Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson: Dispatch from an Alternate Dimension

A few hours ago the grand jury announced its verdict in the Michael Brown case, and I haven't been able to turn away from the videos of cheering and dancing in the streets. The system might be imperfect, but as we've seen tonight, it works. The people who enforce the law aren't above the law, and justice is colorblind. And that is truly cause for celebration.

Though it came at a grave and irreparable cost, the Michael Brown saga, from start to finish, has been a reaffirmation of the rule of law America. The eyes of the world were on us as the first outraged demonstrators took to the streets in August, and we can all take pride in the professionalism and calibrated response of the Ferguson Police Department as they sternly but quietly observed the protestors' right to peaceful assembly, even as they themselves were the subject of the protest.

It really is astonishing that the protests never grew violent. The discipline of the protestors has been almost unbelievable, as have the responses of government officials at nearly ever level. Remember how Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson's public address on August 11 went viral? ("The police exist to serve the community...and today the community is wounded.") And there was President Obama's impassioned speech in Saint Louis on August 15 when he promised, in essence, to investigate and scale back the militarization of local police forces, and House Speaker John Boehner's formation of an ad hoc committee to investigate police training and procedure. (It really is a shame that it takes a disaster like this to get congressional Republicans to agree with Obama on something.) Everyone rose to the occasion, but special accolades are due to St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch for gracefully stepping down from the occasion, acknowledging that any perceived conflict of interest or partiality would discredit the entire proceeding.

My friend James has been in Ferguson for the last few days, waiting on the announcement of the grand jury's decision. I asked him over the phone what he thought might happen if Darren Wilson escaped an indictment—were we looking at a Midwestern sequel to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles?

He just laughed. "Absolutely not. No way. That would solve nothing. Everyone here knows better than to shit where they eat."

I actually got another call from James a few minutes ago. Even though the celebrations are winding down, it was still hard to hear him over all the cheering and music in the streets. I reminded him that this isn't the end of it; Wilson still has to stand trial, and there's a chance—we can't guess how much of one—that he'll be acquitted in the end.

"Maybe. Just maybe we've been wrong about him. But we'll have to wait and see. Let the system do its work."

Judging from what I'm seeing on Twitter, most observers are sharing James' sentiment. People aren't out for blood or revenge here: from the beginning this has been a murky case with wildly inconsistent testimony, and what most us want is to get to the truth of what happened on August 9, 2014. Taking the matter to trial will ensure that it is given a fair, rigorous, and transparent examination.

I don't know about the rest of you, but tonight I'm proud to be an American. Despite its foibles, America has once again proven the efficacy of its justice system and the gentle rectitude of its people. Imperfect as we may yet be, we are drawing ever closer to the vision of "a city upon a hill" espoused by John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony founder and governor renowned for his religious tolerance and commitment to an equitable coexistence with the Wampanoag tribes.

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