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Ferguson: What We Know, What We Don’t Know

Protestor in Ferguson, Mo.


Mark Gordon - published on 11/25/14

A grand jury did its job. Will the American public accept its findings?

In spite of all the attention the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath has received, there are only a few things we know with certainty. We know that at around noon on August 9, 2014, there was a confrontation between Michael Brown, a black 18 year-old resident of Ferguson, MO, and Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer.  We know that at some point and for some reason Wilson pulled his service weapon and shot Brown six times. And we know that Brown’s body lay in the street not far from his home for four-and-a-half hours while the police and medical examiner conducted their investigations.

We know that Brown had stolen cigars from a nearby convenience store just before the shooting. But we also know that the store’s staff claimed they never called the police over the cigars, which were not recovered. We do not know whether Officer Wilson had any notion that Brown was suspected of stealing them.

We don’t know what precipitated the confrontation that left Brown dead. According to reports, Wilson says that Brown charged him and reached inside the cruiser for his gun. Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown, says that Wilson pulled his cruiser up so aggressively close that when he opened the door it bounced off Brown and back at the officer, striking him. Yet another eyewitness claims that Brown gave Wilson the “bum’s rush,” punching him in the head through the vehicle window. But Johnson and other witnesses say that Wilson reached out and grabbed Brown from inside the vehicle and that Brown merely tried to pull his arm free.

What we do know is that the first shot was fired while Wilson was still in the cruiser and the two men were struggling. The bullet struck Brown and he moved away from the cruiser. We know that Wilson and Brown subsequently faced off in the street, but we don’t know whether Brown simply stood his ground or advanced on the officer. We know that Wilson fired five more shots at Brown and thereby “caused his death,” in the words of St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch.

We know that in the aftermath of the shooting the African-American community in Ferguson was outraged, not just by the shooting itself, but by the fact that Brown lay in the street for so long. But we also know that four and half hours is not an inordinate amount of time for a crime scene investigation and that the medical examiner, not the police, was in charge of removing the body.

We know that the population of Ferguson is two-thirds black, 94% of its police force is white, and that there has been a long history of tension between citizens and the police. We also know that the shooting of Michael Brown was only the latest in a string of well-publicized police killings of unarmed black men, including several over the summer.

On the other hand, we know that 93% of black murder victims are killed by fellow African-Americans, which means that although the problem of police brutality is serious, it is dwarfed by the problem of black on black crime. Of course, we also know that white men kill 84% of white murder victims, which contradicts white widespread fears of black predation.

We know that in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, protests were peaceful until professional agitators descended on the community from out of town. We know that divisive figures like Al Sharpton and Attorney General Eric Holder gratuitously injected themselves into the situation, stoking their own egos at the cost of rising violence. We know that Michael Brown’s family begged for peace even as violence flared night after night.

We also know that the Ferguson police, flush with military-grade equipment and weapons given to them under the Defense Department’s “1033” program, reacted peevishly and often brutally toward citizens and journalists alike, which only exacerbated the situation. And we know that the Governor of Missouri finally relieved the too-eager Ferguson PD of crowd control in favor of the less martial, more police-like Missouri Highway Patrol.

We know that those promising violence in Ferguson represent the extremes: anarchists and nihilists on one side, the Ku Klux Klan on the other. But we also know that lawlessness and violence can never bring about justice. They are, in fact, the handmaidens of injustice. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; 
only light can do that. 
Hate cannot drive out hate; 
only love can do that. 
Hate multiplies hate, 
violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness 
in a descending spiral of destruction.”

And now we know that Officer Darren Wilson will not face charges in the death of Michael Brown. A St. Louis County grand jury began examining the evidence on August 20 and decided in recent days that there was no probable cause to indict Wilson on any of the four possible charges: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Wilson may face civil action, including a civil rights investigation by the US Department of Justice, but he will not be criminally indicted by the State of Missouri.

What we don’t know is what the reaction will be, both in Ferguson and across the country. We do know that the suspicion and hostility between police departments and African-American communities will persist and if possible even deepen. We don’t know whether violence will flare, what the police reaction will be, when Americans will begin to speak honestly to each other about race, or when the gulf that still looms between black and white will be bridged.

What we do know is that an 18 year-old man named Michael Brown is dead, and that his family still grieves for him.   What we don’t know is whether he has received justice, or ever will.

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.

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