Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Lessons from Ferguson, Part II"

                   Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Lessons from Ferguson, Part II”
November 26, 2014

The waiting is over. It is hard to imagine a jury with a more difficult task than that had by the twelve people on the St. Louis County Grand Jury who decided Monday evening not to indict Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown last August. Over twenty-five days, the Grand Jury had heard more than seventy hours of testimony from sixty witnesses. They considered five possible charges, ranging from first degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. They spent two days deliberating the charges. They were not sequestered so were fully aware of the momentous nature of their decision. They had to withstand extraordinary political pressure, both direct and implied. The easy way out would have been to indict and pass on the job of determining guilt or innocence to a trial jury. But they adhered to their responsibility of sifting through all the information and material and decided that there was not enough evidence for a court case to go forward.

Following the announcement of the jury’s decision, President Obama said that the decision of the Grand Jury should be respected, as they are the only ones who have heard and seen all the evidence. He was right. (I just wish he had spoken the same way back in August.) Mr. Obama quoted a letter from Mr. Brown’s father who called for peaceful demonstrations. (Throughout this episode, Mr. Brown senior has been the one adult in the room.) Unfortunately Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Brown’s words were not heeded by those in Ferguson. Riots broke out. Shots were fired. A dozen buildings were burned. Cars were burned and flipped.

It was obvious that the police in Ferguson decided not to protect the property of those whose stores were looted and destroyed, and whose cars were damaged. They attempted to keep some semblance of order, but apparently were more concerned about the backlash from the media and the black community, which may have been wise. But sadly, that property destruction reflects what Matthew Arnold would have called our experimenting with “low culture,” the doing as one likes without regard to one’s community. Disrespect for others characterizes today’s society.

History tells us we should always be fearful of government that uses force unlawfully and capriciously. African-Americans feel targeted, in part because of history, but also because crime and murder are more common to them than others. Facts support their fears. The death rate for blacks in inner cities is ten times that of whites. According to the FBI, there were 12,664 murders in the U.S. in 2011, of which 6,329 were blacks. But 90% of those killings were black on black.

The focus of black leaders should not be on revenge; instead they should ask, why? Why is there so much hatred? How can that energy be redirected toward productive purposes? What can be done to improve schools and provide more and better jobs? What about the social changes in our culture? Have declines in two-parent families and increases in unwed motherhood played roles? (In 1950, 9% of black families with children were headed by a single parent. Today, over 70% of black children are born to unwed mothers.)

While the Civil Rights movement made great strides in furthering the causes of African-Americans, an unintended and unfortunate consequence was the creation of a sense of victimhood, and from that, entitlement. Too many blacks see themselves as victims, not in control of their own destiny. Such feelings are demeaning and tend to limit opportunities and self-respect. It is true that many blacks see themselves as victims because vestiges of discrimination still exist, but political leaders have promoted this sense, as they push the concept of hyphenated Americans. Leaders should attempt to help people help themselves, by emphasizing self-reliance and dependency on one another, rather than government. They should focus on uniting, not dividing.

Police are necessary in any society that functions under the rule of law; it is not an easy job. A black-separatist group has offered a $5,000 bounty for the location of Officer Wilson. His life has been indelibly altered. Police work is dangerous. According to FBI statistics 48 of the 780,000 officers in the U.S. were killed in 2012 – a rate 50% higher than for the general population. There is no question that there are rogue cops, but the vast majority work at a difficult task – maintaining order, while confronting risk – while knowing they work for the people they police.

More than anything, it has been the culture of division that has rent places like Ferguson. People like the Reverend Al Sharpton make a living by inciting people to act against their and society’s best interest. He makes them dependent on him. He thrives on their dependency. If there is a camera, Mr. Sharpton will find it. If there is a microphone, he will stand before it.

Peaceful protests are an indelible part of our heritage, and have roots with the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King. But encouraging looting and destruction and demanding justice when justice has already been done only raises expectations with little hope of satisfaction. In fact, it was worse than that. The damage inflicted, with buildings and cars burned, was to their own city, their own people. Such destruction will worsen their lives. Stores will not reopen, and those that are still standing will raise prices to compensate for the higher costs of operating in “dangerous” neighborhoods.

While I thought Attorney General Eric Holder’s involving himself in the crisis last summer was an overreach, the fact he did serves to make more meaningful the findings of the Grand Jury. There is no question that St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch has been under a microscope, as have been the jurors. If anyone erred in this case, it would have been in favor of finding Darren Wilson somehow criminally responsible. The fact they did not only makes their decision seem truer.

There are many lessons to be learned from Ferguson. The most important one is that our system of justice works. The 5th Amendment of the Constitution reads: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury…” A second lesson is that the plight of young, poor, unemployed African-Americans must be addressed. Such efforts must begin in the schools and lead to the workplace. State and federal rules and regulations should promote businesses, the fountains of jobs. The third lesson involves addressing our culture, to be one that promotes respect both of the self variety, as well as for the other person – a culture that promotes unity, not division. Charlatans like Mr. Sharpton should return to New York.

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