I’m on kind of a narrative kick these days. Interested in how true stories and fictional stories are being told. How we are making meaning. I took a hit on reddit for my Serial post claiming there are responsible ways to tell true stories and there are half-assed ways to do it. With Ferguson, there’s also been a basic confusion of storytelling– a struggle for the narrative.
Like many of us, I have been privileged to a “full account” of the narrative presented to the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri. Thanks to the “transparency” of the prosecutor’s office, massive amounts of material usually not released have been poured out and viewed, analyzed and packaged by the press.
It is a story I hadn’t heard in all these months. (I admit, I have followed the protests but not the case very closely until recently.) The images I had of what happened were formed primarily by the protestors, mainly “Hands up, Don’t shoot,” as dramatic and compelling an image as any of police overstepping their bounds and shooting a young, unarmed black man in cold blood. The other primary image, of Michael Brown’s body disrespectfully left in the street for hours, fueled the sense that there was something wrong.
Now I have quite a different story. It involves Michael Brown, 6’4″ and 290 lbs, rushing the police car, punching the officer, Darren Wilson, in the face through his car window, a struggle that ended with officer Wilson’s gun going off in the car. What happened next is disputed, but ended with Wilson firing a total of 12 shots. killing Brown. Then the body of Michael Brown was disrespectfully treated, left in the street for hours.
That narrative clearly represents Darren Wilson’s account of events. Wilson testified before the grand jury for four hours.
When I heard about that testimony, I was stunned. Why did the prosecutor put the chief defense witness on the stand? I’m sure most Americans don’t understand what a grand jury is or how it works. This was not a trial. Darren Wilson was not found “not guilty.” But most Americans believe that Wilson was exonerated by a regular jury. That the grand jury did not indict because it was clear from testimony and evidence that Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown.
I personally trust the people on this grand jury. I think they reached the best conclusion given the case they were presented and their instructions. But this is not justice. They were manipulated by the prosecutor, who did not do his job.
A lawyer friend wrote this in regards to the grand jury issue: “The only purpose of a grand jury is to determine if probable cause exists to proceed to a full trial on a claim that a law has been violated. That’s it. Ordinarily, a “no bill” results only when the facts surrounding the occurrence are largely undisputed.“
If there is one thing we know about this case, there are disputes about what occurred. There are multiple narratives. In order for there to be justice, there needs to be a trial, with two sides presenting evidence and cross-examinations. And during the real trial, when there would have been plenty of transparency, the case for Darren Wilson could have been made– by his defense attorneys.
Instead, the prosecutor here put on a “show trial” and misused the grand jury system to present a defense of Officer Wilson. Probably he didn’t want to impanel a grand jury to begin with, but just announce that he had reviewed the evidence and accounts and found that Officer Wilson was justified. There was a lot of pressure, though, to charge Officer Wilson. Not wanting to prosecute and not wanting to recuse himself and let someone impartial prosecute, he used this jury, feeding them– and now the media and public– the narrative he had decided upon.
In the end, we did not get justice. We got a subversion of our justice system.
Personally, I find the story that Darren Wilson felt threatened and acted from that threat, compelling. But also, that was just the beginning of this story. The force the police turned on that community– militarized– was appalling and not to be tolerated.
The protests that have taken place in Ferguson are not just about Michael Brown. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The anger, the sense of ongoing injustice in that community, of law enforcement having all the power and the people having none, has not been addressed through this process. At all.
Like many, many people, I hope the violence is over and done. But I also hope the conversations are not over. And I hope through them we can get to another place. A place that is more compassionate– to police officers and to people of color. I hope we can get to a place that feels more like truth.
As with so many issues in this country where I feel the stories are being wrestled away by the wealthy, privileged, and powerful, the systems of our democracy threatened by subversion and manipulation, I hope we can get through this time in history with our democracy intact.