Some thoughts on the events of last night in Ferguson, Missouri:
1. Announcing the grand jury’s decision after 8 p.m. local time was a huge mistake. This seemed obvious beforehand to everyone –except, apparently, the district attorney who scheduled the announcement. The simple element of daylight would have made it easier for law enforcement to maintain order and for those who wanted to protest peacefully to prevail over those who were spoiling for a fight. If, as I saw some people speculate, the DA wanted to make his address in prime time to maximize the number of viewers, that was a small gain at a large cost.
2. The conventional wisdom about the confrontation between Michael Brown and officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 was factually incorrect in significant ways. Let me preface this by saying the grand-jury evidence that has been made public comprises 78 documents, some of which contain scores and even hundreds of pages, and I have not reviewed them all. At this hour, I would be skeptical of anyone who claims he has, if he wasn’t privy to them before last night. But based on what the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, said during his remarks last night, this much seems clear: The grand jurors did not believe the initial reports from witnesses who said Brown was in the process of surrendering, with his hands raised, when he was gunned down. McCulloch indicated that some of the witnesses who made these or similar claims in Brown’s favor didn’t even stick with their stories once they were presented with physical evidence from the scene. And even when witnesses did stick with their stories, their stories came across to the grand jurors as not credible in the face of physical evidence. Exactly which pieces of physical evidence weighed most heavily in their minds, we may never know; McCulloch indicated that it would be against Missouri law for them to tell us. But some of the things he seemed to emphasize include the presence of gunshot residue and Brown’s blood and DNA both outside and inside the patrol car, as well as the presence of gunshot wounds on the top of Brown’s head and in other places consistent with his being bent over head-first, not standing upright. Also, as McCulloch related the facts, it seems Brown’s appearance and clothing were consistent with that of a suspect in a theft that had just occurred nearby.
3. This does not mean shooting Brown was the best decision Wilson could have made. Only Wilson, who was the person sitting in the patrol car at the time, could judge the threat he faced. But it also seems clear from McCulloch’s narrative that Brown was not lethally wounded by the shots Wilson fired inside his car. The “charging” motion that at least one witness described Brown making toward Wilson came after both men had moved away from the patrol car. So it is an open question whether Wilson needed to exit the car and pursue Brown, or whether Brown might still be alive — albeit probably in jail for assaulting an officer — had he stayed in the car and waited for his backup, which arrived within a minute (not that he could have known that would happen).
4. Nor does this mean “black lives don’t matter.” The fact that a grand jury didn’t find probable cause to indict Wilson in light of the evidence does not mean Brown’s death isn’t tragic, couldn’t have been avoided and shouldn’t be the impetus for efforts — not mere “dialogue” or a “national conversation” — to improve relations between law enforcement and minority communities. It means the law gives the benefit of the doubt to police officers involved in deadly altercations. While there certainly could be some fine-tuning of that law — maybe the best idea to come out of this episode is for officers to wear body cameras — I don’t think we want law enforcement officers who are afraid to do their jobs. That would probably lead to less policing in the kind of poor areas where, as President Obama put it last night, good policing may be most needed.
5. Speaking of Obama, his remarks were right on target. He might have undermined his point just a bit by belaboring it, but he was exactly right to note both that some Americans have good historical reasons not to trust the police, and that no one will change that by breaking car windows. It was unfortunate for him that the timing of his remarks led to the incredible spectacle of cable-news outlets showing split screens with him on one side, and burning cars and tear gas on the other. (Personally, I put that on McCulloch for timing his announcement as he did.) Maybe the president should go to Ferguson and give a speech. No, seriously.
6. The people who didn’t heed Obama’s — or the Brown family’s — call for nonviolent protest are only ensuring this vicious cycle lasts longer than it must. Community doesn’t trust police, erupts when police kill member of community. Police don’t trust community, crack down when members of community (or interlopers who care nothing for it) react violently and destroy property. Lather, rinse, repeat. At some point, one of the cogs in this wheel has to say enough is enough and not play out its expected role. Waiting for someone else to do that only means the wheel spends round and round again, harming too many people along the way. Enough really is enough.
7. It’s unfortunate that the underlying issues of distrust only surface in these situations, which invariably bring complications to the broader, seemingly straight-forward question of “justice.” The facts of Brown’s death make some people hesitant to give real grievances their due, and those grievances make it hard for some people to accept the facts. And round and round we go again.
8. Many of my brethren in the media did not help matters. McCulloch was slammed on Twitter, by journalists and pundits, for laying some of the blame on the 24-hour news cycle and social media. But you know what? He wasn’t that far off-base. Too many reporters in Ferguson’s streets appeared to be playing Arnett-Holliman-and-Shaw-in-Baghdad. If that seems unfair, consider many of the images broadcast last night appeared to show police officers and camera crews outnumbering everyone else. I doubt that was true across the entirety of Ferguson, but it speaks to the reality-show nature that infected much of the blanket coverage of this event, chiefly by cable news. (This is another ill effect of the after-dark timing of the announcement.) This was true, it must be said, chiefly of CNN, whose live broadcast from Ferguson pretty much all of Monday gave one the impression the network was pining for a riot. It was reminiscent of the network’s coverage of that stranded cruise ship last year, and it reeked of a once-serious news outlet that is being run by a former entertainment executive. If you mock Fox News but give CNN a pass these days, you are revealing yourself as the partisan in this equation. Certainly, some journalists have done excellent work on this story. But any serious media ethics class at any serious journalism school, for years to come, should include an examination of news coverage of Ferguson, from Aug. 9 onward.