The airwaves have been, are still being filled with the news: The Grand Jury empaneled in August to decide whether Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson should be indicted for the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, has made its decision. No, Virginia, there will be no indictment. The decision was announced to the public last evening (7 pm Pacific Time, 9 pm Missouri time), though why the County Prosecutor waited until after dark to announce what he knew would be an inflammatory decision (and it was) is beyond all imagining. A couple of things about the press conference alleged-Prosecutor Robert McCulloch gave in presenting the decision are noteworthy. First, according to the 11/25/14 New York Times, there were 162,500 grand jury cases prosecuted by U.S. attorneys in one year (2009 to 2010), and a grand total of 11 cases ended up without an indictment. Eleven! So this was not quite business as usual for the American justice system. Second, the website Daily Kos pointed out that McCulloch is the son of a police officer killed in the line of duty, so he is not exactly an impartial prosecutor where police shootings are concerned. This helps explain why his presentation made him sound like what he was: the prosecutor not of the murderer, Officer Darren Wilson, but of the victim, slain teenager Michael Brown. In fact, in his presentation the prosecutor sounded more like the defense attorney for the police officer, laying out the probable cause for why he “had” to shoot this menacing teenager whose crime—if there was one—was jaywalking in the middle of the street, or perhaps stealing some cigarillos from a convenience store. There is a great deal of dispute, in fact, about whether Wilson knew of the robbery before he confronted Michael Brown: in the early days after the shooting, the disclosure of Brown’s part in the robbery indicated that Wilson did NOT in fact know about the robbery when he first confronted Brown. But in his presentation, McCulloch made clear that what he presented to the Grand Jury was that Officer Wilson had received the information beforehand, and allegedly confronted Michael Brown as the probable suspect in the robbery—thus presumably justifying his decision to use deadly force on a criminal.
But in truth, the details of the alleged crime and the killing of the black teenager are not the real core of the story. The core, as it is for most black communities around the nation, is the fact that once again, a white police officer has arrogated to himself the right to act as judge, jury and executioner of a young black man, and the so-called justice system in a society supposedly based on the rule of law and the presumption of innocence until a trial proves otherwise, has judged that police officer, the murderer, innocent—justified in shooting to kill in a situation where he claimed to fear for his life (though how an armed police officer can fear for his life in the face of a supposed threat from an unarmed teenager in broad daylight would seem to defy logic.) And, by default, has judged the unarmed victim guilty. If this were the only such case, it would perhaps not appear so startling. But such a scenario—of white police officers killing young unarmed black men—has become so common as to become one of the defining marks of our society. The situation is always said to be the same: the officer (or self-proclaimed vigilante as in the Trayvon Martin case), felt himself threatened and feared for his life. Therefore, he had no choice but to shoot. And shoot to kill. Very American this—in any situation where police are involved, or where American soldiers in any of our far-flung “police actions” around the world are involved, there is never any choice but the deadly one. We kill at the drop of a hat. Or a shadow. Or a dark face. Often enough these days, in fact, we kill without ever seeing the face. We kill from the air. We kill with robotic messengers of death called drones. We kill anything that looks suspicious on our magic screens thousands of miles away. When I was in the reserves many years ago, I remember how shocked I was at the bayonet training we briefly received: “What’s the motto of the bayonet?” our sergeants would bellow. And we would shout our response: “Kill! Kill! Kill!” It has become an American mantra, only now enforced with far more lethal weaponry than the homely bayonet.
But of course it’s not just that large percentages of the police forces on our streets get their initial training in weaponry and attitudes in our military (thus does every war eventually come home). It’s also the history. Hundreds of years of slavery—the forced servitude of one group by another, justified by the alleged racial superiority of the one over the darker other—leave their mark. They indelibly brand and warp oppressor and victim alike; the victim, with what Joy DeGruy calls “post-traumatic slavery syndrome;” the oppressor with the never-departed fear that, without invincible shields and ever-more lethal weaponry, the rage their enslaving has instilled will result in mass revolt and the mass slitting of their throats. It lies at the back of every uprising from the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina to the riots of the 1960s in Watts to the similar riots after the slaying of Martin Luther King on up to those in response to the Rodney King and Oscar Grant verdicts and now the one in Ferguson. And that Stono Rebellion, according to historian Sally E. Hadden, assistant professor of history and law at Florida State University, marked the beginning of what really lies at the base of all our police constabularies since then: slave patrols. Her book bears precisely that title: Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Harvard U Press: 2001); and what it points out is that though slave patrols probably stemmed from the laws many sugar-growing (and hence slave-owning) Caribbean islands adopted, and though Virginia had actually adopted slave patrols by 1727, the real impetus to a fully-formed system of slave codes with formal slave patrols to enforce them came in South Carolina after the aforementioned Stono Rebellion. As Hadden put it in an interview about her book, “Slave patrols amounted to an unequivocal manifestation of white fear.” In response to that fear, the new slave codes initially made it mandatory for all white males to do slave patrol duty, punishment being a fine for non-fulfillment of that duty. Eventually, though, with the growth of Southern cities, some slave patrols were replaced by regular full-time police, while other cities simply gave the slave patrols additional police duties such as arresting suspicious characters of any color and capturing those who broke the laws. Of note to anyone interested in language is the fact that the slave patrols were often called “paddyrollers,” a reference to the groups of white men charged to keep slave revolts from happening. This also seems to be the origin of the word “paddywagon;” not, as some have claimed, because early lawbreakers were often Irish or “paddies,” but because the origins of police forces can actually be found in the slave patrols or “paddyrollers.” After the Civil War, of course, most overt slave patrols had to be disbanded, with the result that their functions were split into two: law enforcement was taken over by regular police forces, while the terrorizing, vigilante functions were assumed by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, we can see clearly that the genesis of modern American policing, like many other aspects of American society, has deep roots in slavery and the fears it generated among those who held, sold, and otherwise abused slaves.
We can also see this legacy in Ferguson. A majority-black city in Missouri is governed by an all-white administration, and policed by a nearly all-white constabulary. And the same fear seems to operate in the police force as in the original slave patrols. The citizens they must most often police are blacks like Michael Brown, whom Darren Wilson referred to in his testimony as a “demon” (here a literal “demonizing;” in our foreign ventures, a more symbolic demonizing). It would appear that the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, saw the victim through this same lens. It would also appear that a huge percentage of the white police forces in the United States of America shares this same perception, and the resultant corollary: when confronted by a black man, shoot first and ask questions later. Unless and until that perception, that shoot-to-kill mentality is educated or mandated or shamed out of our system, the mass incarceration of as many as one-third of young black men, and the senseless killing of many others, promises to continue.