Thursday, November 27, 2014

Post-Ferguson Dog 'N' Pony Show: The County Prosecutor Cometh (And Findeth Nothing Amiss)

As we previously suggested, the fallout of Ferguson's grand jury investigation played out in all its grimy, depressing ticktock regularity. The government -- in this case, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch -- investigated its own police department, and found no grounds to indict Officer Darren Wilson in 18-year-old Michael Brown's shooting death.

The establishment's local, state and federal paladins fell into their assigned roles of playing a tinhorn Greek chorus for "calm," "reason," and "restraint" -- when it seemed all too obvious that McCulloch's handling of the grand jury process would ensure the opposite outcome, in a community whose members are treated like walking dollar signs (at best) or subjects of an occupying army (at worst). Anyone expecting cool detachment in such a climate had to be kidding themselves.

The rioters fell into their own preassigned roles, as well. Burning and looting local mom 'n' pop businesses that people spent a lifetime building up won't bring Michael Brown back -- and, in the short run, may well prompt the town's power structure to ramp up its police department's militarized approach, making it even more difficult to change the entrenched apparatus already in place.

"Everyone's heading for the top
But tell me, how far is it from the bottom?
Nobody knows it, but everyone's fighting for the top
How far is it from the bottom?

"I don't want no peace
I want equal rights and justice
I need equal rights and justice..."
(Peter Tosh: "Equal Rights")

So, given the dynamic that played out on the streets of Ferguson, could anything have been done to avert it?  (Put it this way -- when the process raises the eyebrows of someone like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia...who's never been known for showing warm 'n' fuzzy feelings for criminal suspects, alive or know something funny's going on. See the link below for the story.)

At least one alternative that apparently never crossed the St. Louis County power structure's mind, let alone the state's -- appointing a special prosecutor to provide an independent pair of eyes. As talking head after talking head on CNN pointed out, McCulloch's status as county prosecutor calls his objectivity into question...and that's before we get into his family history. (His father was a St. Louis cop killed in the line of duty by a black man.)

Even without that history, though, it's reasonable to assume that McCulloch would show little or no inclination to press charges against the police officers whom he views as his natural allies. He does business with them on a daily basis -- from issuing warrants, to reviewing reports, and resolving issues that often pop up during investigations -- so it's hard to see how he could be truly unbiased. He's never been on the receiving end of the power he wields over ordinary peoples' lives, so why should it upset him when a few cops break character?

Bluntly put, many county prosecutors are also political animals -- that's why so many of them run for district or county judgeships that boost their power and effectively entrench them from life, since they usually run unopposed. That's because most local attorneys won't take on an established face without major financial muscle behind them, evidence of serious discontent, or both. Who wants to represent a client in a victorious political opponent's courtroom?

However, people don't have to accept conflicts of interest as the natural order of things. I recall one local prosecutor on Michigan's southeast side who responded quite differently in two cases of alleged local police brutality. Instead of asserting his authority to undercut or sidetrack the investigation, this particular prosecutor immediately called on a neighboring county's colleague to oversee both cases as a special prosecutor.

In both instances, the jury acquitted the cops -- one being a police chief who was accused of backhanding a teenager in the mouth during a drug search. While that verdict upset people, at least nobody could accuse the government of investigating its own...unlike, ahem, in Ferguson. (The chief ended up resigning under fire and leaving the community, so at least some justice -- however delayed -- got done there.)

"Everyone's talking about crime
But tell me, who are the criminals?
Everyone's talking about crime
Tell me, who are the criminals? I really don't see it...

"I don't want no peace
I want equal rights and justice
I need equal rights and justice..."
(Peter Tosh: "Equal Rights")

One other aspect of the script hasn't finished playing out yet, which is the "where do we go from here" conversation. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon claims to have the answer by calling for a special commission to ilook into Ferguson's social and economic conditions. However, he's tipped his hand by saying that police brutality shouldn't be on the table, which is like Adolf Hitler telling his inspector general not to pursue an in-depth review of his henchmens' murderous actions.

The anger in Ferguson simply reflects the violence inflicted them every day, whether it's being stopped and harassed, or swept into a net of whopping civil ticket fines. I may be testing these waters myself as the proud recipient of a civil suit that I'll be soon forced to defend at great aggravation and cost to myself. I'll fight as hard as I can, though I'm not looking forward to the experience (as all-white jury convictions of minorities are still common in my neck of the woods).

Nevertheless, it's safe to say that the anger isn't likely to die down, at least until someone makes a show of addressing the concerns that have been boiling over for so long. All too often, though, it's only a dog 'n' pony show. For another textbook example, look at the 2003 riots that shook Benton Harbor. Then-Governor Jennifer Granholm responded by naming her own special task force that made roughly a dozen recommendations for improving its own highly-charged climate.

Sadly, most of those recommendations have either been ignored, sidestepped or watered down to serve the dominant power structure's interests. As in Ferguson, local police officers were cleared of all wrongdoing. As in Ferguson, the poor are treated as nothing more than perennial cash cows to pimp and abuse. Unlike in Ferguson, however, Benton Harbor got an emergency management regime whose operatives remain in place to this day.

If that's your idea of social progress, then it's time to look out the window...whip out your binoculars...and check the sky for flying pigs. I'll be waiting. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Good Old Boys Never Die...
...They Just Cling To Power Like Barnacles)

MSNBC: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon 
Unveils Plan For Ferguson's Future:

Newsweek: Ferguson Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch's
Long History Of Siding With Police:

Think Progress: Justice Scalia Explains 
What Was Wrong With The Ferguson Grand Jury:

World Socialist Website
An American City: Benton Harbor And The Social Crisis In The United States:

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