It’s been clear for a very long time that the grand jury in Ferguson would not indict Darren Wilson. The protests that erupted after the grand jury’s announcement were not caused by surprise, but from a collective sense of anger at the lack of justice. While a civil suit might ultimately prevail in bringing some manner of closure to Michael Brown’s family, it’s imperative that the rest of the world not forget the events that happened after the shooting. There was — and is — more at stake than the conviction of Darren Wilson.
It was almost immediately clear that the police in Ferguson were not prepared for the fallout from Brown’s death. The announcements made about the shooting were borderline incoherent and completely contradictory, and the leaks that led up to the eventual grand jury announcement were almost comical in their lack of professionalism. While many were surprised with how tone deaf the prosecutor’s speech was last night, it was simply in keeping with the incredible lack of sensitivity and understanding that has plagued official statements all along.
Beyond speeches, the police showed their remarkable lack of preparedness in the way they dealt with demonstrations. They regularly arrested and harassed peaceful protesters, escalating an already tense situation far beyond repair. Reports from dozens of sources including observers sent by Amnesty International detail extreme shows of force that included the use of tear gas, attack dogs and assault rifles.
Ferguson police also seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the rights of the media, and made a habit of banning access and arresting reporters. As of Monday, 24 journalists had been arrested in the town. And while officials have claimed that their no-flyover requests were for safety purposes, recently revealed recordings show their only goal was to block media helicopters from filming protests.
Ferguson officers were assisted in their disturbing attack on free speech by a slew of tactical military equipment, which called attention to a troubling federal program that offers such equipment to local forces for free. The Pentagon’s 1033 program has provided local police with more than $5 billion in military equipment since the 1990s, including armored vehicles and high-powered assault rifles. While the officers in Ferguson appear to have bought their tanks all on their own, the shocking visual of heavily armed officers marching through crowds forced a national conversation on the over militarization of police.
There are dozens of other ways in which the Ferguson police department demonstrated its ineptitude, but these — I think — are the most notable. And while the world is hurting from the incident and would prefer to move on, it is crucial that we do not allow the grand jury’s verdict to overshadow the injustices suffered by the people of Ferguson and the media who brought their stories to light. It has been clear for a long time that the unfortunate and avoidable shooting of Mike Brown was only one in a series of problems in Ferguson, and it would be gravely disrespectful to the people of that city to let them slip out of focus.
An indictment for Officer Wilson may be out of reach, but police reform is not. We can force a national conversation on diversity in police forces, and on appropriate management of crowds during demonstrations and protests. We can hold the police in Ferguson responsible for their civil rights violations through lawsuits and demands for standardized collection of police brutality data and more clear responses to that brutality. We can force our Congressmen and women to end the over militarization of police through federal programs, and demand closer federal scrutiny of local police forces who violate civil rights.
And while it would be easy to sit back and pretend these injustices are encapsulated in the city of Ferguson, that wouldn’t be accurate. The problems there are simply a reflection of national issues writ large. Mistreatment of civilians by over-militarized police and the mishandling of the press happen daily in all forms across this country, and we are robbing ourselves of an opportunity for real conversation and real progress if we choose to let these lessons pass us by in an effort to “heal” or to simply forget.
The grand jury may have disappointed many, but there is no reason that we have to allow our disappointment to halt progress. The best way to understand these issues and to solve them is to look them in the eye, and now that the grand jury has released its decision we can readjust our focus and achieve justice elsewhere. A roadblock — even one this size — does not have to be a stopping point.