michael Brown’s Death an Instance of Racism and Police Brutality?

I understand that many, many people are dismayed at what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I am one of them. The incident could have easily been avoided. I understand that police brutality is a very real thing. I accept that racism, primarily against both black and Latino people, has played a very real, very violent and very unjust part of American life, both past and present. Be that as it may, when it comes to the shooting death of Michael Brown, the question to ask is not, “Is there racism, brutality and injustice in parts of our nation’s police forces?” but rather, “Is the death of Michael Brown an example of these police problems?”

IS Mr. Brown’s death an example of injustice perpetrated by our system? Am I big jerk for criticizing the notion that it was? Am I even capable of considering the question given my white privilege and power? I have no absolute certainty about what really happened between Brown and Wilson, so I must consider the allegation as a possibility. Nevertheless, it will take more than what I’ve seen thus far from the get-officer-Wilson contingent to convince me that I am wrong here. While I acknowledge that it IS possible that racial hatred motivated officer Wilson to gun down Mr. Brown in cold blood, the grand jury says otherwise. That jury was in the best place to make a decision, far better than my personal feelings, and they did. When someone outside of that jury claims to know what really happened, they are making a claim without credibility. Whether they realize it or not, they are presuming to know better than those who had direct access to the evidentiary details, and that is beyond reason.

So. Back to the petition I was asked to sign. I get it that people are upset and want justice. The problem is that a large portion of them do not accept what has been determined to BE justice by a jury of Brown’s and Wilson’s peers. And once the petition creators jumped to their own ill-conceived conclusions about the event, they decided to compose a petition that purposefully misrepresents the situation so that they might stir up sentiment (and signatures) for their misguided cause. I’m sure the tactic has worked among folks who haven’t bothered to consider the problem it typifies or those who operate on feeling at the expense of reason.

I also wonder if the petition’s creators have considered that the manipulative way they have written it undermines their own cause. What I mean is that some people who accept the grand jury’s decision have come to believe that the folks who reject it are merely troublemakers who do not care about facts, due process, or even the law itself. This petition plays to those very suspicions. The most reasonable thing skeptical people can say about this sad story is that they do not know if the grand jury’s decision was right, but they feel like it wasn’t. Even so, our legal system is (supposed to be) held accountable to facts and legal arguments, not feelings. When we overturn law and misrepresent facts to fit our feelings and manipulate others we have become the instruments of injustice.

Going forward, reasonable people should continue to push for appropriate police accountability, civil rights AND obedience to the law. We should protest when these things are trampled on, regardless of who does the trampling (cops or robbers). Nevertheless, if both parties in the Brown-Wilson incident had respected police accountability, civil rights, and acted in obedience to the law, then Brown would still be alive. Indeed, there would have been no reason for officer Wilson to pay him any attention at all.

Thanks for reading me,

-C. Lambeth

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About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
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2 Responses to Justice for Michael Brown?

  1. C_Lambeth says:

    I wrote this blog entry prior to the death of Staten Island resident, Eric Garner, who also died as a direct result of action by a police officer. I have to admit that, on the surface, these two incidents sounded remarkably similar. Both (now dead) men were involved in breaking the law and resisting arrest. It could be argued that if they both had obeyed the law and cooperated with the officers who addressed their behavior, then both men would still be alive. I believe that to be the case.

    However, after viewing the video related to Mr. Garner’s death, there can be no question that the responding officer overreacted to Mr. Garner’s law infraction, used excessive force, and, oh yes, BROKE the law by using a banned choke hold move (which resulted in Mr. Garner’s death). If breaking the law, no matter how trivial, is grounds for excessive, death-causing force, then it would seem that the New York officer, Daniel Pantaleo, should have also been put in a choke-hold, perhaps unto death. Fair is fair.

    The difference in swaying my opinion on each of these respective incidents is the presence of video footage. As I said, on paper, both incidents seem remarkably similar when the actions of the respective police officers are considered. All we have in the Michael Brown incident is the officer’s testimony. Perhaps he was telling the truth (and I hope he was), but we will never know because there is no video of the event. Conversely, how would the police officer in the Eric Garner case tell the story if there had been no video footage? Would he have accurately related the events and his own culpability? We can never know for sure. In either case, it casts at least a modicum of doubt (and maybe a lot more) on my defense of Darren Wilson in the Ferguson Missouri incident. Police brutality, excessive force and cover-up efforts are real and play a part in completely unnecessary deaths. Period.

    Of course correlation is not the same thing as causation. Even if Eric Garner died at the hands of an overzealous and abusive officer (and he did), it would not necessarily follow that Michael Brown suffered a similar fate. These are SEPARATE events. Even so, it stresses that I/we shouldn’t be too quick to assume anything in these incidents. We need police, but we also need to police the police themselves. Humanity is messed up. Badly. And no one is immune to evil or immune to acting as an agent of evil.

    Thank you for your grace,
    -Corbin Lambeth

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