Friday, November 28, 2014

A crash course on civil rights

Black lives don’t matter. That seems to be the message that the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Missouri gives.

Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Legal and police experts concur that Prosecutor Robert McCulloch could have decided on his own authority to prosecute Officer Wilson. But he decided to punt it to a grand jury. Had the races of aggressor and victim been transposed and a black police officer had killed a white teenager, I think he would be awaiting trial. This is borne out by an incident in July 2014 in the same county. The same prosecutor Robert McCulloch pressed felonious assault charges on black police officer Dawon Gore for striking a white light-rail passenger with a baton after an argument. He was jailed on a $3500 cash-only bond.

Sadder yet is the composition of the grand jury. St. Louis County has a population of 21,000 and is 67% African-American and 29% white. The grand jury was made up of nine whites and three blacks of supposedly randomly picked citizens. All they needed to decide was whether there was probable cause to indict Officer Wilson and send the case to trial. Nine votes were needed to indict him.

Like it or not there is a hierarchy of color in our country. Highest on this list is a white child. And going downwards come brown people and lowest are young black males. The country was convulsed with grief with the Connecticut school shootings in which the victims were largely white children. But no one really talks about the daily victims of gun violence in Chicago; the majority is impoverished black children.

Michael Brown had stolen a bunch of cigarellos from a store in Ferguson and when challenged by Officer Wilson was, according to Officer Wilson’s testimony, aggressive and full of expletives. Wilson testified that he tried to move Brown’s arm and felt that he was like “a five-year old holding onto Hulk Hogan”. Wilson shot Michael Brown twice while he was pushing into the police car with his body. Brown then started to run and Wilson gave chase. When Brown turned around Officer Wilson fatally shot him in the head, well aware that he was not armed. Why would a police officer escalate a theft to shooting an unarmed person? Whatever happened to disabling a felon by shooting at an extremity rather than the trunk? Are cigarellos cocaine?

Unfortunately this situation is a very tangled web. Every 28 hours a black person is killed in the United States either by a police officer or a vigilante. As a doctor, I understand this frequency to qualify for what we define as an epidemic. This is not a new statistic. Young black males have been on our endangered species list for decades. But being on the bottom of that hierarchy, racked with poverty, addiction and crime, society seems to be smug that young black felons are self-selecting out.

Police and legal experts also report a symbiotic relationship between police and prosecutors. Prosecutors protect police witnesses in court and the police influence the prosecutor’s decisions. It is true that situations such as the Wilson-Brown incident happen very fast and hindsight is always 20/20. But we have not enshrined accountability in police culture, and thus granted them impunity. The parents of Michael Brown want the Michael Brown Law passed in which police officers would wear body cameras. There is a move toward this in some police departments already.

It is also an entire mindset that we must change: from individuals and families recognizing that all of us are created equal, to communities and the nation being color-blind in their protection.

Racism is rife in the Greater Toledo area as well. In a previous office location in Perrysburg, one of my middle aged African-American patients decided to bide his waiting time and enjoy the sunny day by sitting in a chair next to his car and working on his phone. Suddenly the police showed up, wondering whose new Chrysler he was sitting next to. “It’s my car” he said. Unable to charge him with anything, the police left. I remember I was more outraged than he was.

Ferguson businesses have been burned to the ground, and protests are picking up all across the nation and internationally.  Prosecutor McCulloch has deeply undermined our justice system and brought segregation in our country into sharp focus. Officer Wilson should have been charged and gone through an open public trial. It would have been wise and visionary to let justice take its course and to have learned from the Rodney King and Trayvon Martin cases. And suddenly the entire nation is being given a crash course on civil rights.