Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Causes of Noir #4: Ferguson MO Grand Jury Verdict (UPDATE 1 12/9; UPDATE2 12/17)

I'm going to focus in lecture today on Birdman, men who kill, and psycho- patho- logy, so will post some text and links here to keep myself in check during lecture itself.

A key example of one of our issues came to a head last night when a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson (above) on any of five counts in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO last summer.  Grand juries do not need evidence sufficient to convict, but only enough to bring the case to trial. The grand jury did not indict him even for involuntary manslaughter, so the result is an exoneration of the officer's conduct in the shooting.

The New York Times has a useful timeline.

The grand jury transcripts have been posted. This is an unusual move, and you can experience the Rashomon effect of contradictory interpretations for yourself.

Much current coverage has featured the protests. See for example local St. Louis coverage. One report suggested that most of the damage was to black-owned businesses along Ferguson's main shopping street, while the vaunted National Guard forces were protecting public buildings including the police department. A  St. Louis friend of mine wrote last night that "Ferguson is lost."

A thorough account of the testimony that won over the jury is here (Michael Brown charged and threatened him, and allegedly made him "feels like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan".

There are defenses of the grand jury verdict. One example is "Justice Was Served in Ferguson."

 We've been calling our fourth cause of noir culture "legacies of slavery," and have discussed levels of inequality that enable unilateral conduct and the ongoing radicalization of that conduct.   The Ferguson killing brought together some traditional practices:
  • policing style perceived as unjust and discriminatory ("overpolicing")
  • a white person killing a black person in the name of self-defense
  • trial by grand jury rather than by (public, adversarial) jury
  • non-punishment of the white person for killing the black person
We've talked about how in a noir world justice does not contain violence with the truth, and here we have a kind of case study.

I'll talk about "suicide by police" in the next couple of lectures. Is there an undertone of this motive in the transcripts?  (This of course puts all the more pressure on police NOT to cooperate by pulling the trigger.)

Comments pro and con are welcome.

UPDATED 12/9: The Hands Up Don't Shoot movement has been supplemented, in the wake of the non-indictment of the officer who killed Eric Garner on Staten Island with an (illegal) choke hold), with the I Can't Breath movement.  Protests continued over this past weekend, including protests in Berkeley.

Some useful commentary in the past 2 weeks:

"Why It's Impossible to Indict a Cop" The Nation Magazine (a legal overview)
"Why We Won't Wait,"  UCLA History Professor Robin D.G. Kelley on civil rights precedents and anger
"Ferguson Grand Jury Evidence Reveals Mistakes, Holes in Investigations," Huffington Post analysis of grand jury proceeding (11/25)
"Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid," Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic on the limits of Obama's moderate race position.
"Protesters Take to the Streets of Berkeley" Berkeleyside (12/7).  good images
"Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014" Gawker 12/7.  a truly disturbing "yearbook" with short descriptions of the circumstances of death attached to the photos.

UPDATE 2: many commentators on the Ferguson case noted that when the grand jury refused to indict Officer Darren Warren, it must have taken as truth the claim that Michael Brown charged Officer Warren like a football player, with his head down.  It appeared that only one witness made this claim--"Witness 40""-- which was contradicted by all other witnesses.   The plot thickened: on December 15th, the website Smoking Gun revealed that Witness 40 is Sandra McElroy, a woman with a history of racism, mental illness, and check fraud who may not actually have been on the scene.  The story, along with McElroy's confirmation that she was witness 40, is here

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