Justice is the furthest thing from what is going on in Ferguson. That’s not because the legal system, as it’s constructed, failed. The legal system did not fail. A grand jury’s job is to decide whether to issue an indictment when potential charges have been presented. The St. Louis County grand jury, a body of laypeople, not law enforcement, lawyers, or politicians, examined evidence in the Michael Brown shooting for three months. They decided not to issue an indictment on any charge against officer Darren Wilson. The legal system worked.
What has failed is leadership.
When President Obama took office, our nation had high hopes for race relations, or at least some of us did. I didn’t. My pessimism can be summed up in one name: Jeremiah Wright. If there’s a more racist sitting pastor* of a church of over 3,000, I am unaware of it. The Obamas attended Wright’s church for 20 years. If I attend a church where the doctrine is “off” for me, I’m gone in a month or less—nobody stays around if they don’t agree with the pulpit. And true to form, President Obama has lived up to Wright’s sermon “God damn America”.
“I wouldn’t call it radical. I call it being black in America,” said one congregation member outside the church last Sunday.
“He has impacted the life of Barack Obama so much so that he wants to portray that feeling he got from Rev. Wright onto the country because we all need something positive,” said another member of the congregation.
In Wright’s and Obama’s America, “something positive” is outcome-based justice, where facts are damned in favor of vengeance for all the wrongs white America has done. They would set up officer Wilson as a straw man and burn him—innocent or not, simply because he represents every white police officer ever to hassle a black teenager (never mind shoot one). Officer Wilson is the chip on every angry black man’s (and woman’s) shoulder, and his destruction would be “something positive”.
In every single case of racial political conflict, Obama has chosen to make “something positive” happen, with the same fervor he used for our foreign policy, economic policy, and political bipartisanship. It’s been “God damn America” all the way down. First, there was Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s arrest for disorderly conduct by Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley. Cambridge is hardly a bastion of white supremacy—other than Berkeley California, you’re unlikely to find a more socialist city in America. Obama decided to get involved saying the police “acted stupidly” and then had a “beer summit” with both Gates and Crowley. No racial healing, Obama simply sowed more distrust.
Then the Trayvon
Obama Martin shooting brought this gem: “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Another opportunity for “something positive” but the legal system got in the way. George Zimmermann walked free, although ruined, and he will likely look over his shoulder for the rest of his life. Darren Wilson will be joining that club of gasoline-soaked straw men running from a match.
President Obama’s remarks after the Ferguson grand jury announcement mentions “progress” five times. He gives short shrift to “we are a nation built on the rule of law”, knowing that his version of outcome-based justice has no connection to the law, and is in fact impeded by it. He goes on to identify with Michael Brown’s parents, quoting Brown’s father:
“Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”
Progress. Positive change. That’s code for racial justice. Outcome-based justice. Obama once again squandered a chance to show real leadership, pursue real racial healing, to show his understanding of the issues surrounding the politics. But instead he simply echoed the radical teachings of Wright, calling for “much-needed criminal justice reform”. What’s needed? Grand juries work. It’s not the fault of law enforcement that teenage blacks break the law, just as it’s not the fault of the U.S. Army that ISIS beheads reporters. God damn America.
But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down. What we need to do is understand them and figure out how do we make more progress. And that can be done.
That won’t be done by throwing bottles. That won’t be done by smashing car windows. That won’t be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property. And it certainly won’t be done by hurting anybody.
As Obama spoke those words, a surreal split-screen on CNN, Fox News and other news coverage showed tear gas, shots being fired, and looters destroying property. Obama called it “good TV”. Of course, the media eats news like this up, and it’s revolting and sad that they do. We’ll have 24 hours of live coverage and another 24 hours of punditry. But nothing Obama has said will move us past our straw men, mutual distrust, and racial stereotypes that have marked his presidency.
In Ferguson, we see the fruits of Obama’s failure: violence, distrust, subversion of the legal system. This will never be healed as long as our president holds to the doctrine of “God damn America”.
*in 2008; Pastor Wright is now “emeritus” at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago