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Musings on Ferguson

So much has been said and written about the death of Michael Brown, the ensuing investigation and grand jury proceeding and most recently the decision of that grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson for Michael Brown's shooting. I have thought about whether I could add anything to the conversation. Obviously, as a criminal defense attorney who is passionate about the fight for the underdog and keeping checks on government and police power, I have followed these events with great interest. I have welcomed the conversation that the national attention on these events has encouraged. Suddenly, the country has been talking about issues I have been yelling about for years, often feeling that only the choir was paying any attention to my sermons.

But in the days since the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, I have watched the conversation grow about as unproductive as I can imagine. People have retreated and entrenched into their own camps. Shouting into echo chambers, plugging their ears to and closing their minds to the possibility of dialogue with the "other side."

I have found myself turning away from the conversation about the minutiae of Michael Brown's death, seeing that people on both sides of the conversation have seized onto their narrative, the facts that support their view of the way the world works and aren't moving an inch. Obviously, if I had to pick a side here, I am on the side of the people. Not the state. Not the police (and ask any honest police officer and they will tell you there is a difference between the police and "the public," us vs. them). But ultimately, for me, it is not about Ferguson or Michael Brown specifically because this was just the story and circumstances that happened to catch media fire. There are far too many similar stories all over the country. What I had hoped this conversation would be about is the system.

Whether Michael Brown's death was justified or not, the way in which it was handled was not. The system is designed to protect those in power and devalue those without it.

This is why anyone who has paid any attention to these kinds of stories knew as soon as the story began to get national attention what to look for: the demonization of Michael Brown. While nobody on Fox News would be willing to come out and publicly say, "who cares that this thug is dead, he was stealing cigars and didn't show complete acquiescence to the police, his death was his fault!!!" their reporting certainly supplied the building blocks for that narrative, which I heard via Twitter and Facebook far too many times over the last few weeks.

It was easy to see, early on that the fix was in, as it so often is when those in power harm those without it. Brown's family asked the governor to remove the prosecutor from the case more than a month before the grand jury decision. 70,000 Ferguson residents signed a petition asking for the same thing. That was simply because they were aware of the always too cozy relationship between police and prosecutors, never mind that McCulloch's "father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for St. Louis' police department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect."

But I'm doing it myself. I'm becoming bogged down in the facts and minutiae of this case, but I don't intend to. I point out these factors because they exist every time a police officer does something wrong and even more acutely when the a police officer does something wrong that harms a poor person of color. And there are many among us who seem to simply not care. It is so ingrained in people to give police officers a benefit of the doubt to a degree that I doubt many would give their own family members and to demonize the people of color who are so often the victims of police misconduct.

I try to do what I can in my profession to fight against police abuse of power, but the truth is there is only so much I can do in a system that is not designed to hold police accountable. Is this really the system that we want? One in which people of a profession, which does not even have particularly high barriers to entry, unchecked power? Would we give this to lawyers or doctors or politicians or any other profession? Of course not! As I tell juries: there are great police officers and there are terrible ones and we cannot know who is who without facts, we cannot assume someone is a great person simply because they are a police officer. The evidence to the contrary is too mountainous.

I fear that our country is truly becoming one that is divided between the powerful and the powerless. There has been much attention paid to the widening income and wealth gaps, but less paid to the absolute powerlessness of the poor, of minorities, of anyone who is not part of the club in the face of the state. I fear where people will turn when their government no longer offers them a shred of hope for fairness or equality. When it is repeatedly demonstrated that your own government does not value you and will not protect yours sons and daughters, what do you do?

We are seeing the consequences of our corrupt and incestuous system in the fires burning across the country. Both recent and farther removed history are rife with examples of what happens when a government believes it can exist for the sake of a few.

That is not who we are as Americans. I do still have faith that out of the tragedy of Ferguson and the seemingly endless stream of news of police abuse I have seen for years (that many who ignored have started to pay attention to) will come change for the better. That people will begin to realize that our criminal justice system was not designed for local prosecutors to be responsible for holding accountable the police they work with on a day to day basis.

The examples of better systems already exist. Body cameras and the like may help, but without a properly formed and incentivized system, even officers caught red handed on video that the public believes reprehensible may avoid ever facing a trial as we saw just today in Staten Island. Bodies that are truly independent of the police and prosecutor's operations, given true power, can begin to make a difference and restore the public's faith that all of our citizens lives count equally, but we must believe this ourselves first.

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