Injustice in Ferguson

Last night, District Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that a St. Louis County grand jury had declined to vote a true bill of indictment against police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The announcement was followed by episodic violence, out of all proportion to the grand jury decision: The violence was episodic. The injustices our criminal justice system perpetrates on black Americans is systemic.

Mr. McCulloch addressed several aspects of the case in announcing the decision. (He did not explain why he chose to announce the decision at 9 p.m. as opposed to 9 a.m., a decision that raises large questions about this man’s judgment.) McCulloch pointed out that the grand jury was the only group of people who have examined all of the facts in the case. Still, there is one brute fact that the jury may or may not have considered: another unarmed young black man was killed by a white police officer and there will be no consequences for the officer. (Federal authorities are continuing their investigation of civil rights charges, and the Brown family could file a civil claim.) The District Attorney said he sought nothing more than justice in this case, but the lack of accountability for the police officer surely does not feel like justice. 

To be clear, our jury system is a singular achievement of our culture. Even when a grand jury or a trial jury gets it wrong, our current system of jury trials is far preferable to Star Chamber indictments. But, the jury system exists within a society and it is susceptible to whatever has corrupted that society. In this case, it is racism that continues to afflict our society and that affliction is nowhere more evident, nor more pernicious, than in our nation’s criminal justice system. I know police officer's have a difficult job, they must make split second decisions. Still, the brute fact looms: Officer Wilson was armed and Michael Brown was not.

Last Friday, I attended a conference on restorative justice that was co-sponsored by Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, where I am a visiting fellow, and the Catholic Mobilizing Network. In one of the talks, Professor Robert Brenneman of St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, noted that one in eight black men in their twenties is in jail or otherwise involved with the criminal justice system. Black men account for 53 percent of all drug convictions although they constitute only 14% of the drug-using population. Professor Brenneman noted that every night, on his college campus, white students are doing drugs without fear of arrest or prosecution. It is a safe zone for them. That same activity, done in the inner city, gets you arrested and put in jail.

Such data can be verified by experience. If you have ever sat on a jury, you know that black folk and white folk view the testimony of police very differently. We like to think that justice is blind, but she is not. The relationship of law and morality is a complex one, and one sin does not entirely mitigate another, but the sin of racism stalks our national life still and it is no use denying it and any attempt to deny it will only allow the cancer to spread, all the more perniciously because now racism usually hides itself behind platitudes and niceties. At least when Governor Wallace unleashed the dogs and the water cannons, the evil was obvious and palpable.

The conference last Friday – and when the video is posted I shall link to it – fascinated me at many levels, but most obviously because the churches are the only ones in our culture raising the deeper questions about our criminal justice system and seeking real answers. There was a priest who works with young offenders on the southside of Chicago, Fr. David Kelly, C.PP.S., who explained the real sources of the problem: First, young people know they are vulnerable, they know someone who has been victimized by crime. Second, they know they are at risk whenever they walk down the street, at school or in the park, and so they are always on guard. Third, they know that adults won’t or can’t protect them. It is not surprising that these three, in combination, create s circumstance in which people get hurt who, in turn, hurt other people. Fr. Kelly spoke about his efforts to bring some reconciliation out of the horror of urban crime. He associated his work of restorative justice with young offenders with Holy Saturday – “the killing is done but Easter is not here yet” – and noted that crime is a violation of relationships that can only be made right by truthfully acknowledging that violation and then rebuilding the relationships. It is very biblical. And, many of us in the room were in tears as he told he stories of reconciliation between victims and victimized.

As Catholics, we are called to do more than merely bemoan the racism that corrupts our criminal justice system. Last night, at the Month’s Mind Mass for Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, the first reading from Luke 4, when Jesus announces His ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” I could hear Lorenzo speaking to me after the verdict: “This verse from Luke cannot remain a metaphor, we really must preach deliverance to captives and set at liberty them that are bruised.” Fr. Kelly is doing that work on the south side of Chicago. Other Christians and holy men and women of God are doing that work in many jails throughout the country and in the neighborhoods and in the schools. Our nation has tried mass incarceration and it does not work. It is time to try the joyful incarceration of the Mass, at which we cleave to the Lord who delivers captives and unite ourselves with Him in the Eucharist.

Last night, Officer Wilson escaped indictment, but America’s criminal justice system did not. There is work to be done and the Church must be at the forefront of that work. We cannot lose another generation of young black men to crime and to the system that polices it and prosecutes it. Unarmed black teenagers cannot continue to be killed with impunity. Justice must mean something again. Maybe the evidence required the grand jury to reach its conclusion. But, there are other evidences that all of us must consider, not just the grand jury, evidences of the ugly sin of racism which, like cancer, seems to come back time and time again. There is no cure for cancer. There is a cure for sin: Him who heals the brokenhearted, delivers captives, and sets at liberty those who are bruised.  

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